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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

Adult Gap Year: Sukaina's Story of Self-Discovery and Cultural Immersion

On today’s episode, we dive into the inspiring world of gap years with our fabulous guest, Sukaina. From Toronto to Portugal, her journey of self-discovery, cultural immersion, and lifelong learning is a testament to the transformative power of taking a step back to explore. Whether you're fresh out of high school or contemplating an adult gap year, this episode is packed with insights and motivation to make that leap. Don't overthink it, just do it!

Topics Discussed

  • Embracing Cultural Exploration: Sukaina shares her journey from owning a bakery in Toronto to immersing herself in Portugal, driven by a desire to explore her familial roots and learn the Portuguese language.

  • Impact of Gap Year: Sukaina highlights how taking an adult gap year profoundly shaped her personal growth, offering insights into different cultures, languages, and perspectives beyond conventional education paths.

  • Networking and Support: Michelle and Sukaina discuss the importance of leveraging personal networks and community connections to facilitate affordable and enriching travel experiences, demonstrating how these connections can turn a dream into reality.

  • Lessons in Empathy and Understanding: Living abroad allowed Sukaina to empathize with her immigrant parents' experiences, deepening her appreciation for multiculturalism and broadening her worldview through interactions with diverse individuals.

  • Encouraging Youth and Adults Alike: Michelle and Sukaina encourage both young adults and adults to consider the transformative potential of gap years, emphasizing the value of exploring the world and oneself before committing to career or educational paths.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode


Michelle Dittmer 00:00 

Have you ever met someone and right away you know that you're going to connect, your energies are on the same level and you're just going to really get along?

Well that's exactly what happened one day while I was hanging out at a gap year fair and today's guest came right up to the table and started chatting all things gap year.

Today we're going to be talking all about what it's like to take an adult gap year and why young people should consider doing it earlier on.

Take a listen!

Michelle Dittmer 01:15 

Hey there everybody and welcome to the Gap Year podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year expert. Today we brought another life experience expert onto the podcast today.

So, so thrilled, we actually met once upon a time at a gap year fair and I think we got chatting for a bit and we had lots to say and I said, nope, time out, let's record this and share it because this is really amazing goal that everybody should hear. I'm going to welcome Sukaina to our podcast today. Thank you so much for joining me.

Sukaina 01:59

Thank you so much, Michelle. I really appreciate you calling me on to talk about the gap year. I love the concept and I'm excited to share my experience with you.

Michelle Dittmer 02:08

Speaking of your experience, why don't you give us a little bit of your story because I think this is really what kicked it off for us. Why don't you give us that lead up to where you are today?

Sukaina 02:26

Okay I'll just let you know right now I own a commercial bakery with my family so I'm a little bit more grounded in Toronto at the moment but prior to that I just always enjoyed the idea of traveling and just going to meet people and I think during our conversation which was funny because in actuality I had just brought my nephew to the fair to kind of get him on board on at least thinking about think outside the box a little it doesn't have to be so rigid finish high school go to university whatever and it's great if certain people want to choose that path perfect but there are other options that are available and which is great that your organization Kind of promote and helps to cultivate for people, which I really liked.

And it was during that time and even speaking to him, I was like, why am I such a big proponent of it? Right. And it was just, I, from my experiences of traveling, I just have found that I'm a different person every time I come back. And every time I've lived in a different place, it's like, I take a part of that and I grow. And that's what I have found in regards to Embarking on something like that and my story is I didn't do it as a youngster after high school and I think when during our conversation at Munster we didn't have a lot of this growing up there was no concept hey take a gap year it's like no go to school go to university and then like you know whatever the next trajectory in life is And for me there was always this desire to travel, like traveling is a big value for me and my family too in actuality, like prior to coming to Canada at the age of 10 I had already lived in four different countries, you know, so it was always going to be something that was part of me and so it wasn't, and my parents also valued it, although Travelling wasn't like this back in the day right like where it's so much cheaper but whatever opportunities we got they would take us to go visit family in different countries or whatever they could manage right and that was their version of traveling but I wanted to go beyond that one after I had reached a certain age and so to me like I started saving up money and then started going on small trips and I even went away to work in the States for a year because I wanted to experience something different and that was a human opportunity for growth. So, and then I had as recently, like just about seven, eight years ago, which was the one I was telling you about where I ended up living in Portugal for two years.

