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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

What is a Gap Year?

Curious about gap years in Canada? They're more popular than ever, but there's still a lot of confusion and misconception around them. So, we are here to clear things up! Join Michelle, Canada’s Gap Year Expert as she tackles the age-old question: What is a gap year? Get ready to redefine the narrative and discover the true essence of this transformative experience! 

Take a listen! 

Topics Discussed

  • Demystifying Gap Years: Michelle Dittmer, Gap Year Expert, tackles common misconceptions surrounding gap years in Canada, shedding light on their increasing popularity.

  • Value of a Gap Year: The episode dives into the core of gap years, emphasizing their customizable nature as a tool for real-world experiences, skill development, and self-discovery at various life stages.

  • Breaking Stereotypes: Forget the clichés! Michelle challenges the idea that gap years are solely about travel, revealing the diverse opportunities for growth, from volunteering and working to pursuing passions.

  • Components of a Successful Gap Year: Michelle shares key components for a purposeful gap year, including setting clear goals, having a plan, embracing novel experiences, and reflecting on the journey for personal growth.

  • Guidance for All Ages: Highlighting that gap years aren't exclusive to high school grads, Michelle explores their relevance at different life stages, making the episode a valuable resource for parents and individuals considering this enriching adventure.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

So gap years are more commonplace in Canada than ever before, but they're still often misunderstood or folks don't have any idea about what a gap year is.

So we're here to set the record straight and answer the age-old question of what is a gap year anyways.

Here you go, take a listen.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:06

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year Podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year expert.

Now I'm going to be fully real with you here, I want to let you know that I had to record this episode twice. This is my second attempt at it. The first time I wrote it and recorded it, I was in the middle of writing grant applications and I was in a very tactical mindset. So the content was very, very focused on skill development and career discovery and strategic tool oriented.

And I completely lapsed on the other essential part of what a gap year is, the part about it being a once in a lifetime adventure full of experiences that allow you to make memories and friends that last a lifetime, my bad! 

So really it is the state of mind that you're in that can really frame how you're approaching things. Here I am doing take two and I'm going to provide you a much, much more balanced understanding of what a gap year is.

Michelle Dittmer - 02:16

Today we're really going to take it back to the basics. If you've been with us for a while, you know we have tons of really interesting podcast episodes. We have interesting guests. We've got all of our best tips and tricks for good gap years and so, so much more. So if you haven't taken the chance to take a look at some of the episodes, I highly recommend you scroll through on your podcast app and see which episodes might pique your interest because there's something for everyone out there.

Michelle Dittmer - 02:52

But let's just strip it all the way back today. We're not going to over complicate it.

We are going to help you if you are still unclear of what a gap year actually is, this is the episode for you. We're going to take away all that fancy stuff and just answer the question, what the heck is a gap year anyways? So if you are new to the idea of a gap year or if somebody has brought it to your attention and you just haven't quite pinpointed what it is or perhaps you think you know but want confirmation from us the experts about what a gap year is and is not stick around for the next little bit we will make sure that we get it nice and crystal clear for all of you out there.

Michelle Dittmer - 03:40

So I want to actually start with what is the common understanding or what is the stereotypical or what is the misunderstanding of what a gap year is. Often people will default to what they've seen in the movies or what they hear from friends and often that definition of a gap year is that it is a year after high school, it's a year of travel, it is only for those who have access to money so they can go and backpack Europe and it's a way of finding yourself indicating that perhaps you are lost.

Now out of those four things, only one of them is true and the one that's true is that it's finding yourself and sometimes people are approaching it feeling lost and it's the intention behind the gap here, but often it's also the byproduct of taking a gap year.

So many youth come away from their gap year with a really strong sense of purpose and direction and who they are, even if that was not the reason for taking a gap year.

We know that gap years have been popular in Europe, Australia, New Zealand for decades, but it is a little bit newer of a term to North America.

People have been taking intentional pauses for years. But the term gap year is relatively new in North America and here in Canada. 

Michelle Dittmer - 05:20

And the Canadian gap year is a bit different than that stereotypical idea of what a gap year is.

So what is it? Now, first and foremost, a gap year can be seen as a tool.

It is a customizable tool that's used at points of transition. So anytime you are moving from one reality to another, a gap year might be a tool that will help you with that transition. Now, if we're going to look at an official definition, the Canadian Gap Year Association defines it as “an intentional period of time spent away from normal routine for a person to get real-world experience and understand who they are outside of their normal routine. Through experiential learning and new skill development, gappers have the opportunity to work, volunteer, travel, focus on their physical and mental well-being, and engage in activities that support their passions and interests and help provide clarity for life's next steps” 

So it's a long definition, but it gives us all of the essential points to what a gap year is. Let's talk about what the definition is and what a gap year is not. 

