Exploring the Benefits of the Gap Year with Michelle Dittmer

Exploring the Benefits of the Gap Year with Michelle Dittmer

by Chris Tompkins | April 18, 2024

Michelle Dittmer, an educator turned gap year advocate, was inspired to start the Canadian Gap Year Association (CanGap) when her own daughters were wondering about taking a year off between high school and their post-secondary endeavours, only to come up empty-handed when it came to finding resources to help guide them on their journey. Today, Michelle promotes a gap year as a valuable step in youth development and a way for young people to step off “the conveyor belt of life” to really assess who they are and what they want. To date, Michelle and her team have built a community of over 5,000 “gappers” across Canada through information sessions and topical workshops.

Gap year: a purposeful pause

Michelle explains that a gap year is a purposeful pause at a transitional point in a young person’s life. Most “gappers” are at the junction between high school and university but 30% of students take their break mid-degree or between two degrees.

“[A gap year] can be filled with any activity that’s going to move you forward in life,” Michelle says on the Shaping Our World podcast.

A person who is taking a gap year because they are struggling with their mental health, for instance, would want to make sure their year focuses on restorative activities. Likewise, someone who doesn’t know what profession they want to pursue, could spend the year shadowing different jobs. Other popular gap year activities include travelling, volunteering, and working to save money for school. More out-of-the-box gap year experiences include taking time off to start a business or taking a year to try and give content creation a go. The possibilities are endless, and Michelle is quick to point out that the breadth of opportunity is often a stumbling block for students, which is where CanGap can help.

“In order to have a purposeful gap year, you need to be connected with resources to support you,” she explains.

The importance of a gap year

Kids have a lot of pressure put on them from a young age when it comes to figuring out what they want to do in life. Michelle points to over-access to career information and the rigidity that comes with university acceptance to specialized programs as causes of stress in kids as young as Grade 9. Having to have such specific academic prerequisites and volunteer experiences for post-secondary school takes away their ability to explore.

“The exploration part, the self-discovery part that is so fundamental to being an adolescent doesn’t exist,” Michelle says. “And that is leading to a lot of confusion, a lot of mental health challenges because folks are trying to conform to something they don’t even know anything about and that may not necessarily fit who they are and what makes them tick as a human being.”

A gap year, however, allows students to step away from all that to discover other ways of being and to develop new perspectives, which “puts them in the driver’s seat of their own life.”

A gap year for everyone

When asked about some of the most unique gap years she has helped students plan, Michelle recalls one student who was so passionate about fountain pens that her team found a fountain pen convention in Germany and worked with a travel company to put together a German tour that culminated in the fountain pen convention where this young man “found his people.”

Another amazing program someone had experienced was with an organization in Costa Rica that teaches people how to film GoPro videos — and how to surf. Participants learn how to make and edit videos based on their newfound surfing experience, all while also learning Spanish, resulting in a fun gap year with a multitude of benefits and learning opportunities.

To learn more about Michelle, what the Canadian Gap Year Association does, and why a gap year might be a good fit for your child, listen to the full episode at the top of this post.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.


[00:00:11.880] – Speaker 2
Well, hey, everyone. This is Chris Tompkins, host of the Shaping Our World podcast. If you’ve been tracking with us in our conversations about youth and the world they live in, you know that every once in a while we have these rare, unique and specific topics, and today is one of those. This is a It’s a topic that is probably a little more swirling around my world at home because I have a grade 12 student who’s applied and accepted and going to university. And so there’s this whole idea about what do you do as you transition from high school to university? Do you go to university? What’s the right program? And into this conversation and thinking comes this idea of a gap here. Now, I don’t know if you’re familiar with a gap year, know young people or even yourself who’ve taken one, but today we are going to find all about gap years from Michelle Dittmer. Michelle is first and foremost an educator and youth advocate. She believes youth hold a special power in innovative thinking, providing credible value to society, and it is our collective responsibility to listen, make space, and empower youth voice in all areas.

[00:01:29.300] – Speaker 2
Michelle has taught grades four through college, developed international service learning programs, nurtured educational partnerships with school boards from Coast to Coast in Canada, and developed youth policy. She has a finger on the pulse of the needs of young people through her work as a youth coach and the founder and ED of the nonprofit Canadian Gap Year Association. Through thousands of conversations, she knows firsthand the reality of growing up in 2023 and the impact on mental health, financial situations, career pathways, and evolving skill sets. She’s a big proponent of gap year programs and opportunities, as you will find out from her work, and is an expert on that. And it’s a great conversation today of what it means to take a gap year. Why should you do it? What is it? How do you figure it out? And maybe even some challenge to some of the thinking out there that gap years will maybe set students back or aren’t great She’s got a lot of data, a lot of information, and is really passionate about it. I can’t wait for you to hear the conversation we had. So let’s roll the interview. Thanks for joining us, Michelle.