Michelle Dittmer 05:15 

That's amazing! Yeah, I think for some of us it was seeded so young. This wanderlust that we have or this desire to see and experience different things and for some people it comes a little bit later in life when they've built up some confidence and maybe they got a little bored of what's been happening and they want to infuse some adventure and excitement.

Regardless of when you get bitten by the travel bug, it is something that is so fundamentally transformative and we always say like you don't have to travel on your gap year but many young people do and really it's so much more than just getting on an airplane and going somewhere.

Learning to be self-sufficient, it is learning how to navigate new cultures, it is learning how to meet people out in the city and talk to them, it is about understanding different walks of life and how vast and fantastic our world is and it really is just such a great thing so I am totally behind traveling at any age or stage in life.

So tell me a little bit more in detail about your adult gap year, the one that ended you in Portugal. How did that come about and what did you do?

Sukaina 06:48 So I had gone on one of my travels, I had gone to Europe and had gone to Spain and I was then felt like there was like a burning desire to live in Europe, okay, and I just took some time I wasn't making it happen and so a little bit about me is I come from East Africa and one of the countries I come from was colonized by the Portuguese.

So I have that in my background. nd shortly after my father passed away there was this desire to kind of know that part of him like we were South Asians but we have this European influence and like we're kind of mixed up and so it was like I know that part again but what's this other side that kind of also influenced him right and so I was like why not go to Portugal and once that opened up I was like um I have a lot of network there I have my mother has contacts and I was like wow this is amazing right like it's a lot easier to do uh it's a lot cheaper to do because it was so many people that I knew and that I found really helped that decision and also I didn't speak Portuguese, my mother speaks Portuguese and I thought this would be a great opportunity to also learn this language in which I carry a passport for and so then I was like okay so I decided I was going to go for about six months but I loved it so much that I came back two and a half years later.One of the reasons I was able to do that was because I chose a country that had such a vast network, a safety net in the sense that the amount of people that I knew and literally the people that I met there through my mother and outside of that but the people that I met are my family like when I go there it's like my new family there and it's like become a home right and so because I had that connection But during that time frame, I met loads of different people, like different walks of life.

And the interesting thing was, because I was there for such a long time and I was choosing to learn Portuguese, I took classes in different settings. So I started off at Universidad de Lisboa, which is the University of Lisbon, and so then I had all the young people coming in from France and coming in from Italy and coming in from Spain on a summer program just to learn the language. And I was like, wow, this is exciting. I wish I'd been able to do it, you know, because they were like, they were just able to socialize. Um, not that they wouldn't include us, but it was just, it just seemed more seamless in terms of their socialization.And also I don't necessarily want to be up till seven o'clock in the morning party. Okay. Like, I mean, I want to do what I was doing. It was a time, but that has passed. Exactly. I'm like, uh, can we sleep guys? So, you know so then it was but it was the beautiful people fun to talk to right but you could see that's the stage of life that you're at and i loved it i love that europe really promotes this you know and i think even australia is listening to they really promote this idea of a gap year go somewhere meet different people learn a language A list of keywords relevant to topics that

Like I've become friends with them. So it was kind of nice, but, and then I took a class, like a night class, which was more for immigrants. So I saw those people coming in to Portugal from different walks of life, different countries, and who are trying to settle there. Right.

So it's like adults now, but kind of, and it made me, it gave me an appreciation of what my parents would have had to go through when they came to England and came to Canada. To learn a language and to find your way and navigate in a new country. So I had a lot of empathy for them and I had a lot of respect. I really got a chance to understand my parents at a level that I didn't get to see at that point. And so it was an appreciation that Wow, like thank you so much for going through this struggle so that we didn't have to do that, right?Like you don't necessarily see those struggles from your parents when they've done that for you.But this was a unique opportunity for me to see that. So it was fantastic. It was like... You know, and then like, um, then just different classes that I would meet different walks of life. You know, I met a woman who was older, so it was exciting and she went to Thailand to learn Thai for a year. And then she was in Portugal. I was like, you are a kindred spirit friend, I should follow you. But I'm like, I don't have enough money right now. So that also becomes a factor, but it was just fantastic just to see so many different people from different walks of life and it just opens up your mind. It's exciting.

