Building in a gap year

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By Miranda Beninger

In less than two months, I’m dropping my school books, grabbing a backpack, and flying across the world to the UK. Some people look at me in disbelief but the reality is this pick-up-and-go mentality is growing among Canadian students.

Natalie Baines, manager at the Gerrard Street Travel Cuts location, says she has noticed more and more students are taking some time off during their studies, especially right after high school. She says the implementation of the double cohort – which shortened the years spent in high school from five to four – has contributed to the increasing popularity of the gap year.

“I think there is a gap in there. I’m not sure if some students are feeling ready [for university] when they’re graduating Grade 12. They really do need that fifth year. Going away is a maturing experience,” she says.

Livi Ruffle is a recent university graduate. She’s visiting Canada from the UK and taking six months off to travel before continuing her education. This is her second gap year; she also took a year off after high school. This time, she says she is taking the time to consider her options now that she has graduated from university. She says ‘gapping’ is very common in the UK.

“Taking a gap year is, I believe, historically a British thing. But the phenomenon is becoming more and more popular around the world,” she says. “In the UK, it’s a real choice presented to people, especially when they’re about to leave school.”

In the UK, she says, students are almost expected to take some time out at some point during the education process to travel or work abroad. Deferral of admission is common and often encouraged by many universities there. There are also organizations that exist that provide financial assistance to the students in their gap year. Recently, the UK government implemented a program to help students take a gap year, offering an honorarium of 45£ a week (about $110 Canadian) to volunteer abroad.

In North America, organizing a year off is not as easy – or as accepted. Not all universities are supportive of students deferring admission at the beginning or in the middle of their studies, and parents often think a gap year means their child will forget about school and never complete their education. Few financial assistance programs exist in Canada to help students take a year off school to travel or volunteer.

“If someone lacks the money to go traveling, then he should explore ways by which he can get the money – getting a job and saving like crazy,” says Ruffle.

Canadian students taking a gap year might have some trouble finding funding, but as the idea becomes more popular, more options become available.

Ryerson employment counsellor Aino Lokk says more programs are being developed to cater students wishing to take a break. Lokk has worked at Ryerson for 15 years and says, “There have been a fairly consistent number of students interested in work/study abroad opportunities.”

She credits this in part to globalization and programs like SWAP (Students Work Abroad Program), and JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching). There are also some government programs emerging for students who want to take a year off.

“It might be that we as people are more interested in going out and doing things. Many programs [at Ryerson] have their own exchanges now. Over the years, I’d say probably the interest has grown, especially with new programs coming out.”

But Lokk says it’s important for students to recognize that what they learn during their year off “depends on how they use their time.”

Taking a year off to travel or work abroad, Lokk says, can also help students in the job market.

“In the past few years, the labour market has gone global. Most employees would be appreciative and understanding of a person traveling to another person’s backyard,” she says.

Spending time abroad gives students a chance to gain additional insight, skills, and experience, Lokk says. These are valuable assets for students looking to work at a global-oriented company.

Some universities in North America, including the University of Toronto, allow students to defer admission for a year before entering a program. At Ryerson, students have to re-apply but depending on the program, students can be granted permission to take a year off part-way through completion of a program. Students wishing to do this have to speak with the chair of their program, and will usually have to write a letter detailing their reasons for temporary withdrawal. They also must be in good academic standing.

Glen Ferguson, a third-year student was accepted to the urban and regional planning program at Ryerson right after high school, but decided to take a year off to work before beginning his studies.

“I grew up a lot, maturity-wise,” he says. “To grow up, I feel I needed the extra year.”

When he was ready to go back the next year, Ferguson had to re-apply to the program, and was accepted again. Unfortunately, he missed out on the scholarship he was offered the first time he applied to the program. But despite this, he says “the extra $10,000 [he] saved was worth it.

“People say it’s hard to come back to school, but I had no problems. The break just meant so much to me,” he says. “My parents thought I would forget how to study. My dad wanted me to get things rolling right away and go to university , but he was supportive in the end.”

There are many gap year options available to Canadian students, depending on the kind of experience they are looking for. Some students decided to stay home to work and save money for school, while others choose to participate in volunteer or work programs abroad.

Students who find travel expenses are beyond their budget should consider exploring opportunities within their own country, Baines says.

“You don’t necessarily  have to travel Europe or Asia. You can backpack Canada for sure; you can get a VIA Rail or Greyhound bus pass. Students backpack from Vancouver, the East Coast, P.E.I., and through the U.S. They can take the Greyhound and stay in hostels in the U.S. And this is about half the cost [of going to Europe or Asia] and an equal learning experience,” she says.

So take a deep breath, and think twice about rushing through school and straight into the workforce. When a break is needed, take one, and discover what else lies beyond the borders of the classroom.

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