[00:02:46.890] – Speaker 1
I’m super stoked to be here.

[00:02:49.170] – Speaker 2
It’s great to have you. I’m looking forward to diving into this conversation about gap years. We spend a lot of time with young people. You hear a lot about that, so I’m really curious to dive into that. But before we do, let’s get to know you a little bit. What shaped your world when you were growing up? What were the biggest influences for you as a child, a teenager?

[00:03:08.690] – Speaker 1
Great question. Putting me in the hot seat right away. I love this question because I can definitively say that a defining moment in my life was in grade four. I had the opportunity to move from my local public school into French Immersion program. My parents gave me the choice. They empowered me to step into that decision. It was really hard as a Grade 4 student to say, I want to move away to a new school. I want to have to take a bus. I want to leave my friends and go into something foreign, but something that’s interesting and intriguing for me. Having the ability to make that choice at such a young age, it taught me that my parents valued and trusted my decision-making ability. It allowed me to trust myself and to realize that I can make good decisions for myself. But not only that, that if I make a decision, nothing is a life sentence that I could go and test out French immersion. If I didn’t like it, I could come back to my homeschool. I could change my pathway and change my plan. Those life lessons have stuck with me throughout my life.

[00:04:33.400] – Speaker 1
I feel that I’ve lived as an empowered young person and now an empowered adult that has a true sense of agency and a sense that I have control over what my life looks like. To a certain extent, there’s lots that’s out of my control, but that was really such a defining moment and something that I carry so dear and near to my heart and something I encourage other parents to think about is how are you allowing your young people to take those calculated risks and how are you able to show them that you trust them so they learn to trust themselves? If we’re constantly stepping in and making decisions on their behalf, if we’re signing them up for everything without consulting them, if we are making the decisions about their post-secondary pathway and not allowing them that freedom, I think we’re really not setting them up for success in the same way. So I think that’s probably one of the best example of things that really have shaped me and continue to live that way today.

[00:05:42.660] – Speaker 2
You talked about something that I experienced myself. You said, going to French, it’s not a death sentence. You can change plans and whatever. I remember graduating from university and was talking to someone about a first job that really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to go on to do a few other things. And it was like a three-year contract. And I remember finishing university. I’m like, I cannot do this for three years. What if this isn’t the right thing? And the guy who was looking to hire me said, You can do anything for a year. That was the line he used. And a year is not really… Three years isn’t that long of a time, right? And I just remember thinking like, Man, our whole school system is built to be like, once you’re in something, it continues for four years. Everything matters. And that when you pick something in university, you see it out, you go the four years, and then you figure it out after that. And I just remember thinking, man, the pressure I had to make the right decision of a first career step was a big deal because I thought, what if I make the wrong decision and I’m stuck doing this for a long period of time?

[00:06:50.000] – Speaker 2
And he was like, we can do anything for a year, meaning you can do it for a bit. And then if it doesn’t really work out, you don’t need to keep doing it anymore. And so even our education system, I think, is built to go like, you’re stuck in this thing for elementary school, eight years or six, if you have a middle school or seven, eight, if you include kindergarten and all that stuff. So anyways, we’re digressing. But I think that’s an interesting thing as we get into the topic today.

[00:07:15.900] – Speaker 1
One of my famous lines that I always say when I’m working and coaching young people on their post-secondary journeys or even on their gap year, when they’re trying to make decisions on what they want to do on their gap year, they often get into a place of paralysis about making decisions because they feel it’s so finite and commitment is hard, and they’re waiting for the perfect scenario, the perfect experience, the perfect university program. There’s this fear because it does seem so grave of a decision. My comments to them is always like, Listen, there is no wrong decision. But the flip side of that is there also is no right decision. The only thing that you can do to really screw up your life is to not make any decision and get stuck where you currently are. I think that oftentimes there is so much pressure on young people to commit to a path so early on and feel that they would be letting somebody down if they decided that it wasn’t the right fit for them and they needed a change. There is a bunch of embarrassment. There is a sense of duty to parents or teachers or whatever it happens to be and to shift and change can be really challenging.