It doesn't have to be one way or one path, you know, forge your own, right? That's what it's about. So I loved it.

Michelle Dittmer 12:19 Yeah, and I want to circle back to one of the things that you said about as like a family with immigrant parents and appreciating what they went through. We get a lot of first-gen Canadians coming and the parents are opposed to the idea of a gap year and when I'm speaking with them that's one of the things that I often talk about Is you're setting your family up for such a great life and this is an opportunity for them to appreciate what you have done.And so it's nice to hear that you had that experience that you were able to empathize with and appreciate more some of the sacrifices and some of the obstacles that they overcame to set you up, which I think is just so beautiful.

Sukaina 13:15 Yeah and it's not only like it kind of also allows us allowed myself to just even in the broader spectrum when we see like Canada is a multicultural society and so we'll have all different walks of life people are coming in different uh for different reasons and for uh at different stages right and so maybe they've come and they don't know that much English right now right and then it's like okay You don't understand. I myself put myself in a situation like that too because it's difficult to communicate and then you appreciate How much, how you take for granted that the world speaks English. Like I really took that for granted. And I could see that other people who don't necessarily have English, you know, and then they're trying to learn a language and how challenging it is because today you and I can cry anywhere and you know, we will find somebody who speaks English, but until you get that. you know and so then to go to a different country and put myself in a situation where i need to communicate something and although predominantly the youngsters in most countries will find speak english but then if i have to go to the doctor now and stay in there for two years so i will have some issues you know and i allowed me to see the whole spectrum of trying to live in portugal at this point so it wasn't just a gap year kind of went a little bit beyond in that sense um and to go to the doctors where the doctor doesn't speak um English, for example, you know, and she's speaking Portuguese and then it's like in my minimal Portuguese at that level, I'm trying to explain what do I need, right? And it was like, it was eye-opening as to what people go through and to appreciate that it is challenging.

It's not just easy to go anywhere and it takes time, you know, so it allowed me to see these type of things that I may not have just being in one spot, right, and taking things type of for granted.

Michelle Dittmer 15:28 I want to look your at the decision to go to Portugal because I think that was like a very reasonable, logical Decision, because a lot of people when they're thinking of taking that time off, whether it's a sabbatical, an adult gap year, whatever, and wanting to go abroad or do something different, they look at it and they go, it's too expensive. I could never ever afford to do that  And while there is some cost, there's ways of lowering the cost.And I think you really demonstrated one, you have to look at your network. Who do I know?Who is out there? Who can I stay with? Who's going to support me in this? And that accommodation alone, if you could get that covered, it brings the cost way, way down. So what other things would you kind of counsel other people who are looking to spend an adult gap year? What advice would you give them? 

Sukaina 16:20 

So I think it was important to recognize why did I want to do this, okay? And so, because, as I said before, I'd gone to Spain, I was like, oh, you know, and it wasn't happening. So until like I found a motivating reason enough, and so I was like, oh, I'd actually like to explore this part of my life, my roots, right? And It kind of motivated me to say, and then I was like, oh, this gives me an opportunity to also learn a language. Although I speak to my mother in English and in, uh, in Indian Valley, like called Gujarati, it's something even more so, right?

Like, it's not like I can't communicate with her, but this is a language that she also knows.So it's like, oh, this would be kind of cool to know this as well. Cause this is part of my heritage now. So that once I had like, I think one has to decide what do you want to go there for okay and yes definitely look at your network how long do you think with the amount that you've saved can you go there for but depending on like the people that you know what you might like and ask for help And that's the thing that I had to learn how to do there because I had to ask for help all the time with people I didn't know or people I just met like how do I do this or can you tell me how to take this bus or how you know and to navigate and people love helping people like we really don't you don't realize that you know and it's like oh okay like it's nothing like It's not like, oh my God, you burden me or something like that. They really like it, quite enjoy helping people and then they'll guide you. And then if you, you know, you'll ask another person. So, and I thought that was really nice to see. Right.

