Gap Year: A period of time between 3 and 24 months that an individual takes 'out' of formal education, training or the workplace, where that time sits in the context of a longer term career trajectory. alt. gap-year, gapyear . syn. year off; career break (esp. for those finished all planned formal education) . || gapper: an individual taking a gapyear.
It's official: "Gap Year" has come to Canada. In fact, the brand new edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary has even included it in the lexicon.
Each year, more and more young Canadians are choosing to augment their education by taking time out to travel—a trend that is being encouraged by educators and employers alike.
And if this is the first time you've heard the term "gap year," it definitely won't be the last.
You're on the cusp of finishing school or university, or you've settled into a job that just isn't doing it for you—now what? Some big decisions are looming. Do you step straight onto the conveyor belt of more academic education? Do you plunge headlong into a career-for-life? If you're reading this, it may be that you're not quite prepared to go down that road just yet. At least not directly.
Finishing school is a unique time in anyone's life. Options are virtually limitless and responsibilities are relatively few. It's the perfect time to pursue those things you've always wanted to do. You could travel, learn another language, do conservation work, teach in another country. The possibilities are endless.
Every year, more and more people are deciding that the conveyor belt is not for them, including many people who are already on it. Instead, they are opting to take some time out for themselves, to do some exploring, gain some life experience and to find out where their interests and aptitudes really lie. They're deciding to take a gap year.
Quite simply, many of us never know about the opportunities that are available.
"Gap year" is a term that's pretty common in some parts of the world, particularly in the U.K. where it's looked upon by many as something of a rite of passage. In fact there is a whole industry (consultants, advisors, companies and a wealth of resources) built around students and recent graduates (and even many "working stiffs") who are taking time out to travel before continuing with their education or career.
In North America it seems, we are just catching on to the idea and though just as many opportunities are available to us, there is generally little emphasis placed on their value while we're in school. Quite simply, many of us never know about the opportunities available!
Taking a gap year does not just mean jumping on a plane and bumming around the world for a year (although it could involve that, especially if you happen to have just won the lottery or have a big fat trust fund put away somewhere). More often, taking a gap year means making a well-researched plan about where in the world you would like to go and what you would like to do when you're there. It means working, saving, fundraising, budgeting and taking care of the logistical details (insurance, visas etc.) in order to make it all happen. It's not kid's stuff—but you're not a kid—are you?
Pros and cons of taking a gap year
Objections to taking a year off before starting college or university, or after finishing a degree, tend to centre around getting sidetracked from the straight-and-narrow path of further education and a profitable career. But while some North Americans still consider taking a year out as goofing off and shirking responsibility, that perception is changing.
For nearly thirty years, Harvard University has been recommending that students consider taking a year off between high school and university, even proposing it in their letter of admission. In an article entitled "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation", Harvard College Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons and his colleagues argue strongly for the benefits of taking a break. The authors note that it is "a time to step back and reflect, to gain perspective on personal values and goals, or to gain needed life experience in a setting separate from and independent of one's accustomed pressures and expectations."
Melissa Payne, now a teacher, graduated from university in 1998 and took off to spend two years on a working holiday visa in the UK. Four years and several continents later she returned to Canada, and she maintains that the experience she gained changed her life.
"I have learned so much about myself, where I fit into the world and what I want to do with my life. I wouldn't trade the debt or the fear when I went for anything! All of my friends graduated and settled down right away into serious jobs, invested in cars and more debt, and now they don't see going overseas as an option. I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I could do, so I knew staying here was pointless. I know there are many other people who feel the same way."
Making your year away happen
Once you've decided that taking a gap year makes sense for you, you may well run into some objections from friends and family. Normally these objections centre around your straying from the path of the conventional, into the unknown: Will you ever return to school? Will a regular job be too boring when you return? How will you ever afford it? You don't speak... [insert language here]. You'll be thousands of miles away from your friends and family. You'll be older than everyone else in your class when you return to school. It's just too complicated/dangerous /irresponsible.
So how do you get started? How about listing ten things that you just have to try before you die?
If these concerns are running through your head and you're saying to yourself "yeah, that's true—those things are totally insurmountable and it would probably be horrible"—then maybe you're not ready for a year away yet. Be honest with yourself.