[00:08:47.840] – Speaker 1
So many young people end up pursuing and continuing to pursue a path that doesn’t make them happy or fulfilled. They run into so many mental health challenges because of it. I I think giving our young people permission to reevaluate all the time and to know that nothing is permanent can help them to discover and explore without a lot of that other pressure and Telling stories about how we pivoted and changed throughout our lives is just such a gift.

[00:09:22.470] – Speaker 2
Totally. And as we’re kids, because every grade we go through is a big thing, and it’s like Grade 3 is a big part of your life, and then first year of university and whatever. I think even our understanding of time, right? Of like, a one year is a big deal. Like, yeah, I can commit to this, but a year is a big deal. And as you get older, you’re like, yeah, you’re just… It’s not that big a deal, actually, a year anymore as you get older. So I think that contributes to some of the things you’re talking about as well. And releasing some of this pressure around decision making because that paralysis, like you talked about. That was exactly, you were describing exactly what I felt, right? I don’t know if I can make this decision because it feels such a big, weighty thing to take a job and to get out in the… And three years, oh, my goodness, that’s a whole university degree, right? So it feels so weighty. So we’re already diving right into the topic. So let’s get into, can you tell us a little bit more about what you founded and what you’re part of and what you do to help young people figure this out?

[00:10:30.790] – Speaker 1
You bet you. This is my passion. This is what lights me up. This is what gets me out of bed every day. I run the Canadian Gap Year Association. We’re a nonprofit organization, and our whole mission is to help give people permission to take a gap year, to share the realities of how common it is and the benefits of being able to take this purposeful pause in order to gain perspective, to take care of your mental health, to explore different pathways and potential careers, to broaden their sense of the world or understand themselves a little bit more. In order to have a purposeful gap year, you need to be connected with resources to support you. There’s a difference between sitting on the couch for a year and having a gap year and really being intentional. We provide resources at every step of the game, whether you’re facing the existential to gap or not to gap question or to putting a plan together or needing accountability or support when you lose momentum on your gap here. We really are your one-stop shop for wherever you are on that journey. We do everything from downloads to our podcast.

[00:12:00.510] – Speaker 1
We’ve got a great YouTube channel. We host events for families. We do one-on-one consultations, and we have coaching available to support students. So we really are the whole package supporting families and making sure that young people and their families feel comfortable with the decisions that they’re making.

[00:12:18.540] – Speaker 2
All right. So love hearing that. Before we get too far, I’m sure there’s a few people listening that might be like, hey, what really is a Gap? When you’re talking about gap year, now many of us probably do, but for the sake of maybe a few that don’t. And just a reminder, from your perspective, what is a gap year? What’s that all about?

[00:12:39.110] – Speaker 1
This is a million dollar question because every gap year looks different. And so Traditionally, what people think of a gap year when they think of a gap year is a year after grade 12 before moving into post-secondary and a year of travel. That’s what we traditionally think of a gap year to be. And a gap year can fall and does fall for about 70% of the young people that come out to us falls after grade 12 before going into post-secondary. The other 30% come to us mid-post-secondary or maybe between degrees. They finish their undergrad and they’re heading off to med school or law school, and they’re going to take some time off. So it’s a purposeful pause at a transition point that you’re having, and it can be filled with any activity that’s going to move you forward in your life. If you’re taking your gap year because you’re struggling with your mental health, the activities you slot into that gap year are going to be restorative and looking at finding techniques that are going to help you improve your mental well-being. If you’re taking a gap year because you don’t know what you want to do as a career, you can spend time going out and job shadowing or looking for different opportunities.

[00:14:03.690] – Speaker 1
If you’re taking your gap year to earn money to reduce your student debt, then you’re going to be working for a lot of your gap year. Really, there is no formula for what a gap year is, but the heart of it is taking a pause away from your everyday routine, which is typically a student, in order to pursue something else in order to move yourself forward in life.

[00:14:28.080] – Speaker 2
As I’m listening to this, can you Give us a few examples of what’s the smorgasbord of opportunities for young people in a gap year, and what do you typically see a lot of young people doing?