So it doesn't say that a gap year is 12 months. Gap years do come in all shapes and sizes and quite frankly it's too bad that gap year has the word year in it. Often we refer to it as gap time because we see folks taking gap semesters or gap eight months or gap two years so it's not really time bound by 12 months. It's a substantial amount of time for you to get out of your routine long enough to feel like this was a distinct part of your life. A weekend gap year, not really a thing. A two week gap year, not really a thing because those are going to fade away. We want this to be a substantial distinct part of your life.

You'll also notice that the definition doesn't say that it happens after high school.

We see folks engaging in gap years at all ages and stages. 70% of the folks that come to us are coming directly after high school, but 30% are coming at other times, maybe their mid-post-secondary education, or they've finished and they're going to go off to grad school but need a break, or they've entered into their early career and found they are not feeling fulfilled and need to make an adjustment, Or maybe even when you retire. So it's a point of transition. It's whenever you need to pause that treadmill or that feeling of a rat race, of spinning your wheels. And it's time to recenter yourself so you can make the best decision for what comes next in your life.

This could be leaving school, pausing a career, entering into empty nestedness when your kids leave the house, leaving your career for retirement, or any other pivot point in your life.

Now I'm being very intentional when I mention these things and I just might be foreshadowing something that is to come and in the works from CanGAP. So if you are well past high school graduation and you are saying I wish I could do that, keep following us because something is coming. So stay tuned if you are living vicariously through your young person who is travelling or taking a gap year, we got something coming your way.

Now back to the topic at hand here. Our definition doesn't say it has to include travel.

It is a common misconception that everybody travels on their gap year because that's the brag-worthy show-off thing. That's the thing that we have these sexy pictures of showing us standing on a mountain or interacting with a different culture or eating a different type of food than we're used to. Those are the things that we like to show externally. There's no really exciting picture you are discovering what your career path should be, it's not necessarily the travel that is the most valuable part.

Really, travel is a vehicle for someone to get out of their comfort zone and to develop new skills. New skills like independence, resilience, and for a lot of people to prove to themselves that they have what it takes and the fact that they get to do this while seeing other cultures and geographies, that's just a bonus.

So it doesn't necessarily have to involve travel. It really is more about the experiential learning and the skill development that comes from all of these diverse activities you can do on your gap year. Whether that's traveling, volunteering, working, participating in clubs, taking courses for interest.

Connecting with old friends, doing informational interviews with people from different career paths, spending time to earn money, taking up new hobbies, journaling, reading those books on your to-read list or watching those documentaries. Whatever it is, all of these experiences allow somebody on a gap year or gap time to develop new skills and to try something different. And it really is that bulk of time that allows us to do that in a really, really intentional and meaningful way.

Michelle Dittmer - 11:47 

Which is a great segue into the fact that good gap years are intentional. Some people default into a gap year, but sitting on the couch for a year is not a gap year.

There has to be some sort of plan in place or goals that you're working towards.

There's research and exploration that takes place. So it's really important to make that distinction that your gap year is moving you forward in some way.

Not just keeping you in place and at the end of the year you don't want to be the same person you want to have grown and changed in some way and that's really what it is so that's really what we want to see it is a purposeful time. 

When I look at the definition, one of my favourite parts of it is that it says it sets you up for your next steps in life and I think that this is really critical. We don't have a gap life. It is like a punctuation mark in your life. It is like an aside in a play. I'm feeling very literary today which is a break from my usual scientific perspective but we'll roll with these analogies here.

It's that time to push pause and to calibrate and to reflect on how far you've come, what's made you the person you are, what's working well and what isn't, but it's also a time to vision forwards. What does the next chapter of your world look like? What do you want to take with you from the last chapter or what do you want to leave behind? Who are you evolving into? Where do you want to go in your life?

It's really such a beautiful time to be reflective and to be thoughtful without the noise of everything else that's going on around, whether that is a full-time job or full-time academics. All of those things take up a lot of our mental capacity and they bias our thoughts because of what we're experiencing during the day.

So to have lots of time, lots of space, and lots of autonomy to do that exploration is such a powerful tool and it allows us to really connect with what's true for us, what that inner voice is saying, what our true interests are, not necessarily what's happening all around us in that busyness. It’s really such a beautiful thing when you can take control of your life. So if you're out there and you feel like life is running away from you or you don't feel aligned with what is best for you or you don't quite feel ready for your next steps, that gap year is a great thing to insert into your life.

Michelle Dittmer - 15:04 

But all these things were the strategic side of things. But gap years are also fun.

It is a time to be in charge of your life, to decide what your own priorities are, what activities you want to do, what you want to accomplish. I always like to say that it's really an opportunity for you to get in the driver's seat of your life. You're not a passenger to your teachers. You're not a passenger to your boss. This is your time to carve the path out.

