For many, high school graduation felt like the beginning of the rest of our lives. After the uncertainty of college decisions, everything else seemed straightforward— go to college, get a fulfilling job and climb up the corporate ladder until we reach our professional goals.
But does it need to be that simple? What if our lives were never idealized as a smooth and direct path, and instead we dreamt up a something a little more unexpected?
From the moment she got her acceptance letter, English junior Clara Maddison was not set on the idea of four normal years at Cal Poly. In fact, immediately after deciding on the school, she contacted administration and asked to take a gap year before enrolling as a freshman. After Cal Poly denied this request, Maddison decided to try her luck at her first year in San Luis Obispo.
“I decided to come and I gave it a quarter. The entire [time] I didn’t even think about taking any time off and then I got to winter break and I was like ‘I’m not going back to school,’” Maddison said.
Since Cal Poly allows students to take leaves of absence, not exceeding two quarters, Maddison decided to take that time off right then.
“I really wanted to be independent and I was kind of sick of school. I wanted to learn stuff outside of school,” Maddison said. “I had gone downhill skiing for the third time ever in my life over the break and I really loved it, so I decided to work at a ski resort.”
Maddison told her parents of her plan and applied to multiple resorts in the Tahoe area, until she eventually took a job as a housekeeper at the Kirkwood Mountain Resort. It was not until five months later that Maddison came down from the mountain.
“I had already made plans, while I was still in school, to work on an Alaskan fishing boat that summer,” Maddison said. “I was home for 5 days [after returning from Tahoe] and then I left for Alaska.”
After a summer as a deckhand on a large tender boat, Maddison decided it was time to return to school.
“In high school it was very clear that you go to college,” she said. “I realized that was not true, to say the very least. A ton of people don’t. You don’t have to go to college. But I went off and explored my other career options and realized that I did want to go to college.”
Although Maddison would describe her spur of the moment decision during that winter break of freshman year as “the intersection between bravery and stupidity,” she does not regret it.
“There was no way I was going to stay in school. I needed to take time off so I’m really glad I did it. It was this super strange thing and I hope to do more stuff like this. I got a lot out of it,” Maddison said.
And Maddison isn’t the only one. Students and young adults all over the world feel compelled to take time off in college or early in their career in order to scratch at the itch of curiousity or make their own way. People like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg may be the biggest poster children for this idea.
Cal Poly alum, Jade Catalano, echoes a similar love for the times in her life that she has spent escaping society’s “ideal path.” These adventures have become experiences that she very much credits for the knowledge and growth potential she has today.
Prior to her freshman year of college, Catalano deferred and worked as a bartender and nanny in New Zealand.
“At the time it was crazy-talk. Everyone was like, ‘You are going to be so far behind,’ but it was the best thing I could have ever done and the perfect time to do it,” Catalano said.
Her unconventional experience continued when her mom called the following spring and asked Catalano, after she had been accepted into many colleges, which one she would be choosing to attend in the fall.
“I was on the phone with mom with a surfboard in my hands and my friends saying ‘Hey come on we’re going surfing.’ My mom said, ‘Ok which [school] do you want to go to?’ And I responded ‘I’ve got to go! Pick one. I love you. Bye,’” Catalano said.
The next fall Catalano started at Cal Poly as a Communications major. During her time as an undergrad she never had clear idea what she wanted to do post graduation.
While waitressing one night, she met the owners of a local tech start-up ,which led her to the entry-level position that kept her in San Luis Obispo for two more years post grad.
“I definitely lucked out. It was probably one of the coolest first jobs. I didn’t even realize the wealth of knowledge that I was getting from all of them,” Catalano said. “[This company] actually led to my love of startups. I was so young and junior so they were able to use me wherever I needed to be and I could just learn where I needed to learn.”
Fast forward to 2018 and Catalano now sits as Product Marketing Manager of Splunk, a San Francisco based software start-up that aids clients in searching, monitoring and analyzing big data.
Yet, similar to her pre-college experience, her career path has not been a straight line or a natural progression to get her to this point. After feeling the urge to see the world again, she left her first job and relocated to Hawaii for eight months. Upon arrival back on the mainland she worked at a fish oil company on the tradeshow team. Following her departure from that position she once again decided to go abroad— this time in Spain as an English teacher.
It was during her job search after returning to America, this time, when Catalano finally realized what she wanted.
“Last time [I was job hunting] I didn’t have enough experience in saying ‘This is what I want and this is what I don’t want,’” Catalano said. “But, this time I outlined some high-level goals which really helped.”
Catalano waitressed and continued to job search every single day, determined to find a job in the tech world.
“Somebody very smart once told me that if you can’t see yourself being your boss or your boss’ boss then you’re probably in the wrong department, industry or position,”
Eventually she landed on the Industry Events Team at Splunk. Although she started in a position that she knew wouldn’t be her end goal, she had finally found the company where she knew she would thrive.
“That’s the thing about small companies that I really like, especially if you are not sure exactly where to go,” Catalano said. “Those first two years were the time to push and show what direction I wanted to go. Once you do that for yourself, other doors open up.”
It is safe to say that Catalano’s untraditional experiences helped accelerate her career through her acquired knowledge of goal-setting and different industries.
“Somebody very smart once told me that if you can’t see yourself being your boss or your boss’ boss then you’re probably in the wrong department, industry or position,” she said.
Although she will never know if it was her sabbatical to New Zealand, escape to Spain or another one of her many adventures that led her to the beautiful office in San Francisco where she now sits, she would never change a thing. When asked what she sees in her future, Catalano responded thoughtfully.
“I definitely am always thinking about progression,” she said. “I constantly like to learn and make sure that I am challenging myself. I know that there is still a lot for me. I want to make sure that all my steps are taken in the right direction.”
Both Maddison and Catalano learned important lessons in the times they spent taking the circuitous route in a society that preaches a straight one. These lessons taught them what they like, what they don’t like and what they value most. Their open-mindedness, curiosity and bravery have given them each their most cherished memories and continue to aid them every day in pursuing their passions.
*Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Maddison’s last name.