Gap years to firefighting: Wilson graduates choose varying paths after high school

Becca Green

Every person has unique passions and dreams in life. Most people believe that college is the best or only option for achieving those goals, but still, many seniors don’t take the time to entertain other options. Taking a gap year, joining the military, going to community college, or getting a job are also great alternatives that can be emotionally, educationally, and financially fulfilling. 

Just ask Levi Kay, a graduate of the Wilson class of 2020. Levi has wanted to be a firefighter since he was five years old. Despite being offered a college scholarship to play football, he decided to take a risk and follow his dreams once he was accepted into the Fire Academy, and he’s happy with his decision. Getting accepted to train to become a firefighter is very difficult, so getting accepted right out of high school is highly impressive.

Becoming a firefighter is a long and complicated process, and Kay started the process of applying in highschool. It started with a screening process and an application, and each step took two weeks. Once his application was in and he passed the screening test, he waited, and after another two weeks, he’d advance to the next step. He even had to get an FBI screening! The final steps included getting a physical and a psychological evaluation. After what felt like a never-ending process, he was able to start training at the academy. 

This year Kay wants to complete training and get through the cadet program and after that just, “start being a firefighter and get into my career and get on with my life.” Kay’s training is not virtual; everything is in person, and since firefighting is an essential service, he’s on the front line. Kay reveals that this can be scary during a global pandemic, but says that they are taking lots of precautions and they use proper protection and equipment. 

But does Kay have regrets? Does he wish he’d taken another path after graduation? No, he says. “Follow what you want to do. Don’t let your parents or anyone else render your path,” he says. “If you don’t wanna go to college, if it’s not right for you, that’s fine. I wanted to go into the workforce and then my dream job came along.” Levi says. Right now, he is already making money and living in his own apartment in Washington D.C. 

Kay is not the only Wilson graduate who took an unconventional route. Some students decide to take gap years, like Abbi Greenwood, a 2020 Wilson graduate, who decided to take a gap year to travel the world. “I have always loved traveling and learning more about new cultures,” she explains. “I think that cultural immersion is always a great experience. Also it’s great that I get to practice my Spanish. Most importantly, I just felt that I would never get as much time to just take for myself and explore.” She also stated that she wants to “enjoy having the freedom to wander and experience new cultures.” 

Because of the pandemic, there was the possibility of not being not being able to even set foot on a college campus. As the months go by, barely any colleges are holding in-person classes. Yet even before COVID-19 hit, Greenwood was planning on taking a gap year.  She said that she “always loved traveling and seeing new places. I wanted to experience more and learn more about what I wanted before going right into college.” She says that now, even with COVID, she is happy she took the year off. She will still someday have the traditional college experience and also have had the opportunity to get out of DC to see more. 

COVID-19 has made it difficult to travel due to country lockdowns and the risk of taking an airplane. These unprecedented times lead to some changes in Greenwood’s plans. “On my gap year, I have only been able to explore Mexico. Many countries still have their borders closed, but I have loved backpacking through Mexico” she exclaims enthusiastically. “There is so much to see and do!” 

Taking a gap year can be exhilarating, but during the pandemic it also comes with lots of uncertainty. Greenwood explains the biggest lessons she has learned so far. “I have learned so many things in just my first month. One thing is that everything doesn’t work out as planned and that’s okay . . . It’s just easier to ride it out without getting too worked up about it.” 

Traveling in between high school and college comes with many learning opportunities and experiences, and Greenwood shared some of her goals for this year: “just learning to trust and be comfortable when things don’t go as planned: because they won’t, and yet things tend to work themselves out in the end.”

Once it is safer to travel farther abroad, Greenwood has many plans. She intends to continue backpacking through Mexico for about three months and then explore more of Latin America. She’s starting a blog with travel advice for people planning similar trips. And as more countries open up, she’ll see what opportunities she has! 

Many juniors and seniors are torn on what to do after high school. Greenwood shares her advice for them: “Take a gap year! Solo travel is magical and can also be affordable,” She says. “You learn so much about yourself, other people, independence, and can see other places and their cultures.” She reaffirms that “there is no rush to start college right away. We have been taught to ‘go go go’ in the US, whereas in other countries, one, two, or  sometimes three years of a gap before college is very common.” Since she’s been on the road, she says she feels “less stressed” and “more happy.” 

As graduation nears, Wilson seniors are faced with decisions about what to do next. And while college is an experience many assume is their next path, others don’t get the chance to go to a University, and some simply don’t want to. However, it’s always worth it to consider what else is out there. Taking a gap year, serving your country, helping others, getting a job, are also all great options after high school. If these Wilson graduates have taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing more important than following your dreams: everything else will fall into place.