“Gap year: Why your kid shouldn't go to school in the fall” by Erin Anderssen, The Globe and Mail

Originally published Feb 18, 2011. Updated May 1, 2018

The Global and Mail

 Photo by Aleida Stone, Vietnam

Photo by Aleida Stone, Vietnam

A virtual rat named Sniffy rescued 20-year-old Daniella Badali from a life she didn't want.

Ms. Badali was in her first year of a psychology degree at the University of Toronto - a program she'd chosen blindly the night before the applications were due, feeling rushed by her teachers and wanting to please her parents. Sniffy was just a computer rodent, but fumbling through her assignment to shock him until he completed a task, she realized she'd made the wrong choice. She didn't want to be a psychologist, she didn't like feeling like a number in an overcrowded university class, and she despaired at her dismal grades. "I know it wasn't for me," she says. "I had no idea why I went to school. My head was all over the place."

She broke the news to her surprised parents at the end of her first year: She wasn't going back. "I held her in my arms and said 'This is not a setback at all,'" recalls her mother, Claudia. "'This is an opportunity for you to try something else.'"

Taking a break from school, in fact, could end up being the best thing Ms. Badali ever did. "I feel like a lot of pressure has been lifted off my shoulders," she says.

In Europe, the gap year - a year off before higher education - is an accepted, and expected, rite of passage. In North America, however, the traditional student track has long been to graduate from high school in June, and arrive at university in September. But amid concerns about persistent dropout rates, researchers say that many students who follow the straight-to-university path find themselves trapped in programs they don't like, burdened by debt and are more likely to quit. The pressure to get to class quickly is shortsighted, experts suggest, especially with recent studies suggesting increasing levels of anxiety - and, according to tests and interviews, little actual learning - among first-year students.

 Photo by Aleida Stone, Vietnam

Photo by Aleida Stone, Vietnam

More than 80 per cent of Canadian high-school students will eventually go on to some form of post-secondary education - with about 30 per cent taking more than four months off in between, according to a 2008 Statistics Canada study. Saving money was the most common reason, and student from low-income families were more likely to delay school. Upon graduation, however, a Canadian Council of Learning study found that students who took a gap year were eight per cent more likely to be employed (possibly because of their work experience). They also earned about $85 less per week than graduates of the same age who went straight through - though this was likely because they'd had less time in the workforce post-university.

A significant portion of students also shift paths after arriving on campus. One 2008 analysis of Statistics Canada data conducted by Queen's University researchers found that, of the 18 per cent of university and college freshman who dropped out in their first year, nearly half had either switched schools or eventually returned. In fact, many students zigzag through school, with only 54 per cent of students graduating from their original program within five years.

Especially when their parents have university degrees, the majority of stalling students eventually head back to school - ideally when they're less likely to drink away their students loans and more likely to find a career they love.

"Your child will not want to flip burgers or stock shelves forever," says Michael Ungar, a professor of social work at Dalhousie University who specializes in youth issues. "If they have any desire for a middle-class lifestyle, they will have to pursue a post-secondary education."

Dr. Michael Ungar and his wife Cathy Campbell, an adult education researcher and career counsellor for the province of Nova Scotia, have completed a recent project interviewing 20-something Canadians now in the workforce about the different paths they took after high school. They discovered that many of the students who choose to work or travel first entered university with more specific goals, wasted less money and found a real calling. Even those students who appear to be drifting often landed, sometimes by luck, in a field they liked. And the results for high-achieving students who went right into university also weren't clear-cut: Some ended up trapped in programs or headed toward careers they didn't like.

Parents need to see their children as individuals, says Dr. Ungar, who has two teenagers. He expects that his daughter, now in grade nine, will want to go straight into university, though he worries about her having enough life experience. His son, on the other hand, is less clear about his future goals: "I'd rather given him $5,000 to travel than pay $15,000 for him to go sit in a university and drift between classes."

 Photo by Aleida Stone, Vietnam

Photo by Aleida Stone, Vietnam

More universities in Canada allow, and even encouraging, gap years for admitted students; they will even hold their scholarships. "We are trying to say it's more than a deferral," says Kenneth Withers, the director of recruitment at York University. "We are really encouraging students to do something with their time."

