Cam Sylvester, Regional Director-North America for Lattitude Global Volunteering, is smiling as we sip our teas during a break at a student leadership conference recently held in London, Ontario. But the former high school teacher turned university prof turned Gap Year booster has the data to prove his point.
Take the old myth that youth shouldn’t take a Gap Year because they won’t go back to school. We’ve all heard that one before. We may even have told it to our students or to our own kids. Wrong, according to Sylvester.
“Over 90% of kids who take a Gap Year go to university the year after their Gap Year,” he says. “That’s a higher rate than kids coming straight out of high school.”
Or the way Gap Years give students the social capital they need to succeed in post secondary. “Gappers have a much lower individual drop out rate than students who go right into university. Compared to their peers, Gappers also achieve higher GPAs in their first year of university.”
And then there’s what Sylvester finds to be the most surprising stat of all. “Right now in the US, it is taking approximately 6.5 years on average for a student to complete a 4 year BA. Similar if not worse stats apply here in Canada.
“But a Gapper completes a BA on average in 5.5 years – and that includes the Gap Year!”
He shakes his head. “I had to look twice at that stat. But in essence, a student’s family will save on average one year of schooling if a kid goes on a Gap Year. Not a bad investment.”
Sylvester joined Lattitude Global Volunteering after a 30-year career teaching politics at university. He also developed a variety of leadership programs, including one of the first in Canada to include service learning in the curriculum.
When Sylvester heard the previous Regional Director was planning to retire, he immediately threw his hat in the ring to replace him.
“I knew Lattitude well. We had granted prior learning to Lattitude alumni in the university program I developed. Lattitude is the oldest Gap Year program around, begun in 1972. It has sent nearly 50,000 volunteers overseas in that time. It focusses on youth development, and doesn’t use fees charged to volunteers to pay for international development projects, so it’s priorities are focussed on the kids.
“We even have a Royal Family patron, Harry’s aunt, Princess Royal Anne,” he adds. “But I try not to mention that when talking about the program with my anti-monarchist sister. But I do like reminding her that our most famous alumnus is Benedict Cumberbatch, just to watch her swoon.”
Lattitude’s mission to make the benefits of Gap Years available to as many kids as possible was also a draw for Sylvester. “We charge about $5000 no matter if they go on our 6 or 9 month programs. That doesn’t include airfare, but in almost all cases that includes room and board and a bit of pocket money every week for the duration. In the end, that means our fee is really a wash.”
“Of course my goal is to secure bursaries so even kids who can’t afford that can get a leg up from a Gap Year.”
Sylvester is hunting down bursaries because he knows the Gap Year advantage is particularly valuable for kids who didn’t get 4.0s in high school, or come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. One study concludes that it’s not access to university, but drop out rates among kids from less privileged backgrounds that results in the on-going educational inequity that exists in society today.
Sylvester hopes that Canada doesn’t start to lag behind the US which has seen a significant uptick in the Gap Year participation rate since the Obama’s daughter, Malia, took one a couple of years ago before entering Harvard.
“Schools like Harvard are not just deferring a year, they are strongly recommending their applicants take a Gap Years before entering. High school counselling departments like Valor’s in Colorado now include the Gap Year option on equal footing to going directly into university. And kids who choose a Gap Year are feted at convocations along with those going to university or receiving a sports scholarship. We like to call those “Schools with Lattitude!
“The perception of Gap Years is changing as the myths we used to tell our kids and students are dispelled,” Sylvester says taking a last sip of tea before heading off to his presentation at another London high school before heading home to Vancouver. “And that makes for exciting times for those of us committed to developing student leaders and supporting student success.”