[00:14:40.600] – Speaker 1
If we think in the box, the default that everybody goes to is work, travel, and volunteer as the three major buckets of what you can do on a gap year. A lot of young people will get jobs either to save up for post-secondary or to save up a once-in-a-lifetime experience in later on in the year. Working is very popular. Traveling also runs the full gamut. Everything from more of the tourist adventure to backpacking to a service learning trip, a giveback, to language emersion, to an arts program where you build a portfolio in France, to sports programs, learning to surf. The travel bucket is enormous in its depth and breadth, and then volunteering as well. Opportunities to get involved in social or environmental justice causes or areas of interest service, serving all sorts of local, national, and international populations. Those are the traditional ones that people automatically default to. But adding to that bucket, and my job is to blow the lid off of the in-the-box thinking. We have tons of entrepreneurial gappers who spend their year starting a business. It could be something as complex as an AI tech startup. We’ve had those folks. We’ve had folks who have done something a little less complex, maybe childcare or lawn maintenance.

[00:16:24.240] – Speaker 1
There’s tons of resources for youth startups. There’s lots of funding to get businesses going. We’ve also had families where the young person wants to be a content creator. They want to be a YouTuber, and the parents can’t wrap their head around that. They’re like, That’s not a job. The kids are like, No, it is. Let me show you. They spend the year, the parents give them permission for one year to make a go of it. Both sides of that equation learn a lot about what it takes to be a content creator. I bet, yeah. They and figure out what the next steps are beyond that. We got entrepreneurs. We’ve got folks who want to learn different skills, whether that’s a language, learning to code, learning an instrument. I think this is the most overwhelming part of a gap here is that literally you could do anything that your heart desires.

[00:17:22.960] – Speaker 2
Back to the paralysis, too. Exactly.

[00:17:26.400] – Speaker 1
That’s our superpower is we help match people with the different experiences that are out there. Because if you Google gap year, you’re going to get 10 million hits, and you can’t type in Michelle’s Perfect gap year activity and have Google feed it back to you. Even AI can’t do that.

[00:17:45.350] – Speaker 2
It’d be nice, though, if that was the case.

[00:17:48.100] – Speaker 1
Yeah, AI is getting a step closer with that, but we still need a human perspective on that, and that’s where we can support.

[00:17:56.480] – Speaker 2
I do want to talk about how we go about it and some important things to consider. But before we do that, I want to talk about why a gap year is really important and might be significant for young people. Between your bio and the website, I’ve read the following, that all of your experience as an educator led you to the same conclusion, that our kids don’t have the time or opportunity to get real-world experience. In another spot, it says, CanGap is there to support young people as they take an intentional step off the conveyor belt of life, in quotes. And in another, it says that you are committed to giving families permission to slow down. So as I’m reading this, it seems like there’s this thread of time and fast-paced. Do you feel that kids in our world today are too rushed when it comes to figuring out the trajectory of our life? Is there a lot of pressure, the high pace, like you got to get out and you get your career? Can you talk a little bit about that? Because it seems like that’s a bit of a why behind a gap here to slow that down and not be in such a hurry to get off and figure your whole life out and head off in that direction.

[00:19:09.990] – Speaker 1
Yeah. I think one of the things that technology has done is provided us with too much information. That too much information means that kids in grade nine are getting exposure to university programs and all of these bazillion careers that are out there, and the educational structures are becoming more specified and specialized. We’ve pushed downstream a lot of decisions and a lot of information that developmentally a grade 9 brain cannot process. Quite honestly, even a grade 12 brain isn’t fully developed and doesn’t have capacity to look into the future. And yet we are pushing all of these things younger and younger and asking our students to make decisions for a world that is not going to exist in the same way it exists today by the time they are in school. A hundred %. And what this has done is it has taken away the ability to explore. Once you’ve made decisions at a younger age and you have to commit Are you going to do the university stream? Are you going to do the college stream? Are you going to do the applied? Whatever they’re calling it in whatever era you grew up in. I don’t know, I was applied and academic.

[00:20:41.380] – Speaker 1
They now have universities. Having to make those decisions So Young means that you can’t explore. If you’re going into STEM, you need six maths and five sciences, so you don’t have an opportunity to take the tech class. You don’t have a chance to take the Home Ec class. You don’t have a chance to take that language class or phys-ed. The exploration part, the self-discovery part that is so fundamental to being an adolescent doesn’t exist. Then even outside of the classroom, everybody needs a med school ready resume. So they’re out getting jobs and volunteering and being shuttled from activity to activity without any time and space to breathe and say, Whoa, whoa, whoa, who am I? What’s important to me? What am I actually interested in? And not having the opportunity to explore that, I think, is leading to a lot of confusion, a lot of mental health challenges because folks are trying to conform to something they don’t even know anything about and may not necessarily fit who they are and what makes them tick as a human being.