These are students who typically seek out Julie Newton, a life coach in Toronto and the co-owner of mygapyear.ca, who helps plan a year of travel, work and schooling for youth typically trying to figure out what to do next. "The thing I notice about this generation is that, if they are bored, if they think they are not getting anything out of it, they'll leave, they will walk out," she says. But there's still a stigma to changing gears, Ms. Newton says: "Often they feel like crap because it didn't work out. They don't see it as a learning experience.

Ms. Badali, one of Ms. Newton's clients, is currently working two jobs, as a receptionist as a hair salon and as a tester at LCBO on the weekends, and saving up for a two-month study trip to Paris. "It would not have been positive if she'd buried herself under the covers and done nothing about it," says her mom. "Now is the time to change your mind. Just don't give up."

Daniella is already planning her next step, perhaps studying French and dance with the aim of becoming a teacher. "If you are feeling rushed, definitely take the year off - it's not a bad thing," says Daniella. Even if it means starting over in school? "I don't care," she says. "At least I'll know what I am doing there."

Alumni Reflections: Aleida, Ghana 2006

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It has been 12 years since I left for Ghana. Though I have travelled to over 15 other countries, earned a couple of university degrees, begun my career and found a new home across the country since then, I still, almost on a daily basis, think and talk about Ghana. From the people I met, the food I ate, the different cultural traditions I experienced, I constantly find myself reflecting on and referencing those 6 months back when I was 18 years old and freshly out of high school.

Unlike most of my peers preparing to leave high school, I was not excited about visiting universities, I was not keen to compare programs, I did not want to apply for scholarships. I was tired. I was uninspired. I needed something new and completely different.

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Thankfully my mother was a high school teacher and had heard about Lattitude Global Volunteering from a guidance counsellor on her own faculty. A sense of relief washed over me: there was another option out there!

Though my parents were supportive of and saw the value in taking time away from formal education and traveling for a while, they did steer me in the direction of applying to volunteer in a country relatively similar to my own, such as Australia. 

Looking for something truly new and different still nagged at me though, and so when I sat down for my interview with the Lattitude team it did not take much convincing on their part to have me choose to go somewhere completely unknown to me. Making that decision for myself was the first major life decision I had truly made by myself for myself.

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While I was proud of my peers for their admittance into a variety of post-secondary institutions, as I walked across the stage during our high school graduation ceremony, I was incredibly proud to hear the faculty announce that I would be taking a different route, I would be travelling to Ghana in September to teach for 6 months.

My time volunteering in Ghana was indeed the type of unique growing and learning experience I wanted and needed. Every day was vastly different than they would have been at home: some challenging enough to make me question what in the world I had been thinking when I chose to leave my comforts of home and family, and others magical enough to make me question why I would ever consider going back. Ultimately, taking time away from my ‘normal’ when I was transitioning from youth to adult was the most formative opportunity I can imagine having taken, having helped shape who I am and where my life has headed today.

After returning home in March the following year, I prepared to begin college to study International and Intercultural Studies. Having the knowledge and experiences from Ghana to draw on meant I was enthusiastic and ready to get back in a classroom. Four years later I completed my Bachelors’ degree from Simon Fraser University, specializing in international development and economics.

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Today, I have a Masters’ degree from York University in Development Studies. I work in the specialty coffee industry - I am a consultant with a nonprofit organization which partners with coffee-producing community in their self-led visions for local development.

Having had the opportunity to take my time to explore, to reflect, to learn during my Gap Year were crucial elements in discovering my passion as well as myself. I could not be a stronger advocate for young people to take advantage of the same opportunity to discover themselves.

Top Must-Sees and Dos: Ghana!

While it is important to spend plenty of time getting to know and connecting with your host family, local community and colleagues, exploring your placement country is also a great part of your adventure!

Spend a bit of time doing research before departing about what highlights your new country has to offer. And once you have landed, check with trusted friends to get the real inside scoop.

To help in the process we have compiled some of Lattitude’s top picks for must sees and dos in Ghana:

1) Kakum National Park

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For Lattitude Volunteers looking for a weekend away from the city, Kakum National Park is a great option. While it can be costly to stay near the park itself, it can easily be visited as a day trip from Cape Coast. Kakum National Park is home to at least 300 bird species and at least 600 butterfly species, and features incredible views from the tree top canopy walk!

