“Students benefit from pressing pause button on studies to gain life experience, enhance future prospects”
Originally Published: October 11, 2016 in O.Canada.com
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.