[00:21:57.080] – Speaker 2
Well, and we know developmentally at adolescence is being delayed as well, right? And biologically and socially, like you’re mentioning a grade nine and all the opportunities and not just getting to explore what’s out there, but not even enough time to really explore who they are and be developing into that person to know exactly what you think you want to do with your life. And I love that word explore and giving opportunities. And again, as a side note for those listening, that’s why camp is such a great summer job because it’s not… Yes, you can develop a lot of skills that will help you, and it’s a good resume builder for university and other things, but you do get to explore a lot of different opportunities. In general, can you give us a high level? If you had to list them out, what are the main benefits of a gap year? Why is it one of the best things a young person could do from themselves?

[00:22:57.560] – Speaker 1
Yeah, I think giving themselves, and this is, again, one of my famous lines here, is allowing them to get into the driver’s seat of their own life. Often, we are shuttled through our lives in the passenger seat. The systems are designed for you to just follow along. You progress through grades based on your birth year, and you get some choice in the courses you take. But really, it’s a list of choose of these three? Which one of them would you like to choose? The understanding that stepping off this conveyor belt that you mentioned in the quotes there gives people a different perspective. Often, young people go into college or university because it is the next logical step, not because they’re interested in it, not because it’s going to give them a better job, not because they want to learn more about it, but that’s just what you do after high school. And so university often becomes grade 13, 14, 15, 16 rather than higher education, like an opportunity to be connected with leading minds and high class facility. It’s just like, no, I’m just going to continue to check the boxes to get to whatever comes next.

[00:24:23.530] – Speaker 1
And young people who take a gap year, they step off that conveyor belt and they explore other ways of being. They gain perspective about how the world actually works. When they are ready, they’re making a more informed choice about what that next step looks like. And so actively choosing to return to post-secondary, they’re bringing that new perspective with them, saying, No, I’ve actually thought about it, instead of just rushing through my applications in grade 12 and picking the schools and programs that my friends are picking, No, I’ve actually thought about it, and this is the right fit for me. I’m choosing that because I’ve had time to think about it, and I am going to enter into this experience with that perspective. The studies show that students who take a gap year have higher GPAs. They graduate post-secondary in fewer years because they’re not switching their major seven times. They’re more likely to be involved on campus in leadership roles because they’ve learned how to manage their time and what other experiences are out there. Life isn’t just your grades, so they’re being involved in extracurriculars in a greater capacity. They’re more likely to get a job after they graduate because they’ve built a network, they’ve built some work experience, and they have interesting things to say.

[00:25:52.790] – Speaker 1
They can be the most interesting person in the interview room because they have more life experience than somebody who has just checked those boxes and moved through the motions.

[00:26:03.840] – Speaker 2
I read that 94% of post-secondary students cited their schoolwork as the main stressor in your life. I’m wondering, too, if part of taking a break from the pressure about grades and for a whole year, not just a summer break or a Christmas break, where that’s just not a thing anymore. I wonder if that’s a bit of releasing the pressure valve a little bit. Does a gap year mitigate that as well?

[00:26:32.610] – Speaker 1
100 %. It does a couple of things when it comes to that. It gives them a break from the around the clock work. I don’t know a single professional who has gone through 14 years straight of the same job, taking homework all the time and having to have a part-time job and being involved in sports. I don’t think we give our young people enough credit for how intense the high school experience is, not just the academics, but everything else that comes around from that. Taking the time and removing the academic piece for a moment allows the young person that space to breathe, to recover, and to also start to disassociate their worth from their grades. A lot of students have really strong ties to their performance as their sense of self-worth, and giving them an opportunity to Excel in different ways other than a number on a page allows them to develop as a whole person rather than just a student, and they can take that perspective with them into post-secondary as well. Unless they want to go on to grad school or they want to go on to a professional school, whether they achieve a 95 or an 80, it’s not going to have that much of an impact on them.

[00:28:14.440] – Speaker 1
If they can learn that being part of a club on campus and going to the gym to take care of their mental health, learning that the social components and the networking components are just as valuable as cramming in your room and pulling all-nighters to get that 95. That is just a lifelong ability to learn self-care and to learn to have balance, which I know a lot of parents are struggling with now and a lot of young people, too.

[00:28:49.230] – Speaker 2
I’ve often joked with young people to say that I don’t actually remember a job interview when they said, Oh, you have XYZ degree. Can you tell me what you got in second year zoology?

[00:29:02.980] – Speaker 1
Please provide your transcript.

