Taking time off between high school and university is having positive affects on students both socially and academically.

A hunger for adventure and a need to break out from the ordinary tugged at Baylee Charlton as her Grade 12 year was coming to an end.

After two years studying elementary education at the University of Alberta, life for Katie Glazerman felt stagnant and bored. She knew she had to do something fresh.

Anxiety and depression became a constant battle for Jon Kurtz as the question “What are you going to do with your life?” tormented his mind.

Each of these students decided to take a year away from their studies to travel, volunteer or work, and each one testifies their “gap year” positively shaped who they are today and helped them decide what career to pursue.

In his book, Gap Years: Changing People In The Way The World Needs, Joseph O’Shea, director of Florida State University’s Office of Undergraduate Research, says gap years are important and beneficial experiences.

In an interview with The Calgary Journal, O’Shea said, “We often develop most when our understanding about ourselves and the world around us is challenged, when we engage with difference: different ideas, different people, different relationships.”

Baylee Charlton with a child named Bless, who was one of the students in her class at Mothers Love School in Ghana, where Charlton volunteered for most of her time. 

Photo Courtesy of Susi Schuderer 
Charlton experienced this when she travelled to Ghana, Africa. At first it was a bit of a shock. Jet legged and assaulted by the hot humid air, she struggled with the foreign culture. From the strange new food to the awkwardness of standing out, everything in her wanted to take the next flight home.

However, once she pushed through the unfamiliarity, Charlton said she realized that immersing herself in a different culture was the best decision she could have made.

Charlton spent four months in Ghana, volunteering and travelling with Projects Abroad, an international organization that creates opportunities for students to combine travel with humanitarian work.

The first part of her trip was spent in the city of Winneba teaching children in a local school. But her most significant time was spent in the poor village of Kwmoso, in the eastern region of Ghana also called The Hills.

“When you enter The Hills you leave civilization,” Charlton said.

The village consists of little mud huts with no running water and few amenities. And the people, although extremely friendly, didn’t speak English. Over the month she spent building a school, Charlton was completely consumed by the African culture.

It was tough, but Charlton said she learned a lot while she was there. She decided to go alone, which taught her independence, especially over the weekends when she travelled six hours to meet other volunteers. With only a small bag and her basic phone, she saw how much Westerners don’t need.

“You’re whole entire life you’ve been in a school full of kids who are very like-minded and you’re influenced by what is around you and that is the case everywhere. If you don’t take the chance to experience yourself somewhere else where you don’t have those fundamental needs, that are not actually needs at all, like technology, you learn who you are.”

Not only did this experience broaden Charlton’s world view, it helped her finally discover what she wants to pursue. Before Ghana she changed her mind by the week, but now she is set on obtaining a degree in international relations with hopes to continue on to law school.

“People thought it was crazy to go away so far and didn’t think it was a smart decision,” Charlton said. “But all my friends that said, ‘I’ll go straight into school and travel after,’ now hate the degree they are in and are realizing how nice it would have been.”

Katie Glazerman and her friend standing outside of Smoo Cave on Scotland’s most northerly coastline. Smoo Cave has been carved into the limestone cliffs by high sea levels over the last hundreds of years, making it a must see tourist attraction. This is one of the many places Glazerman travelled to on her working gap year.

Photo Courtesy of Neil MaclarenGlazerman, thinking her life was stale and frustrated after two years of university, decided she needed to get away from her normal routine. She needed something fresh.

Glazerman moved across the world to live in a village called Thurso in the Highlands of Scotland.

Thurso, a small village with cobblestone streets and little homes, is near the coast on the northernmost tip of Scotland. It has some of the best surfing in the North Sea. She lived in Thurso for eight months, working as a waitress and bartender, travelling when she could.

Glazerman adapted to the Scottish culture, and it helped broaden her worldview.

“It was almost culture shock, you know? I’m a minority in the majority and I have to be open-minded and see things with a whole new perspective,” Glazerman said.

She left Canada frustrated with university and the pressure put on students to get a degree. However, her time abroad refreshed her mind and created a new hunger to return and learn.

She had been in education, but during her trip she discovered more of herself and changed focus, realizing she wants to work with people that have disabilities.

“I picked myself up and gained a whole new sense of strength and a whole new sense of who I was as a person, and where I wanted to go. I don’t think if you go right into school that you really figure out who you are, you don’t really have time.”

Many universities are catching on to the benefits of the gap year. According to O’Shea from Florida State University, some of the leading collages and universities in the United States, like Tufts, Princeton, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have started providing subsidized gap year experiences for incoming students.

Florida State University is in the final stages of approving a policy that will allow students to defer their admission to take a gap year.

“We are calling it a bridge year and that is in part to recognize that this is an informative time in a young persons life that will provide that bridge from high school to college and help them to potentially have a really enriching time when they come here” O’Shea said.

In his study on gap years, O’Shea interviewed 180 students who had taken a gap year and looked at 400 end-of-the-year reports from returning students.

“Gap years, especially ones in which students travel and immerse themselves in communities that are unfamiliar to them, help students understand the world from other perspectives and build empathy and compassion for different populations and ways of living and being and, in turn, build their capacity to be good citizens,” O’Shea said.

Although travelling abroad can be expensive, organizations and universities are creating affordable opportunities. Omprakash, for example, is a facility that connects volunteers with local organizations abroad giving gap year students an affordable opportunity. Other students fundraise for their gap years and some, like Katie Glazerman, take an additional year off to save up the funds.

O’Shea believes the most effective gap year experience is to travel away from home and to be immersed in a different culture.

“When we engage with difference often our development is accelerated because it is upsetting traditional patterns for us,” O’Shea said.

However, some students like John Kurtz, stayed local for their gap year and have still seen the benefits.

As his Grade 12 year was passing by, the pressure to know what he wanted to do with his life caused Kurtz high levels of stress that led to anxiety and then to depression.

He felt pressure to start his life right away, especially because his older siblings had both gone straight into university, but his mind was torn between two options.

From a young age Kurtz had dreamed of being a police officer, but at 16, a new passion to be a pastor came into the equation.

“It was an interesting thought that came into my mind — ‘I want you to be in ministry’ — and I didn’t second guess it. It just made sense. I felt excitement and joy and things just started falling into place.”

But as graduation neared, doubts assailed his mind. The battle between his childhood dream and this new passion were at turmoil with each other.

Close to graduation, his parents suggested taking a year off to think about his options and he instantly felt a weight lift off his shoulders.

“It was just this huge release of stress,” Kurtz explained.

Kurtz spent the next year working at various jobs and volunteering with youth at his church. It was in this time he was able to find his passions and make the decision to pursue a future in ministry. He is now in his third year at Ambrose University and extremely confident in his decision.

“I ask myself, ‘What would of happened if I didn’t take a gap year?’ Though this is purely a thought experiment, I concern myself with the idea that I would probably be regretting any major decisions even if it was the right one, because I wouldn’t have felt it for myself.”

O’Shea believes educational systems should start looking at gap years seriously. “Gap years may be an opportunity for institutions to provide an opportunity and intervention for young people that might increase the retention and graduation rate of their students. I think it holds an enormous potential for higher education.”

asimpson@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this story is Melanie Walsh at
mwalsh@cjournal.ca