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Gap Year Primer

By Claudia Laroye

Any gap year expert or veteran knows, the secret to a successful gap year lies in one thing: Good planning.

When Anna Sophie Glaubitz realized that she didn’t have to go to university right out of high school, it was a lightbulb moment. 

“I realized that I don't have to always fulfill my family and friends’ expectations,” she recalls. Looking to invest her energy into a meaningful gap year program that would take her far from her home in Germany and out of her comfort zone, Glaubitz chose to volunteer at Camphill Village in upstate New York. During her year serving the community of children, youth and adults with developmental disabilities, Glaubitz experienced a voyage of self-discovery and personal growth.

Taking a gap year, or “year off" between high school and university or college is a rite of passage in many parts of the world. Seen as an opportunity for youth to discover their home, the world and themselves, a gap year involves more than just taking time off to stay at home and work. At its best, a mindful and intentional gap year can foster personal growth, responsibility and development, accelerate career and educational focus, and contribute to self-confidence and assuredness as youth move into adulthood. The popularity of gap years is growing in Canada and the United States, as students and parents take a new look at the value of taking time for self-discovery, community service and working towards financial and career goals.

Is it a good idea to have a gap year?

Every individual is on a unique journey, and not every student graduating high school is ready, willing or able to jump into continued education at the university level. Making a purposeful choice to take a gap year to attend to personal growth, improve mental health, pursue internships or make money can have enormous benefits.

For kids leaving the regimented structure of high school, a gap year can be their first entry into making decisions for themselves and choosing their own adventures. They offer the chance to take risks, experiment with something different, learn to fail and become resilient, and even affirm that one is headed in the right direction.

As a whole, people come away with more confidence, independence and self-awareness about who they are, and how they fit into adult life.

“It’s an opportunity for personal discovery, to get outside of a comfort zone, engage in problem solving, and practice leadership skills,” says Michelle Dittmer, President and Co-Founder of the Canadian Gap Year Association.

Yet, despite being a long-standing tradition for youth in the UK and Australia, the perception of gap years in North America still skews slightly negative, as parents and students grapple with the fallacy that the gap year may interfere in the continuance of education or fall short in social comparisons with peers. Families may be wary about the costs, benefits, and potential risks of venturing abroad on a gap year.

Parents sometimes worry that gap years will interfere with college, however, data shows such fears are misplaced. In the U.S., 90 percent of students will start college after a gap year and perform better during that time.

"Parents sometimes worry that gap years will interfere with college,” notes Julia Rogers, Founder and Director of Enroute Consulting and board member of the American Gap Year Association. However, data shows such fears are misplaced. In the U.S., 90 percent of students will start college after a gap year and perform better during that time.

According to Ethan Knight of the US Gap Year Association (GYA), around 40,000 Canadians and Americans participate in gap year experiences every year. A 2020 survey of gap year alumni detailed that their experiences had helped prepare them for their next steps in their professional, educational, and personal lives, and fostered both internal and external skill development. Nearly all survey respondents enrolled or resumed higher education post-gap year.

The good news is that the pandemic has had an impact on the traditional rush from high school to university. In the atmosphere of online schooling and the absence of traditional student social activities like frosh week, students and parents are recognizing the benefit of taking a break and pressing pause, using the gap year as a self-discovery period that will help, not hinder, their educational journey.

What challenges exist for students to take gap year?

For students of colour and those from underrepresented groups, financial challenges and a lack of scholastic, social and family supports may limit access and equity opportunities. In the past, study abroad programs have been more exclusive, catering to wealthier demographics, while racialized and less-affluent groups have been underrepresented in both organizing and participating in gap year programs.

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) only 15 percent of study abroad participants are racialized. That figure should be at least double to reflect the Canadian undergraduate population. Similarly, only 31 percent of Americans studying abroad are racialized, while they comprise about half the undergrad population, according to Open Doors, a US-government-funded data hub.

How do I convince my parents to let me take a gap year?

Convincing reluctant parents about the benefits of taking a gap year can be a challenge. Parents with non-linear careers (and perhaps a gap year history of their own) may be more accepting of non-linear pathways for their kids. But it can be a different story for others who feel the social pressure to maintain the "rat race" and social norms.

In my son’s case, his gap year resulted from dissatisfaction with his chosen course of study in a general arts program. Recognizing his unhappiness, and believing his true passions lay elsewhere, I supported his decision to pause and recalibrate his educational and career path. He left to spend a gap year working in the hospitality industry, which funded some international travel. It helped him mature and realize his passion, which resulted in his return to school to study for a degree in tourism management. His gap year refocused his academic and career goals, a decision that has been validated by his current academic success and enthusiasm for his new program.

For those students that need to persuade reluctant parents, they can approach this important conversation by doing their homework. This may include undertaking the research, preparing talking points and showing their parents why a gap year is important, doable and even necessary, for financial, mental health, or career reasons.

As it is important for parents to listen, it’s equally important that the conversation moves both ways, and that the student listens and understands the parental perspective. Maintaining mutual respect and engaging in dialogue that lasts beyond a solitary dinner table discussion is important, advises Dittmer.