[00:29:04.870] – Speaker 2
Yeah, you passed all the courses and you got your degree. You were even going ’95 to ’80. I’ve been known to say, Well, if you passed, I wouldn’t know any different.

[00:29:16.360] – Speaker 1
What do you call a doctor who got 51%? They’re still a doctor. Yeah.

[00:29:22.420] – Speaker 2
Okay, so I know this answer. I know the answer is in what you’ve already said, but I just know there would be some people listening who would say, Yeah, but you don’t understand. I think, what about the kids that get off that conveyor belt and then they don’t know how to get back into it? Or, You don’t understand to keep up. My kid, they’ve got to keep going to get the degree. If they’re going to go to physiotherapy or med school or graduate studies or whatever, they need to keep moving, and any slowing down would set them off course.

[00:30:00.760] – Speaker 1
That’s about every other conversation I have with families often. Oh, gap years. Great idea. Wonderful. But not for my kid. That’s what I get a lot. For those parents, the stats are in your favor. Between 81 and 90 20%, depending on which study you look at, of students who take time off do return to post-secondary. So the numbers are very, very, very high. I also always share the percentage of students who drop out in first year. So pre-pandemic, it was 14% of first-year students dropped out, and that has skyrocketed post-pandemic to about 33% of students drop out in first year. Those students are often dropping out because they are burnt out, or they made the wrong choice, or their mental health wasn’t in the right place. Pushing people to go faster, harder, stronger when they’re not ready actually backfires. Because when I’m working with students who have dropped out of university rather than taking a proactive gap year, they come to me and they have feelings of, I’m too dumb I could never do university. I tried it and it didn’t work. I can’t do it rather than being proactive and saying, No, I need a break or no, I need to stop.

[00:31:26.110] – Speaker 1
So the numbers are very high of people who don’t make it. And I also want to share that university is not the only pathway to success. So if you’re worried your young person isn’t going to continue on if you don’t push them and force them to go, that might not be the healthiest experience. That might not be what’s actually going to lead to your young person’s best life and best success. I think it’s really powerful that I have I’ve worked with gappers for over 15 years now, and I’ve only had a handful that haven’t returned to post-secondary. But each and every one of them has found a pathway that allows them to lead a really good life. And they are making more money than I am in a lot of cases. They found something that they Excel at. They found the path forward. And they all say to me, they all say, Right now, university doesn’t have anything to teach me that I need. I know it’s there, and when I need it, I can tap into it. But right now, I’m living in Silicon Valley and rubbing shoulders with all of the people who are the best brains in my field, or I am part of this apprenticeship program, and I am getting hands-on training to enter into a field where there are My job is readily available, and I’m going to lead a really good life.

[00:33:03.400] – Speaker 1
And I think sometimes we have to check ourselves as parents. We want what’s best for our young person, and we want them to have better opportunities than we did, but we also have to realize that there are many paths to success and many paths to happiness.

[00:33:19.560] – Speaker 2
So for those parents who are listening and tracking along going, Yeah, this is great. Now let’s walk through the process. How How do you know if your child is interested, wants a gap here? How do you take the next steps in in helping them navigate that?

[00:33:40.280] – Speaker 1
Perfect. I love this. Everybody jumps to step three right away. Everybody jumps in googles and types in gap year programs and tries to figure out the what. We need to back up and we need to start with the why. Why are you taking a gap year? And be really clear on that. I’m I’m taking it because I need a break, because I don’t know what I want to do, because I need to earn money. Whatever that why is is really important because that is how you’re going to define what the what part is. So ask yourself and get really clear as a family on why this gap here is the right decision and what’s the purpose? Why are you taking it? And step two is to jump into what are my goals? How do I want to be different at the of this year? What do I want to have accomplished during this year? I’m sitting down in a coffee shop with my friends a year from now and they’re looking at me and going, Michelle, you are so much more blank, so much more happy, so much more relaxed, so much more confident, so much more independent, so much more sure of your next steps.

[00:34:50.770] – Speaker 1
How do you want to be different as a person? And what are the stories that you’re telling your friends? Like, Oh, man, I went and I lived in this country, or I I learned this skill, or I was able to get the help that I needed to overcome my eating disorder. Whatever it is, how are you different as a person and what are the things that you’ve done? And once you have clarity on those two things, it makes it a lot easier to find out the what. The what are you doing? Well, okay, if I need to work on my mental health, what are the things that I should be doing on my gap time? Because bungee jumping in Australia may or may not help you achieve that goal. When you know your goals, then you can do much better research. You can do much more refined Google searches to find and be connected with the right programs that are going to help you meet your objectives and really plan an amazing gap year that is going to help you meet new people, gain experiences and memories and skills that are going to last a lifetime.