Now when I'm out and about, people will always stop me whenever I've got my gap year stuff out. They always stop me and say, Michelle, I took a gap year and it was the best decision ever. Now these folks that stop me aren't all just 21 year olds that are fresh off their gap year. I talk with people that are mid-20s, in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. They all stop me. And they tell me the stories of what they did and how now looking back they see it as something that completely set them up for success.

A lot of people will even say it totally changed my life for the better.  So it really is that opportunity to get out there and explore and make those memories and meet new people and gain new perspectives And not get caught up in all of the busyness, hustle bustle, treadmill of life that might not serve us when we're trying to figure out who we are and what's going on in our lives.

Michelle Dittmer - 16:50

One of the trickiest parts about this episode and actually defining what a gap year is, is that each and every gap year looks different. Each person chooses to take a gap year for a different reason and they choose different activities to put into that time.

And because the person is different and the activities are different, they're actually building completely different sets of skills in their gap year. So the reality is, there's no formula for what a gap year is or is not. There's no way that I can just give you a template and say plug in X, Y and Z and boom, you've got a gap year.

Gap years are going to be something that is going to be transformational for you in some way and in order for it to be a good gap year or a progressive gap year or a purposeful gap year.

Michelle Dittmer - 17:56

There's a few components that I would recommend that exist within that gap year. Number one, I'll say it a million times, is spending time to carve out goals for your gap year. So understanding why you are taking that gap year, what is the reason behind it and what do you hope to achieve by the end. Maybe you want to build independence, maybe you want to get clarity on what you want to study, maybe you want to take control of your mental health. Whatever those goals are, gives us an end game. Like I said, it's not a gap lifetime, it's a gap year. We work really well when there's a start point and end point and something to work towards.

And having those goals is going to be that component of what am I working towards.

That will help you keep momentum over the course of the gap year. So those goals are golden.

Michelle Dittmer - 18:47 

The next component that's going to make it a successful gap year is having a plan.

This isn't something that's carved in stone before you even start but it's that idea of intentionality and it's that idea of doing research and seeing what the options are.

Because so often I have young people and their families coming in to speak with me about planning their gap year and they only have two or three ideas of what But with good research, with good intention and getting out there and looking for what can help you achieve those goals, the world is going to open up to you. It's not just this tourism experience. There is volunteer placements locally abroad. There are internships. There are hackathons. There are conferences to attend. There are sport and social clubs to join. There are meetup groups where you play Beatles tunes on your ukulele every Wednesday.

There is all sorts of things out there for you to do on your gap year. But without the research, most people will just default into getting a job at their local grocery store and not necessarily growing tons as a human being. So putting a plan into place Is crucial to a good gap year. Other pieces that should be included is some sort of novel experiences. And for each and every person, getting out of your comfort zone looks different. It could be a small thing, it could be a large thing. Just something that's got to be new to you, that's going to get the brain and the body thinking and moving in a new way.

Michelle Dittmer - 20:50 

The last thing that I would say that you want to make sure is included is this idea of reflection and capturing the learning. Because each and everything you're going to do on your gap year is going to afford you new skills that you can translate and transfer into new situations. But if you don't spend the time thinking about what did I actually get out of this experience, You're not going to have the language to communicate that in a new job interview or on a scholarship application.

So being able to spend some time to stop, to think, to reflect, And come up with those terms is going to be really helpful for you to reintegrate back into life after your gap year. Because we are going to step out of that complete freedom back into a system and we want to make sure that we're taking with us all of the things that we want to take from our gap experience and be able to apply them back into a world School, Workforce, Volunteerism.

Michelle Dittmer - 22:08

If you're new to the gap year world and if you want to learn more, I would highly recommend you go through our other podcast episodes and see what catches your eyes. I would probably recommend you check out our top three parental concerns, that's a really great episode. Maybe when to start planning a gap year, that can be really helpful for folks. And perhaps Nasra's episode where I interview a gap year alum on how to make decisions around your gap year. All three of those episodes would be great choices.

We will link to them in the show notes so that you can find them easily or just scroll through and check out and see what might be of interest to you.

Michelle Dittmer - 22:53

Now, as always, we at the Canadian Gap Year Association, we are so happy To chat with you about your gap year, your gap year decisions, we are here and we do that for free. We have tools on our website. You can download them. You can listen to the podcast, check out our YouTube channel, or you can book a call with us. All of the links are in the show notes for you to be able to access those resources. You don't have to do this alone. Lean on people who are experts in the field. That's why we exist. That's why we are here. So I hope that has clarified a little bit about what a gap year is and that you are able to have some clarity and that it might be able to support you as you move into the decisions that you need to make around your gap year.

So there you go my dears, it is just a short 23 minute definition of what a gap year is.

I hope this was helpful for you, if so, please leave a review for us, give us a 5 star on your podcast listening app, that would be super helpful to help other people find us.

Now my friends, until next time, keep on adventuring!

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