How do you structure a gap year? How much money do you need for a gap year?

Starting discussions early can be beneficial in bringing parents around on the subject. But according to experts like Dittmer and Rogers, there’s no “too early or too late.” Starting research during the grade 10 year is a great idea for those thinking ahead.

But the sweet spot is "usually during the Grade 12 year,” says Rogers. In May of senior year, when students are thinking about decisions and mulling over acceptances, they’ll need to make a choice. By graduation in June or in September when kids are heading off, it helps to have a plan in place and share in the excitement of taking their next steps.

On the budgeting side, Rogers advises to start saving early, and then waiting a bit to plan. Setting up a special savings fund, like a TFSA in Canada, that accumulates over time is an ideal way to budget and finance a gap year. Other funding mechanisms include fundraising and applying for grants and support scholarships.

Both Rogers and Dittmer stress that gap years are for everybody, and there’s something for everyone, at every price point—from backpacking across Europe on a shoestring, to taking part in a formalized volunteer, internship or work program abroad.

While self-guided backpacking can be done in a more frugal fashion, the cost of organized volunteer and work programs can vary depending on style and location, from under $10,000 to over $35,000 for an-inclusive Semester at Sea-type program.

Canadians who take gap years typically need to budget less than their US counterparts, due in part to the lower cost of post-secondary education. Many of them also work for a portion of their year, either to help fund their education or underwrite international travel.

For students and families wanting the security of a college acceptance with a deferral option, there are a number of colleges and universities in North America that will permit it. These include Ivy League schools in the US, such as Harvard and Yale, who actively encourage prospective students to take a gap year prior to attendance.

In Canada, the deferral option can vary widely by institution, and program by program. UBC has an encouraging deferral policy, while others like the University of Ottawa do not permit deferring acceptance. Many schools sit somewhere in the middle, and take deferral requests on a case-by-case basis.

Students must do their own research and, if seeking deferral, present a rationale or reason for the request, such as finances and mental health. Students can also inquire about future “out of phase” acceptance based on an initial post-high school acceptance, to determine that there is no penalty for applying after taking a gap year.

How do I maximize my gap year?

After deciding to take a gap year, the options of what to do during that year are nearly limitless and present exciting opportunities for students. Volunteering at home or abroad, working or undertaking an internship, travelling internationally, or combining several choices allows students to enjoy a variety of experiences that can have profound impacts on their choice of study or future career path.

There are hundreds of gap year programs to choose from, which can make selecting one a challenge. Both the Canadian and American Gap Year Associations have a variety of worksheets, guidebooks, YouTube videos and podcasts that focus on planning a successful and fulfilling gap year. There are also gap year counselling services and organizations to help students and parents narrow the options and find the best fit from the multitude of choices.

For Heilwig Jones, Founder and Director of Kaya Responsible Travel, working on a structured gap year plan helps students and parents understand their personal and financial priorities, as well as outline the goals and expectations of the experience.

“We help students find ethical volunteer experiences abroad that are culturally immersive and fully supported, in locations in the developing world and areas of environmental concern,” says Jones. Kaya partners with local NGOs and charities to place gap year participants into what is already happening on the ground and learn from those local communities.

Other gap year programs include: EF Educational Tours, Class Afloat, Discover Year, NOLS Outdoor Education, SWAP, Katimavik, and working holiday programs.

The choice and success of a gap year abroad may be individual to the person choosing to undertake it, but at its best and most transformative, it should include experiential learning that expands one’s sense of purpose, challenges expectations, enhances life skills and educates about the wider world of life’s opportunities.

Can you take a gap year at any age?

While gap years may be most popular with high school students, their appeal is not limited to those on the cusp of adulthood. Mid-career gap years are attractive to those experiencing burnout, the need for a career change, or a break from life’s routine.

For Richard Cooke, a financial planner, and his wife, the year-long break from their professions was a result of career burnout. “As we were settling down into our 30s, the idea of a traditional retirement and waiting until we were 65 (and likely less healthy) to experience the world just didn't sound reasonable to us,” he says.

Leaving their home in northeastern Ohio in 2019, the couple visited 23 countries prior to returning home before the pandemic in March 2020. Cooke was surprised that he missed working sooner than he’d anticipated, but the value of memory-making and discovering the world with his partner made the decision easy and reinforced the importance of not waiting to follow their dream.

For Anna Sophie Glaubitz, her gap year experience fostered a liberating period of personal growth and self-assuredness and prompted her to resume studies in primary education at the University of Leipzig upon her return home to Germany.

“I feel more mature and am more relaxed about daily struggles because Camphill taught me patience, compassion and understanding," she says. "It helped me shape a vision of the future I want to create for myself.”

Whether it’s contemplating the possibilities of a new life path, leaving a career behind, or discovering the world with mindful purpose, gap years bestow the gifts of inner discovery, outward connection, and personal growth to those keen to pursue this memorable and exciting experience.

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