[00:35:58.040] – Speaker 1
Really, you got to start with the why and the goals, and that will really lead very clearly to the what.

[00:36:03.020] – Speaker 2
Yeah. And when we do some teaching in our leadership studio at Ms. Goku, it’s one of the things I always remind our students is exactly what you said, the why and the goals that go into that, when you’re giving your time and resources to anything, a new program, like we talk about the CEO leadership program, that kids pay a significant amount of money, come, it’s a personal leadership Which, of course, if you’re investing something that is valuable to you into an experience like this, how will you know it’s successful? How will you know if you’ve gotten all the value? Because at gap years, I’m sure There’s expense required from it. And like you said, time. It’s a year of your life. And rather than just jumping to the what, if you know what success looks like at the end, why you want to do it, what the goals are, your question is If I met with a student, had a gap here and say, was it a great experience? How would you know how to answer that? Is it just because it was fun and distracting, or are you pointing back to something else on why you did it?

[00:37:11.870] – Speaker 2
So I love that you started there for this. That’s so helpful to think about why are you taking it? What are the goals for the gap year? And then moving to the what. So you mentioned a few things you can Google online. I also know when it comes to these things and talking with young people, they find things out there. But then how do you know if they’re going to be good? Is there other work? Do you check, reference it? Are there any other tips you can give people to align a good what to the why and the goals that you’re talking about?

[00:37:46.280] – Speaker 1
Yeah, definitely. We have a download on our website, actually, of questions to ask program providers, because the reality is anybody can make a website. And the unfortunate reality is anybody can ship you off to somebody in another country and you don’t know what you’re doing. You definitely have to assess different programs to find out if they’re legit, if they’re safe, if they are going to align with your own goals, if it involves a local community, are they going to be respectful of the community that you’re visiting or volunteering in? There’s lots of considerations when it comes to that. Definitely making sure that you are comfortable with the safety component is a non-negotiable, especially parents where we’re shipping off our babies, we’re putting them in the hands of somebody else. Making sure that you are comfortable with their safety procedures. I always ask if it’s an international program, I suggest that they ask, Can you walk me through what would happen if my kid broke their arm? So very local medical issue. Then I asked what would happen if there was an environmental disaster happening, if there was a tornado that came through that required some larger procedure.

[00:39:15.870] – Speaker 1
The organization should have very easy answers to that. They shouldn’t have to go check with their safety person. They should have policies and procedures that make you feel comfortable. Asking about the age demographics of people who participate in the program. Often, gappers want to be with young people. They don’t want to go on a bus full of retirees. Looking at group size, making sure that there’s a good ratio of people who are participating to people who are in charge. Definitely checking out if they have staff on the ground or if they are outsourcing. Can It can be really helpful to know where the responsibility lies. Often when programs have their own staff on the ground, you have a certain level of training that can be expected and just levels of things that you should feel comfortable with. Checking on what are the outcomes of the program? What can you expect? What do most participants experience during this to make sure it aligns with your goals and making sure that it is an ethically done organization that they are treating wherever you’re going with respect and that it is honoring the people and the planet in any experience that you’re going through.

[00:40:48.890] – Speaker 1
That would be where I would start. For specific questions, you can grab that download off our website.

[00:40:54.910] – Speaker 2
We’re going to get to a few wrapping up questions just about additional resources or help for parents. But I wonder if you can think of sharing, and it may be not the exact company or the exact country or experience, but just maybe some high level, unique, interesting, really beneficial gap year experiences that you’ve heard about that would help parents, rather than this generic idea, what are some things that you’ve heard about that were really awesome gap years that students have taken that give us an idea of not just what’s possible, but the uniqueness in them?

[00:41:35.140] – Speaker 1
Yeah. I got a couple of examples here that I’ll share with the audience. One that I like to share is a while back We had a young person who had a fountain pen collection, and he was super passionate about fountain pens. On his gap year, we worked together and we found a fountain pen convention in Germany. Oh, wow. This young man did a tour of Germany. He worked with a travel company and did a tour of Germany, and he finished at this fountain pen convention. My goodness, he was just as happy as could be. He found his people. He had this incredible experience, and it was just so brilliant. It can be that specific if they have an interest. We’ve got a lot of people who are into Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a company where you do a full weekend campaign in full cosplay in a castle in England. What an amazing experience. There’s an organization in Costa Rica that teaches you how to film GoPro videos and teaches you to surf and edit and put together videos based on that. You’re learning surfing, you’re learning GoPro shooting and editing, you’re learning Spanish. Just a beautiful opportunity.

