Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2002 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Laura Vanderkam

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Consumer Reports

Young, jobless? Skip law school, visit reality | Every day, newspaper headlines document the lingering recession. Unemployment, bear market - none of it looks good. But I have my own economic indicator: Suddenly, everyone I know is going to law school.

"Remember the young man from church who was working in youth ministry?" my mother asks. Law school. A friend's daughter? The same. My new roommate may apply, too.

By one estimate from labor-market researchers at Northeastern University, about half of those who lost jobs in 2001 were under 25. Even now, few companies are hiring. So at the Law School Admission Council in Newtown, Pa., the recession has translated into 66,906 registrations flying in for Saturday's Law School Admission Test (LSAT) - up nearly 11% from last year, when law school applications increased 18%. The council is gearing up for the largest LSAT administration ever, surpassing the previous record set in the grim economy of October 1991.

Not surprisingly, the folks at the council detect a pattern. "Our sense is that many people are choosing to sit out bad economic times in law school," says council spokesman Edward Haggerty.

This isn't a cheap seat. Law students have been known to borrow $50,000 a year. All fine for those who really want to be lawyers. But many don't. They simply despair of finding a job.

For these young people, I have another suggestion for riding out the recession: Buy a backpack and a good pair of shoes, pack your passport and see the world instead. While the craziness of opting out of the career track for a bit baffles most Americans, an education from no-frills travel will cost less and mean more than any half-heartedly earned law degree.

Unlike the LSAT, such trekking has never been easier. People in countries from Brazil to Bulgaria are learning English, and travel, done right, can be cheaper than staying put. I spent part of this summer bumming around Thailand, where hotels cost me $11 a night, and I could have lived on even less. Summer earnings and intern stipends have let me, among other things, SCUBA dive on the Great Barrier Reef, shop at markets in Hong Kong where chickens strut next to gleaming office plazas, and dance in Rio de Janeiro's nightclubs until the sun rose over the beach. All for less than it would cost to own a car.

Most young Americans buy the car instead. Anne Robinson, host of The Weakest Link, insulted many when she snidely remarked that "only 5% of Americans have passports. That explains a lot" - namely, our lack of interest in world affairs and, in Robinson's opinion, our lack of knowledge.

While she overstated the case, she's right that Americans, in general, don't travel abroad. The 1995 American Travel Survey found that of the millions of long-distance trips Americans take annually, only 4% are to locations outside the United States, and the bulk of these are border runs to Canada and Mexico.

American senior citizens are more likely to travel than twentysomethings.

Reasons for this immobility abound. America has its own alabaster cities and shining seas. Our two-week vacation policies preclude serious travel. And here, one's 20s are for building a resume, not building a bank of experiences. For years, the U.S. economy has been too hot to miss and, regardless, Americans don't like to dillydally. When I traveled in Australia a few years ago, the other Americans I met were like me - students, there for a specific purpose. How decadent to spend months traveling just because!

The current economic train wreck derails some excuses, yet Sept. 11 travel jitters and general isolationism still keep even unemployed youngsters close to home. Fear of the unknown, however, means losing out.

I won't pretend international travel on a budget is easy - bunking with strangers in hostels, riding to unsure destinations on buses with people's chickens and machine guns. But a generation of young Americans who have seen the world will do more for the country and themselves than a generation with fancy letters on their resume.

The shock of Sept. 11 underscored how oblivious America was to the rest of the world - and how we can't ignore that world anymore. Budget travel brings you closer to the people and places you visit. Young Americans living simply abroad become ambassadors for their country, showing that the USA isn't just fast food and violent movies, but a nation of free, driven individuals eager to share their values and learn about other cultures.

Just as important, though, is what travel does for the traveler, particularly youngsters floundering in their careers. Away from your comfort zones, you grow into a self-confidence that comes from knowing for sure who you are and what you can handle. The courage to stretch oneself is every bit as valuable a job skill as the ability to sit through lectures.

Travel also nourishes a very American spirit of adventure, whetting a drive to see things you'd never see at home.

The world can be a darn good party. The least a generation of unemployed young people can do is accept the invitation.

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© 2002, Laura Vanderkam