2) Elmina and Cape Coast Castles

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These castles are each significant historical sights of Ghana. Elmina Castles was first established as a trade settlement and later became a part of the slave trade. Today it is a World Heritage Site. Cape Coast Castle was originally constructed for timber and gold trade, and later became a significant "slave castle", one of 40 along the coast of West Africa. Both castles today are museums open to the public; visiting them (or at least one) is an important way to understand the history on Ghana.

3) Mole National Park

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For those with more time, Mole National Park is truly a must-see. While the journey can be long from the Coast, it is worth witnessing the changing landscape from tropic to desert as you travel North, and the vast landscape and roaming animals once you arrive. You are sure to see baboons (watch out for your laundry being snatched if hanging outside!), elephants, warthogs and vultures, and, if you are lucky, maybe a leopard!

4) Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum 

While visiting the capital city, Accra, don’t miss this mausoleum and memorial park dedicated to Dr Kwame Nkrumah - Ghana’s first prime minister and president. Most notably R. Nkrumah lead the region to independence from Britain in 1957. The building today is a site to see!

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Travel Blogging

Writing a travel blog can be a fantastic pastime for a few reasons:

  • it is an opportunity to share your unique experiences with your family and friends - help them to better understand what you going through as an international volunteer, as well as give them insight into new and wonderful places

  • it is a hobby and an opportunity for your own reflection - maintaining a routine can be helpful when you are settling into a new place, and scheduling hobbies such as blogging can be a great way to keep busy. Writing can also be an important way to process your thoughts, feelings and experiences, sometimes even more so than talking to someone about them.

So, go get started!

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Craft a catchy name

Draw people in with a name that catches their attention - try avoiding widely used words such as:

  • Global, Nomad, Adventurous, Wander, Journey, Backpacker, Travel/traveler/traveling, Vagabond, etc…

Think about what makes YOUR blog unique from everyone else’s, not what makes it the same. Reflect on and take into account your goals, your interests. Stand out! Make it memorable.

Pick a free blogging platform

Here are a few recommended ones to check out:

  • Wix

  • Yola

  • Wordpress

  • Tumblr

  • Medium

  • Blogger

Remember: Give yourself time to practice using your platform of choice - it is normal to take some time to get the hang of it!

Remember that Social media is your Friend

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These days social media is a crucial means of driving traffic to any website, including your blog. Either create new corresponding accounts or–if your current ones are set to appropriately secure privacy settings–use existing accounts.

Write your first post!

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Getting the words down on the page can be one of the hardest parts of getting started! The best advice is just to START - your first post can be about anything, about why you are traveling, about your expectations and anxieties, about your future plans... Anything! Just get started.

Be considerate

Remember that your blog is there for the world to see and read, and therefore it is a responsibility to remain conscious and considerate of the things you write about and the photos you post. As discussed in a previous Lattitude Canada blog post, be ethical when it comes to taking and posting photos of other people - always ask for permission.

Culture Shock: How You Can Prepare!

While preparing for an international volunteer placement tends to include an extensive packing list, visa applications and the purchase of gum for the long plane ride, it can be easy to forget to prepare for one of the most challenging elements of travel: culture shock.

Preparing yourself before you arrive at your placement will help in the process of learning and adapting to a new and different environment. It can also help with coping when elements of culture shock and homesickness do inevitably arise.

So here are a few pre-departure tips:

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Do your research

Spend time learning about your placement country, its culture and customs. In doing so, less will come as a surprise once you are there, and it can be fun to have interesting facts to reflect on and share when things you previously learned about arise.

Expand your network

Whether it is a returned volunteer or someone born in your placement country, find someone to speak with about what to expect, about exciting things to see and do, and about what makes the country unique and a great place to be.

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Start making friends early

Connect with fellow volunteers! Whether it is online or in person, speaking with others in a similar position is a great way to remember that you are not alone in how you are feeling about volunteering in a new country. As well, you will already have a familiar support network once you arrive.

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Eat!

Why not find a restaurant that serves the types of food you will be eating as a volunteer? What a fun way to become familiar with some dishes and flavours while at the same time spending quality time with your family and friends.

Pack some bits of comfort

Feeling homesick is an extremely common experience when adjusting to living in a new country. While it is best to not dwell on feelings of how everything is different and new, it can be helpful to bring along a few little things from home that make you happy. Consider packing a special treat, photos of your family and friends to remind yourself that they will be there when you return, a favourite book or even craft supplies to let your mind wonder. (As an alumni myself, one of my favourite little treats I brought to Ghana was cinnamon flavoured toothpaste! It brought an extra smile to my face each time I used it.)