[00:43:03.240] – Speaker 1
There’s a castle in France for artists. You go and it’s a full semester of experiences where you work alongside other artists. There’s a film program there, and you do a whole film during your semester, starting with ideation and script writing and costume design and acting and editing, and filming and lighting and editing. They even go so far as to filling out applications for independent film festivals. There’s sports programs out there. There’s cooking programs out there. Really, it is so unique what you can find, and it’s amazing the alignment you can find. There’s programs in Canada that are subsidized by the government. There’s free five-month immersive programs within Canada, and people don’t know all of these things. It’s about doing a little bit of research to find the right fit.

[00:43:59.590] – Speaker 2
That’s I know a lot of our listeners come from the Christian faith perspective, and there are a lot of organizations that provide students with a one year experience that has some Christian biblical studies rooted or mission experiences, some great organizations that do that, that they can find that as well. So maybe I think as we’re landing the plane, it’s been such a helpful, great conversation. I wonder if we can start by directing people to your website, which is cangap. Ca, which gives all of the resources, all the opportunities, gives them a chance to explore what you do in really helping this. I think your organization does a fantastic job of doing that. And then are there other resources, opportunities, books to read, things to think about that you might suggest to parents who want to support their kids or help them figure out how to best spend a gap year?

[00:45:00.660] – Speaker 1
Well, clearly, the folks listening are podcast listeners, so you can also add to your listening list our podcast, which is the gap year podcast. If you’re walking the dog, maybe on your drive to work, you can pop in the other podcast. That has lots of really great episodes and resources for you there. The website is very easily navigated, and it’s based on your identity and your spot in the journey. When you When you land on the website, you basically are asked, Are you a student? Are you a parent? Or are you an educator? You navigate through that, and are you planning your gap year? Are you deciding on your gap year? Do you need ongoing support for your gap year? It will guide you through to the resources that are most useful for you. The other piece I would recommend is coming out to our events. We have virtual gap year expos throughout the year. In the spring, we actually do a cross Canada tour our in-person expos, where you can come out and talk to our team, as well as in some locations, the Toronto location, primarily for this audience. You can talk to some of the programs that will be physically in that space as well.

[00:46:19.080] – Speaker 1
Definitely, those are probably the top places that you can go for some additional support and information.

[00:46:25.690] – Speaker 2
Maybe any final thoughts, words of encouragement for parents who are nervous about the prospect of their child taking a gap year?

[00:46:33.350] – Speaker 1
Definitely. Looking forward at a gap year is incredibly scary. You are bucking the trend, you are doing something different, you are doing something uncharded, and it can be incredibly scary and anxiety-inducing. But in doing this for 15 years, I have only had one person who has regretted their gap year. Everyone else has told me it is the best decision they ever made. So hindsight is 2020. People pull me aside all the time saying, I wish I had taken a gap year. And so that regret also exists there. So just lean into it. University and college will always be there. It’s always an option, and there is no rush. Rushing into whatever the next step is rather than being self-aware and making good choices, that is the gift of a gap year.

[00:47:32.150] – Speaker 2
Awesome. So encouraging. Before I wrap up, I would encourage any of our listeners that know even about Mascoka Woods might not know that we hire students to work in our Schools and groups program from September to June, so they actually get paid. But it’s a great gap year type experience because you get to come and be part of Mascoka Woods and work with kids and be in Rosso through all the different seasons, not just the summer. We’re always looking for young people to come and work with our Schools and groups program. So that’s just a little plug from me about Mascoka Woods on the side. I have, in my work, talked to thousands of young people who have done gap years, and Like you mentioned, so many of them speak so highly to that and just how they have shaped who they are and how they reenter into education or the workplace afterwards. And I know it’s a huge huge benefit for them. So if you are remotely at all thinking about that for your child or encouraging young people in your life that you really care about, I would encourage you to check out what CanGap does and even think about Gapier in a different perspective.

[00:48:46.550] – Speaker 2
And Michelle, thank you so much for what you do. It’s been a great conversation and really helpful. I learned some stuff today, too. And thank you for what you do in your time today.

[00:48:57.900] – Speaker 1
My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

About the Author

Chris Tompkins is the CEO of Muskoka Woods. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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