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6 Alternatives to University

by Anne Merritt Jul 19, 2011
From apprenticeships to work holiday visas, there are more options for graduates than the university route alone.

STEPPING OUTSIDE was like opening an oven door. I had been warned about Korean summers, the smoggy air like quicksand, weighted to your slow-moving limbs. Edvin and I had only walked three blocks to a hardware store. We were both red-faced, breathing hard through our mouths. We took a break in an empty coffee shop to drink iced lattes, hold the cold plastic cups gratefully to hot foreheads. The air con was louder than the music.

He explained that heat settles in cities like Daegu, lying in a mountain basin. He told me about Korean emissions and climate change in East Asia. He talked about a documentary he’d just seen about silverback gorillas, and the biography of Hemingway he had just read. He had a cool interest for each topic, not giddy, not rambling. Dr. Indiana Jones, talking relics in a 1950s university classroom.

“What did you study in school?”

He shrugged. “I read a lot. I never went to university.”

Edvin and his girlfriend lived down the street from me in a highrise apartment building. I had met them in the market one day, the only other foreign faces. She had come to Korea to teach English and pay off student loans. He followed her here. Now, they worked the same job.

We finished our drinks and walked our separate ways home, him uphill towards the highrises, me through a shortcut alley. Edvin has stayed in my mind a lot as I think about the different paths people take instead of college. Here are six.

Attend a Trade School

I moved back to Ottawa at 24, and ran into Ian, a primary school classmate. I was buying cheap wine and headed to a budget movie night at a friend’s place while her roommates were out. She was wading in student debt, I was working a crappy barista job. We were ready for a night of griping. Ian told me he had just bought a house.

“Nah, it’s small, it’s nothing spectacular, but I’m excited to get in there, maybe add a back deck.” He pointed to his feet. Heavy boots, sandy colored from sawdust, streaked shiny black where snow had wiped the dust clean. “I’m a carpenter now, so you know, the house will be like a project for me.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. “What are you up to? Living in Ottawa now?”

“No. Well, yeah, I’m here for a bit. Planning the next move.”

I didn’t tell him I was living with my parents.

If you know you’re not the cubicle type, learning a trade is a steady (and obviously lucrative) career path. Plumbers, electricians, stonemasons, and carpenters can be trained in 2-3 years.


I didn’t learn about Canada’s Katimavik program until I was too old to qualify. A girl at a party told me about her time in the program, watching sunrises in Abitibi, snowmobiling to conservationist sites, and learning the kind of swaggering slang-heavy French that made my textbook lexicon sound like nerdspeak.

This volunteer program places youths in two different areas over six months, combining travel, language education, and community work.

Many countries have extended volunteer programs. This work puts you in touch with a diverse cross-section of your community, and is a great platform for trying new types of work. AmeriCorps is another example. It welcomes volunteers ages 17 and older to work full or part-time on community initiatives, including work in environment, youth programs, and services for the homeless.

Should you choose to go back to school later on, some long-term volunteer programs offer postsecondary credit.

Join the Military

Of course, the military’s primary goals are in front-line work, so if you really want to stay away from conflict, it’s probably not the right organization for you. Still, don’t assume that every role in the army will play out like scenes from The Hurt Locker.

I met Lauren years ago in high school. She was from a military family, and was punished with push-ups when she forgot to make her bed or dry the dishes. She’s the one who first told me that the military is more than combat. “For most civilian jobs, there’s a comparable job within the military.” It’s a huge industry, and bases run like miniature cities, with manual and admin jobs as well as of infantry positions.

Armed Forces run differently in each country. Do your research and get a sense of the ethics and expectations of army work. Military jobs can offer wonderful benefits, including education stipends for military looking to further their education down the road.

Start a Business

If vision boards are your thing, cover yours with pictures of Richard Branson, Coco Chanel, and Milton Hershey. None were university educated; all have created immensely successful businesses. I’d throw a picture of my old coworker Liz on there, whose Etsy shop of handcrafted jewelry pulls such a good business that she was able to quit her day job and proudly print up “jewelry designer” business cards. I’d add a shot of my old classmate Karl, who has built a collection of monetized websites aimed at prospective university students. The discussion boards have become networking avenues for undergrads-to-be, and traffic is high. Clever.

For those who have entrepreneurial ideas, starting a business can be a great career move. With so much commerce going online, you can keep overhead costs low by working and selling from home.

Start an Apprenticeship

Don’t assume these programs are just for brawny dudes who can lift refrigerators unaided. Apprenticeships are all over the map, from esthetician training and cooking to auto repair and aircraft maintenance.

My old hairdresser had started apprenticing in a salon as a teenager. She wore layers of heavy chain necklaces, a dozen at a time, and snapped gum broadmouthed, like a caricature of her own trade. I doubt she ever finished high school.

She was proud as hell to be a working 20-year-old. “I was so happy,” she told me one summer, “to be able to take my sister on a cruise, and pay for it. I worked really hard to give her that.”

Apprenticeship positions can start in high school. Most include transferrable academic credit, so your work hours have the two-bird-one-stone effect.

Take your skills on the road

As a student backpacking in Europe one summer, I came across Brits and Australians spread in droves across the continent, picking berries and tending bar in hostels in the name of the Gap Year. The gap what? I had never heard of it before. Why hadn’t my high school guidance counsellor pushed pamphlets for Lanzarote hotel jobs or WWOOFing stints in New Zealand?

For high school graduates feeling adrift, you can take that ennui overseas for some work and travel in a new setting. Travel can invigorate your goals and ignite new ones. There’s a growing list of countries offering work holiday visas. After all, if you’re going to spend a year working as a barista and “thinking about the next step,” why not do it in Edinburgh or Melbourne?

I had a wonderful experience in university, and would never condemn the process, but it’s clear to me in hindsight that a 4-year degree is not the only way to get an education or hone career skills. Rather than marching in academic lockstep from high school to university, I think high school students should be informed of just how many options exist for them.

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