Spring semester is quickly winding down. For freshmen, it must be a relief to be still standing, having survived the first demanding year of college. Piece of cake. Sophomores and juniors are looking forward to exciting summers — perhaps traveling or working, or maybe just staying at home or at the beach with friends and family.

It’s the seniors who now have to face the big question: What’s next? When I ask seniors this question, I know before they answer what they are going to say. Those with confident looks will tell me about their admission to grad school or their jobs in investment firms (these are mostly business school students). Those with looks of anxiety and dread haven’t yet figured out what’s next.

It’s actually entirely OK not to know what’s next. I suspect most seniors fall into this category — even those with jobs lined up.

Most undergraduate programs prepare students for life, not for jobs. After graduation, it is a great time to explore life’s many possibilities. Some do so by experiencing a variety of jobs and internships, while others do so by traveling.

When I graduated from Georgetown eons ago, I had a general idea of what I was interested in — international affairs, and particularly the challenges of development. I liked development in part because it was a passion, but in part because I was curious about what life was like in very different places around the world. Europe was not a very different place; Latin America was. So I managed to get a fellowship to study in Bolivia — one of the poorest, least developed countries in the world (and, it turned out, one of the most interesting).

I was supposed to study in the University of San Andres in La Paz, Bolivia, but that proved difficult. There were frequent “manifestaciones” — students protesting that closed the university. (Finally, there was a student-provoked coup and the military overthrew the government  and threw the students in jail for good measure.) There were many days when there was no electricity — and in the high altitude of La Paz (11,811 feet), elevators were essential to get to classes above the first or second floor. No electricity, no classes. So I didn’t do much studying (except to improve my struggling Spanish).

I traveled instead and just lived a Bolivian life, and what an education that was. The poverty in Bolivia was extraordinary; so was the cultural diversity. The language of the Incas — Quechua — was still spoken and the language that preceded the Inca empire — Aymara — was even more common in the area around La Paz. Some indigenous peoples could not or would not speak Spanish. Beneath the veneer of Catholicism were fundamental beliefs in pre-colonial deities, including Pachamama, a sort of earth mother. There was a whole, living culture that had survived 400 years of colonial and post-colonial governments and elite society. It was still there when I visited two years ago.

So I experienced Bolivia’s poverty as well as its cultural diversity, tensions and magnificent beauty. And the sometimes painful but extraordinarily valuable experience of being immersed in another language and culture – of having to understand and adjust to other norms and values without being able to escape to your own. Anyone who has lived in another society, speaking another language, will understand how difficult the experience is in the beginning but how essential it is if one is going to understand how others see one’s own country and culture, and in the end, to better understand one’s self.

This is an experience that no graduate studies or high-paying job in investment banking can provide. And it’s only possible when one is young enough to be open to it.

So I hope all those seniors with the smug looks of having generous graduate school scholarships or lucrative job offers will soon take the opportunity to expose themselves to another kind of learning — learning that comes from spending time in different places and having to adjust. (Short tourist trips don’t cut it.) I had never really believed things I read in books — I still don’t unless I wrote the books. I had to see it for myself.

For all those with looks of anxiety, now is the time to get some real experience that will begin to show you the direction your life might take.

Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind The Podium appears regularly every other Tuesday.

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