More Canadian students taking gap years

It’s not uncommon for students to they take time off between high school and university, simply because they are unsure of their next steps.

Adam Chen, a first-year student in the master of journalism program at Ryerson, had two such periods in his life. One lasted less than a year, the other lasted six.

Chen and his father on Alishan, a mountain in Taiwan.
(Courtesy of Adam Chen)

Chen says he is no stranger to feeling undecided about the future. When he was 17 years old, fresh out of high school, he chose to take extra courses instead of enrolling at a post-secondary institution because he had no idea what program to pursue.

“I took courses that weren’t required but interested me,” he says. “This was 13 years ago before everyone was really international. We didn’t have Facebook or were really connected, so for me to realize that the world was this big and that I could do all this, it was a big eye-opener for me.”

Chen then decided that he wanted to pursue international development and chose a program that allowed him to travel.

“Because I had that extra time, I was able to think about what I wanted to do and prepare myself, and I had a really good undergrad because of that,” he says.

Four years later, after graduation, rather than jumping into a post-grad program or a new career, Chen decided to take time off again and travel to East Asia.

“I realized that what was a priority for me was to connect with my family,” he says. “I wanted to explore where my family is from, so I convinced my brother to move with me to Taipei to initially learn Chinese.”

After spending two years in Taipei, friends asked Chen if he wanted to start a business with them. So he ended up spending six years in Taiwan running a local smoothie store with his brother and friends.

After growing up in a school full of students from diverse backgrounds and laced with different cultural expectations, Chen says he never “felt weird doing this own thing.” But his experience is not too common.

While taking a gap year, or more, is considered a rite of passage among Europeans, it has only recently started to gain traction in Canada. A 2011 Statistics Canada study showed that less than 50 per cent of high school graduates begin post-secondary education (PSE) within four months of graduation, while almost 75 per cent do so within 15 months of graduation.

“There is a wide variety of reasons,” says Michelle Garbac, director of My Gap Year, a Canadian non-profit supporting those considering taking one or more gap years. “More people can pull up communities on their laptop and connect digitally, but they still haven’t experienced those things in real life, so it’s this teaser that they have that drives their hunger to connect globally,” she explained.

Prioritizing mental health over “the race to finish your degree” is another realization Garbac says is shifting people’s perspective, along with the current uncertainty of the workforce. Many people, she says, want to explore their options before committing to a specific study program, while others decide on taking time off after realizing their current program was no longer feasible.

The ever-increasing demand for gap year experience could also be due to a mismatch between the hunger for extracurricular experience and what is offered by the mainstream education system.

“It’s just a different way of learning. Not everyone is going to enjoy studying textbooks,” Garbac says. “Everyone needs experience to know what deep learning is, fulfilling that hunger for life experience. And this is something that the current system isn’t designed for.“

Adam Chen strawberry picking in the town of Miaoli, Taiwan.
(Courtesy of Adam Chen)

While the system may not currently be devised to accommodate this relatively new trend in priorities, changes are being made to allow students opportunities to travel and gain experience during their university careers.

Most Canadian universities allow newly-admitted first-years to defer admission for certain programs, if not all. And, work-study and exchange programs are becoming more and more accessible to students looking to get experience abroad.

It’s just a matter of students taking that initiative to find out what is available to them, according to Yumi Numata, experiential coordinator at Ryerson. Through her role alone, students can opt for an exchange, a summer abroad, or the chance to work or volunteer with local communities essentially opportunities where students can work on discovering what they want to do.

“I know that sometimes that can be a lot to do when there is a lot of academic pressure, but I think there are ways to work it in your schedule,” Numata says.

Students looking to make the most of their gap year have access to only a limited set of resources.  

“Currently people have to fumble their way through the available resources,” Garbac says. “But now we’re in the process of launching the Canadian gap year association, with the goal of researching gap year experience, so we’d be able to have holistic numbers to help people make decisions.”

Garbac also says she plans to reach out to guidance counsellors, colleges and universities, ultimately to rid the option of stigma and instead get people to see it as a “viable pathway.”

Chen’s time off was longer than most, but he says he is grateful for the perspective he earned during his time away.

“I think I might have ended up in journalism anyways, but I feel more comfortable knowing that I wanted to do this, and that I have tried other things,” he says.

“I feel comfortable knowing that I made a conscious decision.”

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