Some Acalanes High seniors look beyond four-year colleges


Maia Upp, Acalanes High School

In the game of Life beyond high school, Acalanes students opt to embark on a diverse variety of career and educational paths.

Connor Faust and Kylie Choi, Acalanes High School

As the question “Hey, where are you going to college?” floats around the hallways of Acalanes High School, a number of students raise the conversation about having plans besides attending a four-year college.

During the 2022 graduation season, many Acalanes students plan to look away from the traditional four-year college plan, choosing alternative studies or employment opportunities ranging from military service to a focused educational program in culinary studies.

One path for Acalanes seniors lies within the branches of the U.S. military. This year, several Acalanes students plan to attend the Naval Academy, where students learn to maintain standards of military performance while receiving an education. 

“We do have three students that are going into the Naval Academy this year, which is a huge accomplishment and not very common to have three students,” Acalanes College and Career Counselor Debbie Levy said. 

These students receive standard education in the Naval Academy Preparatory School for one year and then reenter the United States Naval Academy for a four-year education covering one of a variety of degrees, including politics, economics, and engineering. After graduating from the naval academy, graduates take part in a minimum of five years of service, although this can be longer based on post-graduate education.

While many students attend the naval academy for their education, some future attendees are equally excited to partake in military service.

“I really picked the Navy specifically because I think what their job is in the military is one of the most important. Patrolling the Seven Seas and being the tip of the spear when it comes to American foreign policy and showing the strength and [showing] what America is all about [is important],” Acalanes senior Michael Kuhner said.

As some students look to serve at sea, others aspire to pursue different forms of specialized study. Students can enroll in schools that concentrate on individual topics in a specific area, taking more relevant classes and having a potentially shorter college experience.

“The culinary program that I’m interested in is just to learn how to cook safely and to get a degree so that I can seem more reputable to others … I will get my associate’s degree in culinary and then I’m working on my associate’s degree in business,” Acalanes junior Aura Riegel said.

Students can also attend trade schools, which place a similar emphasis on a specialized experience. These schools focus on specific trades, including electrical, mechanical, and criminal justice studies. Additionally, trade schools can provide employment and steady income for attendees.

“I want to go to school for welding … because I get to work with my hands. It’s not like a desk job … and it makes pretty good money” Acalanes junior Ryan Coyle said.  

Another student attending a trade school is Acalanes senior Rylyn Groves, who plans to first take a gap year where she’ll gain work experience from Berkeley Repertory Theater or at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center of the Arts. After taking a gap year, Groves plans on going to trade school for an associates degree in technical theater. 

“I don’t love my worth being associated with a grade, so [college] will not be for me … Theater is my life. It’s all I do. I eat, sleep, and breathe in the theater and I don’t really feel the need for a history class that requires all kinds of extra stuff,” Groves said. 

Some future Acalanes graduates may focus on employment directly after high school. In some cases, this can be in the form of online marketing in sales, specifically through social media or online brands. 

“Clothes to me have always been such a good way for me to express my identity and who I am, and so I started to share that on social media … Once I started getting brands reaching out and an influx of followers, that’s when I definitely started taking it more seriously,” Acalanes senior Coy Meyer said.

According to the Nashville Film Institute, anyone with 10,000 to 50,000 followers can make $40,000 to $100,000 a year through a variety of methods, including sponsored content, donations or subscriptions, and merchandise sales. Meyer has two accounts on TikTok, with 888,000 followers and 47.2 million likes on her most popular profile.

With her large social media presence, Meyer hopes to share her experience and further build out an entrepreneurial business with fashion merchandise, as well as take up business in public relations.

“I’ve had my own experiences throughout my life that I would love to be able to share to other people … especially when you have the opportunity to use your platform to do it … I’m hoping to work with a [public relations] team and start to make my own merchandise, and I’m hoping to eventually get away more from the social media aspect, but turn [social media] into a fashion thing,” Meyer said.

Looking for employment or self-employment coming out of high school can have its advantages over spending more years in school. For some students, not attending a four-year college can be a cheaper option and may represent an opportunity to take on a greater level of responsibility.

“I’d like to learn how to be an adult, versus going into school not really knowing what’s going on [in school]. I’m gonna have to start paying rent. I’m already paying car bills versus all of my friends that are just going right back into school. It’s just different,” Groves said. 

However, the choice to turn to non-educational pathways can make entering the world of education at a later point more challenging, as graduates lose the support of their high school when applying for college.

“If you take time away for a year or two and travel or work or relax, you have to be a little bit more active in terms of calling your high school and getting your transcripts sent and trying to figure out if you can still reach a teacher for a recommendation … You have to do that a little more independently because you don’t have access to the tools of Naviance,” Levy said.

Some students experience a level of judgment or concern from those around them if they choose to turn away from the four-year pathway.

“I was really scared when I started getting calls from counselors … I said, ‘college isn’t for me.’ I was really scared to say that, and they were completely on my side, which was awesome. Parents, less accepting. Not just mine, other parents in the community. They hear that I’m not going to college, and it’s kind of shocking,” Groves said.

According to some seniors, the source of this shock stems from Acalanes’ lack of acknowledgement of such options.

“I do wish the school would push other options instead of college. When I was getting the presentation at the beginning of the year … trade school and gap years and no college weren’t really an option. It was just all college, which was really interesting,” Groves said.

As a result of the parental role in planning and paying for college, students can have trouble convincing their parents to support their alternative plans.

“I think a lot of parents are guiding their kids based upon ‘what’s the best fit for my kid, what’s going to help them obtain good opportunities that work for them?’ … I think a lot of parents are also going to be looking at what schools are the most prestigious and will seem more impressive,” Acalanes parent Jeffrey Acuff said.

Additionally, students’ post-high school choices can change parents’ college send-off plans.

“[My parents] have a very interesting dynamic with other parents now. Not necessarily negative, just new because they’re not [a part of], ‘Oh, my kid’s getting ready. They’re getting their dorm ready, we’re buying stuff.’ They’re not really going to be a part of that,” Groves said.

With pathways aside from the four-year college route, many students can feel less financially secure. Regardless, students emphasize the joy in doing what they enjoy.

“When you’re not following with that four-year [plan], it feels like you’re falling behind … [but] instead of panicking, it’s again focused on what makes me happy, and I know that spending more time competing with other people is not going to make me more happy,” Meyer said.

Additionally, many think of the college experience as a rite of passage into adulthood and that taking an alternative pathway can impact that experience.

“I think it’s a really big confidence issue where if you’re not doing that four-year or you get into a college that isn’t as cool as the UCs [University of Californias], you’re looked down on. It can be different forms with classism … I know students who can’t afford college at all, and [they] feel really horrible about it because it feels like they’re missing out on experiences,” Meyer said.

Ultimately, students find excitement in being able to pursue their own paths and continue doing what they love after high school

“I think that my parents are a little bit disappointed that I’m not going to a traditional four-year because that’s just kind of the trend and what people think is like the right thing to do, but I just know in the long run, I’ll be happier … I think that my parents honestly just want me to push myself to do my best, but I think that they’re also just happy if I’m happy,” Riegel said.