On the other hand, if you're thinking to yourself "yeah, that may be true, but imagine doing reef conservation work in Fiji or hiking in the Peruvian Andes, or assisting in a medical clinic in Nepal"—then read on.
The best advice, hands down, is: do your homework. For one, it's your most effective tool for convincing the nay-sayers that it's a good idea. You have a well thought out plan of action with definite goals and ways achieving them.
Secondly, the more knowledge and preparation that you bring to your time away, the more you will make of it, the less likely you are to waste time and money, and you will minimize disappointments (or mishaps) down the road. For example, wouldn't it suck to go all the way to Australia, hit on a job that would help fund your travels, then have to decline because you didn't organize the required work visa?
So how do you get started? How about listing ten places in the world that you would really like to visit, or ten things that you just have to try before you die. If you have career or study plans down the road, why not start looking into internships, volunteer or study opportunities that could give you international experience or allow you to get a feel for that field?
There are many companies that organize volunteer work all over the world for gap year takers. What about making a list of some important world issues that you wish you could help to address?
Now, get online or drop into to a bookstore and check out the resources that are available to help you choose a few options. There are a number of comprehensive databases available online listing thousands of options for volunteering, study, work, internships and adventure travel. Check out: vergemagazine.com, gapyear.com, gap-year.com, goabroad.com, do-it.org.uk. Books that are worth having a look at for their advice and programme listings include: Taking a Gap Year by Susan Griffith, Lonely Planet's The Gap Year Book, The Virgin Travellers' Handbook and Before You Go, both by Tom Griffiths and The Big Guide to Living and Working Overseas by Jean-Marc Hachey.
By browsing through these resources, you can start to match the programmes offered by a wide variety of organizations and companies, with your own wish-list of places to go and things to do. You'll also be able to start narrowing down your choices based on timing, cost, availability, skills requirements and so on.
There are several advantages to spending some time with a reputable company on an organized programme. Typically, you will have access to activities, experiences, locations, people and a support system that you wouldn't have if travelling on your own. These companies can often help you to organize (or even provide) accommodation and travel insurance, give advice about visas, medical considerations and many other logistical concerns. It takes some of the guesswork (and grunt-work) out of your planning.
Yes, you have to pay for their work—what makes you think it should be free? To put it in perspective though, the fees charged by many companies that organize volunteer opportunities are comparable to the cost of backpacking through Europe.
If you are motivated and tenacious, you can also arrange a volunteer, work or study experience abroad without the help of a company or organization specializing in gap year programmes. It will save you paying their fees, but make sure that you're prepared to put a lot of time and effort into planning, and are willing to go abroad without the support that many of these companies provide. You will need to contact organizations (NGOs, conservation societies, employers etc.) in other countries directly rather than rely on the contacts of a gap-year company. Check out idealist.org or volunteerabroad.com.
Working out the bottom line
Now that you've narrowed your choices down a bit, it's time to get out the calculator and start working out a budget. Incidentally, this is also the time that most people wimp out and decide that they're staying at home. There's nothing like the bottom line to separate the people who REALLY want to travel (and who are prepared to do what it takes), from those who just talk about it and think they might travel—someday.
Figure out what you will need to live on while you work and save for your travels, and how much you will need while you are actually travelling (airfare, transportation while abroad, health insurance, visas, gear, fees for organized programmes, food and accommodation etc.). Have a look at travel guides for the places that you intend to visit. Not only will they give you ideas about things you might like to see (or stay away from), they will also give you a sense of what it will cost per day to be there.
If you plan to become involved with some type of volunteer work (conservation, community development etc.) while you are away, start thinking about fundraising strategies. Most organizations make fundraising guides available to their participants, and people and businesses can often be convinced to donate to a worthwhile cause. For more information about fundraising, check out the article "Beg, Borrow or Fundraise" in the Summer 2004 issue of Verge Magazine.
The last word about gap years
The decision to take a gap year can be a difficult one. It is generally much easier to paddle around in your own backyard pool than to immerse yourself in an ocean halfway around the world. The planning will take time and a lot of effort. You will have to save a good bit of money, maybe even hold down a couple of jobs in order to make it happen. There will be times that you'll want to throw in the towel, both while you're preparing and during your time away. But do yourself a favour. Talk to someone who's done it. You'll probably find that they spend a lot more time telling you about what they gained from their experiences than what it cost them. Ask them if they'd do it again—you know the answer to that.