Furthermore, pack a journal and calendar. Writing is a great way to process your thoughts and feelings while taking some quiet time to yourself, and maintaining a regular schedule (which includes exercise!) helps you to feel productive and plans things to look forward to.

Most importantly - Remember that you aren’t alone in how you feel!

Experiencing culture shock is normal and part of the process of traveling to somewhere new. So take comfort in the discomfort – it’s part of learning. Traveling somewhere new challenges what you know and, as a result, expands your perspective. Even the most seasoned travelers experience culture shock; it’s not a bad thing at all!

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Happy packing!

"Playing Violin in the Hospital Band"

A volunteer interview with Charlene Lee on her placement in Aso Iizuka Hospital in Iizuka City

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On arrival at your placement, did your host/mentor give you an introduction or training?

The first month was full of language lessons and tours around the hospital and the city. We did activities to help us learn as well as lessons. The people training us could speak some English and were very organized in terms of scheduling and being paired with employees.   

How many hours per week did you work at your placement?

I typically worked 4 days a week, 8 hours a day, with one day of daycare. I worked in different departments during the placement, and once I knew the routine in each department it was fairly straightforward. I did some bed changing and patient transfers and got to observe what nurses do on a daily basis. Every Wednesday I would first help at the morning daycare, doing things like physical exercise and games, and later in the afternoon I had the opportunity to observe an operation (from the list available).

What was the accommodation like at your placement?

I was given an apartment, my room was next to my partner volunteer’s. It was a more rural place than Tokyo so there was more space in the apartment, than I had expected.

What was the high point of your placement?

The nurses would ask the patients and doctors if I could watch minor procedures. There was one misunderstanding with a doctor where he thought I was in medical school. He tried to explain to me how to do the procedure. Once the misunderstanding cleared up, I became closer to some of the doctor. Which lead to me being invited to join a forum the hospital set up for the doctors, residents, and nurses.

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One special experience was playing music. I brought my violin with me, and coincidentally my partner had brought her ukulele, which we were quite happy to discover. During our introduction the staff saw that we had instruments. One of the doctors heard that we played music, and asked us to play in his band. We rehearsed every week on the weekend in one of the hospital conference rooms and did two performances. We played in the hospital because all the other band members were also staff. The head doctor played the piano and he even requested a baby grand piano to be put in the new wing of the hospital that was built, so the hospital surprisingly owned a super nice piano. There were also tenor and alto saxophones, two violins (I was the third), guitar, a singer, percussion and double bass. The head doctor arranged all the music.

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What was the toughest part of your placement?

The language barrier was definitely the toughest overall, I didn’t study as much as I should have before I went. I would recommend working on the language before going to Japan.

How did you raise the money for your placement?

I saved for a while and worked part time, although I was studying. I pieced together the rest through family. My volunteer partner and I were pretty frugal, we made our own food rather than going out. We were provided with bikes, so we rode those everywhere. We did go to some tourist sites, but often just rode our bikes around town. If we didn’t spend any money on tourist sites and were extremely frugal we could have lived off the stipend, but I would recommend bringing some extra money.

Did you get homesick?

I didn’t usually feel homesick, although I would miss the food from home, like beef stew and certain types of curry. I could imitate the dishes but it was difficult with limited herbs and spices.

How do you feel now that you’re home?

I definitely still want to go into Medicine. Seeing the head doctor in the hospital was very inspiring and after working there I am even more focused on my career. Now it depends on admissions and if I get in!

Have you taken any steps to address the culture shock?

I do miss the Japanese cuisine, particularly the Japanese bread, it was amazing. I would go to the bread shop every day after work and get a $1 pastries and sandwiches. The work culture in Japan is very different. In Canada it is much more relaxed. It was also shocking to come back to the school system here. Nurse college in Japan is during their senior high school years, so they start working much earlier. Doctors enter their medical school as an undergraduate, so they enter as a resident much earlier as well. In addition, the Japanese seem to equate marriage as having children and seem to marry much earlier.

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What are your future plans or next steps?

I have graduated from my undergrad program and have now applied to schools like UBC and McMaster. I’m thinking of going into Education, and I’ll also be getting a part time job, most likely teaching music.