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High school graduation season began a couple of weeks ago for our family, with a lovely evening celebration under the stars for a nephew in Tucson. So much felt familiar to this mom, who's been through quite a few of these with a blended clan of six young adults:

The high school band played an enthusiastic, if slightly off-key, "Pomp and Circumstance." There was that overly zealous family whooping it up and shrieking when their kid reached the stage. And many parents and grandparents teared up at the ritual shift of tassel from right to left.

But these are COVID Kids — just catching their breath after a painful, lonely three-year slog of separations from their cherished peers, virtual learning challenges, cancellations of traditional rites of passage and "school avoidance" becoming a mental health term.

Maybe that's why my heart leapt at something I've never seen in a printed grad ceremony program — a bold statement and a smart one given the times we're in.

Listed in the same type size as the state universities, private colleges, military academies and overseas art schools to which commitments had been made were two other fine institutions of learning and growth, chosen by more than a few members of the Class of 2023:

Gap Year



I've been a believer in the wisdom of gap years for far longer than our recent pandemic. Study-abroad programs, a year of travel with a backpack, even a job with DoorDash, offer young people a chance to figure out who they are and what they want before they get saddled with college debt — now hovering around $30,000 on average for Minnesota students.

I'm a huge fan of two-year colleges and trade schools for the same reasons, their training leading many into immediate jobs as plumbers, mechanics and essential health care workers with livable wages and benefits.

But despite everything that has transpired over the past few years, these sensible options remain a hard sell — not just for parents with huge hopes for their kids — but also for kids caught up in the excitement of and competition for four-year colleges, who believe they have no way out.

A profound reminder of this narrow thinking is a young woman I mentored this year. Jessica is one of the most poised, mature and focused communications students I've had the pleasure of working with. Maybe that's because she's 25.

In an essay published this month in the Rochester Community College Echo, Jessica wrote of finding herself at 18 simply going through the motions of applying to colleges. Not surprisingly, she was accepted by a prestigious private liberal arts college with a nearly full-ride scholarship.

But Jessica met the news with a panic attack "and a whole day spent locked in my bathroom out of fear of seeing the disappointment on my parents' faces."

Her mental health plummeted; she worked odd jobs for five years, fearing she was destined to never get back up. When she was 23, her brother pulled up the website of RCTC — a two-year college of 5,000 students near their home — and its Mass Communications Transfer Pathway program. She applied that night. Jessica is soaring now.

I'm guessing that all of us, as we attend grad parties in the weeks to come, will meet many Jessicas. So while we, of course, celebrate the hardworking grads off to sleep in dorms and chase dreams, I hope we can also celebrate the kids who just don't know — yet.

Let's do our best to engage them in supportive conversation, too: "So, what are you thinking about for the next year or two?" "What interests you right now?" When they tell you, think about colleagues or friends who might be willing to mentor them on a volunteer basis to test out their passions.

Let's be honest about ourselves. At 18, who among us had a clue about what we wanted to do with our lives? How many of us are still doing what we thought we'd be doing at 18?

Let's be honest about financial realities, too. It's obscene to drown in college debt, from which they may never recover.

Let's tell the kids who don't know that we admire their courage to carve out a different path. And that in their not knowing, they might just be the most knowing of all.

Gail Rosenblum recently retired from the Star Tribune after 23 years as a columnist, essayist and editor. She now runs the nonprofit MPGL Entertainment, which she founded in 2019.