"Bridging the Gap Year" by Marc & Craig Kielburger

“Students benefit from pressing pause button on studies to gain life experience, enhance future prospects”

Originally Published: October 11, 2016 in O.Canada.com

 Photo: Aleida Stone. Vietnam

Photo: Aleida Stone. Vietnam

Not every high school graduate knows what they want to be when they grow up (some adults we know still don’t).

“Coming out of Grade 12 and already choosing what you’re going to do with your life? There wasn’t enough time to transition,” says student Ben Simon.

Simon enrolled in a science program at the University of British Columbia, far from his home in Calgary. But the deeper he delved into biochemistry and physics, the more he struggled and his interest waned. Stressed and uncertain, Simon took a break from school after his first year to travel and work.

Half of Canadian high school graduates don’t start a post-secondary program right away, according to Statistics Canada. Others, like Simon, struggle as freshmen and change their path.

Parents often fear that a gap year will set their children back, stunting their education and career opportunities. On the contrary, hitting the pause button to gain life experience before resuming studies can actually boost future prospects.

A year of reprieve means students enter university with sharper career goals. This self-assurance saves time and money that might have been spent changing programs mid-year, says one study out of Dalhousie University. Gap-year students are also eight per cent more likely to land a job after graduation, according to the Canadian Council of Learning.

Researchers at the University of London in the U.K. found that recruiters value the “soft skills” acquired during gap years, like communication and organization. We can corroborate that. When our team wades through the 2,400 resumes WE receives each year, we look for people with volunteer and work experience outside of their formal education.

We both took study breaks as students. Marc volunteered at an AIDS hospice in Bangkok before university, and Craig toured South Asia to research child labour, among other field trips outside of school. That time off introduced us to the global community, and renewed our passion for our vocation.

But a stamp-filled passport isn’t a prerequisite for a productive gap year. Volunteer with an organization in your community or through programs like Katimavik, which offers service experiences across Canada. In addition to beefing up your CV with valuable skills like teamwork and time management, volunteering offers opportunities for networking and mentorship.

If you’re bold, try starting a small enterprise—something with low overhead like a home painting service or web design—to learn firsthand about budgets, marketing and customer service.

Colleges and universities can help you approach your gap year thoughtfully (and avoid your parents’ worst nightmare: a year-long frat party).  A growing number of institutions now invest in programs to help students plan a meaningful study break.

“A career expert can help talk through your interests, guide you to resources and plan gap-year opportunities that develop valuable competencies,” advises Norah McRae, executive director of co-operative education and career services at the University of Victoria.

Simon, now 21, travelled through Southeast Asia and worked as a lifeguard during his time off school. He also explored other subjects more informally, like psychology, but with less scholastic pressure. Back at school, he’s shifting his science studies to include psychology electives.

“Taking time to explore new perspectives and grow as a person made a huge difference,” Simon told us. “I enjoy school now, and I’m succeeding at it.”

Taking a break after high school or part way into university isn’t a failure to launch. Done right, a gap year can be one of the most valuable parts of a young person’s education.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.

Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

Charlene Lee, a volunteer who recently spent her Gap Year at a medical placement in Japan, was the winner of our My Lattitude Writing Competition. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Charlene. And congratulations! In her essay, she answers the question: How has this experience added to your post-secondary experience? If you did not do a Gap Year, what would be different about you?


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This Gap Year really gave me a chance to recuperate, and ponder the possibilities of my future. It is a popular quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” While I kept on reminding and motivating myself to experience the most I could during my undergraduate years, after years of living in Vancouver and 5 years working on my undergraduate degree, I felt jaded. I was going to school because I got into UBC and was finishing my degree because I was almost done. I was at the point in my life where I was starting to doubt my decisions on my career. I knew I needed a break.

This Gap Year program in Japan was a complete change of pace. A different language, culture, customs and norms. Every experience was NEW. Even the bike locks were new and exciting! I had asked to be placed at a more rural placement, and I would never regret my decision. Every alley and road was a new scene and adventure. I rode my bicycle between rice fields, up mountains to different cemeteries, into alleyways meant for pedestrians, and even at night where the only light source was the super weak lamps powered by the front wheel of the bike as I pedaled. There wasn’t a destination planned, only the general direction of north, south, east, or west. The fact of these weekend local adventures not being planned was exhilarating.

Of course, my experience at the hospital placement was on par with my weekend excursions. Every new menial task I learnt and did to their standard was an achievement, especially with the language barrier. As a volunteer, I understood that our position was not a necessary role in the hospital for it to function. I wasn’t a nurse, a doctor, a janitor, or a groundskeeper. Yet, I was someone who still represented the hospital for 6 months. For some reason, this changed my mental view of this experience. I was in charge of how much experience I get out of the six months. How much communication I had with other workers, patients, and students was my responsibility. Having the courage to chat even through a completely new language opened up different opportunities. I was able to sit in forums with a lecturer from the US, join the hospital band, and experience some traditional aspects of Japan, such as learning calligraphy and tea ceremony.

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Looking back, I would definitely say my mental view of life changed. This six month pause wasn’t just a vacation. I was not there to be a tourist and sightsee. I was there to immerse myself in a different life, to experience something different, something that I could take back with me at the end of the placement. For me, this experience renewed my interest in learning and in enjoying the scenery around Vancouver. Although I don’t believe there was a huge confirmation or a change in my career choices, I did feel more confident. Had I not gone the Gap Year program, I would probably be not as confident and still be jaded or doubtful of the choices I made.

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