The Glorious Gap Year (or why you don’t have to go straight to University!)

The self is not something one finds, it is something one creates. ~Thomas Szasz, “Personal Conduct,” The Second Sin, 1973

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Your parents have just received your high school grad portraits and are already starry-eyed at the prospect of your becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a somebody.  As they admire how sharp you look holding a diploma, you say:

“Mom, Dad. I’m don’t want to go to university….”

But before you can say “yet” your parents are already freaking out. Speaking over their objections, you say you might want to work abroad, backpack, volunteer, or sail off into some distant horizon. Your parents hear that you want to run away, go broke, destroy your motivation or otherwise waste your time. I know my parents thought that way at first.

Before I explain how I managed to escape anyway, here’s a little background: Yesterday I woke up to sound of Andy Barrie’s soothing baritone on CBC radio one. Barrie was interviewing a grade 12 student named Ryan Cole who plans to spend his first year after high school trekking around Europe and Asia. Instead of enrolling in courses and purchasing books, Cole is checking flight itineraries and buying a sturdy backpack. You see, Cole is taking a gap year.

Yes, the great gap year! It’s concept that Brits, Aussies and Danes understand but, for some reason, one that Canucks still seem to struggle with. Although gap years can happen after any long pattern of work or study, the years closest to high school tend to make parents sensitive. Real sensitive. Personally, it took me a whole year to muster up the chutzpah to tell mine that I was, err, considering my options.

At the age of seventeen, I remember reading through all the majors available at several schools and wondering which, if any, would suit my limitless and diverse interests. The best I could do was rule out mathematics, flirt with law, and lean toward something broad enough in the arts. Then, I did the unthinkable: I went to York University largely because I had the option of  being an undeclared major. (Boy, was I ever ready for post-secondary education!) Like a scholastic smorgasbord, I nibbled at French, English Lit, Women’s studies, Philosophy, Psychology, Law, Evolution, etc…and for a while I was even able to convince myself that I would simply float in the right direction without ever having to step out of the familiarity of here-and-now.

Eventually, though, I began dreading my second year because, after first, York would make me choose a major.
That’s when I sat my parents down.

“I’m taking a year off,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could.
You’re dropping out?” they gasped, “But your such a good student! You’ve always loved school! You went to gifted—didn’t you like gifted!? What will we tell your grandma? Is it our fault?”
I took a deep breath and explained to them that I was applying to Katimavik, a nine-month volunteer-service program that would take me across Canada with a group of peers in search of my true passions. My dad already seemed suspicious at the mention of “nine months” away.
“Jeez! That’s just how long the program is!” I said defensively. After about an hour of myth-busting and case-making, my parents gave me their blessing. My grandma did too…but she nervously wrung her hands for a good while.

In September 2004, as my peers returned to books and lecture halls, I reviewed my flight itinerary to Alberta. Over the next nine months, I would live in Leduc, AB; St. Jovite, QC; and Bathurst, NB…but I would also visit Pigeon Lake, Banff, Jasper, Drayton Valley, Edmonton, Mt. Tremblant, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax, Blue Rocks, Lunenburg, Miramichi, Dalhousie, Moncton and Caraquet. I would work in Leduc’s city hall and recreation center, on an organic farm with special needs adults in St. Jovite, and as a peer-advisor in Bathurst High School. I’d make lasting friendships with other young Canadians from every walk of life and ultimately decide, with confidence, to return to York University for an honours double major in Professional Writing and Communication studies. (Oh–and my grades and motivation only increased once I had a clear direction, thankyouverymuch.)

The problem is, I can’t really blog about Katimavik–and all the other choices I know about–without completely dedicating an afternoon to the task. I’m far too passionate to let this sweeping summary suffice. So, for now, I leave you with a promise:

I, Fabiola Carletti–who owe the very person I am today to my experiences on Katimavik–do solemly swear to blog about my experience before the end of this month.

For those of you who cannot wait for my anecdotes, or who might be discovered by your parents before you have an eloquent proposal together, I suggest you look at all of these possibilities in the meantime. I’ve done Katimavik and Explore but have close friends who have done most of the other programs and have described them to me in-depth.

Note: this list is tailored to Canadian Youth

  • Katimavik–(For ages 17-21) Goverment-funded youth service program that takes you across Canada (in a group of 11 peers) for free! You even get a bursary at the end. Not only is more financially accessible than travelling Europe, it really does show you that Canada is almost like a continent in its size and diversity! Read about my experience here.
  • Canada World Youth–Spend half the volunteer experience in Canada and half in a developing nation. Live with a billet family with a counter-part from the other country and interact with a larger group of volunteers from both places. My friend Mark went to India and my friend Sara went to Ghana.
  • SWAP—Student Work Abroad Program–a service that helps you organize a working holiday in dozens of nations around the world. It’s a safety net for those who have never travelled without an entourage. My friend Diana relied on this service while working her way through Australia
  • WWOOF—World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms–an international movement of people learning to live sustainably. My friend Courto worked in a vineyard in France.
  • Explore— if you’d rather do a gap summer than a gap year, learn French in another corner of Canada for five weeks. I went to Trois-Rivières twice because it was so great. My friend Edi went to La Pocatière last summer and came back bursting with stories.
  • MyGapYear–If you have the money, you can even hire a professional to help you plan your gap year in Canada or beyond! I first heard of this website on CBC radio in a follow-up segment to the gap year interview with Cole. I don’t know anyone directly who has used this service.
  • Lattitude–This UK-based organization has been organizing gap years since before I was born. The link I’ve provided is to their Canada-specific page–but they serve various other regions. Lattitude helps place 17-25 year olds in volunteer positions all around the world.
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2 thoughts on “The Glorious Gap Year (or why you don’t have to go straight to University!)

  1. Pingback: Yeah, I know, I solemnly swore… « The Fab Files

  2. Pingback: The Big Decision « The Fab Files

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