And yeah, so I would suggest if somebody wants to take an adult gap year, why do you want to take it? You know, and can, and just do it. Because I waited a long time and then I just did it and one of the reasons I did it was because I also was deciding like if I stay we have a family business I need to put more focus on there. I'm not going to go. Then I knew that I would have to invest, not that I could never go, but I would have to invest a certain amount of time now. This is what I've chosen for the next little while. Right? So I was like, yes, I would like to do this, but I'd like to do it a little bit later. So then it allowed me to do that. Right? So, and I think you just have to find like, it's never really the right time. It's never going to be. If you want to do it, do it because some people don't like, you know, as I said, I was going for three to six months. It was hard pressed to come back. I'm not going to lie. It was very hard. It's like, okay, what are you doing now? Okay. So, and it was like, okay. But it was definitely one of the best experiences of my life, you know, and I think, um, everybody, if they have that opportunity to go. Uh, whatever, whether it's just traveling around the world or it's staying somewhere, what I liked about saying somewhere is you really immerse yourself in the place. And, um, and it's hard then it's, it's a bit hard to leave then, because now you've made all these friends and connections. Right. And so you're like, but the nice thing is that, you know, that you've made, you can maintain that, you know, and it doesn't have to be so strong, but you can always rebuild it because now you've created that. And if I want to retire to Portugal, I have people. We're looking at the life plan here, we've got it set up for creation. Exactly, you know, and so yeah, I mean, right now I'm at the stage where I want to be in Toronto, but I would not be adverse to like, hey, you want to go live here for a bit and check out this culture? Yeah, absolutely.

Michelle Dittmer 20:02 I think there's a couple things that all link together. You said start with the why and that's something we tell our young gappers too. You need or want this time for all sorts of reasons whether you're burnt out and you need a change to get over that burnout or you have your family history that you want to explore or there's a particular Spiritual pilgrimage you want to go on or whatever the reason is that will help you to define the what once you know the why then you can plug in the what because it sounds like you had the wrong what plugged in for a bit yes exactly no exactly and that was interesting to know Yeah, and I think the other thing that you said that was really interesting is that there's no good time to go. And I think this is where things very much go in two directions for people on a gap year and adults. For people on a gap year, this is the best time to go because you don't have student debt, you don't have kids, you don't have a mortgage. This, as a young person, this is the best time to go.But once you're through that and you're into your adulthood, there is never going to be the right time and at some point you're just going to have to jump with both feet. And if it's something that's really important to you and really something that you really want to accomplish in your life, you're going to have to take that risk at some point. When I'm talking to gappers, I always say there is no wrong decision. But there's also no right decision. The only thing that you can do wrong is to not make a decision at all and just keep on keeping on and just go with the inertia. You have to at some point make a commitment and like the Nike slogan, just do it. Just do it.

Sukaina 22:09

Absolutely and to just add to your point in terms of timing I agree in terms of the timing for high schoolers and like going in the transition between and that's one of the reasons I was trying to also encourage my nephew I said after if you finish university you maybe have time to go but if a company comes with this amazing job offer. You're not going to say no, you're just starting out.

Okay. So you're going to, like, you're going to have to weigh that right now. You literally are like, Oh, I got into university, defer one year, like, you know, and then go. Go see the world if you can or you know go take a course somewhere else if you can and that's what I love about your organization is that you help them cultivate what do you want to do what do you want to get out of the gap year and it could be I want to take a course here I want to go build a home here and like I want to do this so you can you know help them seamlessly transition through that you know and that's you know like when I even as an adult gap year we have to come up with The way we want to do it, how we do it, and it takes more, like I could have gotten a lot more out of it if I had such an organization as yourself, like I would have said I want this, and this, and some of this a little bit, that would have been good. This was like navigating myself, where of course should I take, how should I do this, how, you know, and so that's what I really like. I like, especially for kids who are finishing high school right now, they're not going to know, you know, they don't have enough experience to even try to maybe try to figure that out. And I don't think we really want them to be, that's not what your worries should be. I mean, the thing is, this is what's been set up for you, you know, go experience and then experience. The experience that you have there, the growth that you get, is what propels you now into university too, that you may not have had before.As an adult, yes, of course you continue to grow, but now like you're setting yourself up, what a great advantage. You've met people, you've grown, you're one year older, you're like your brain is working differently, you're meeting different people at university, like it's exciting to me, you know, that you had this year and like it's just now you've come into university, how much more experience, how much more  you can share, you know. Like to me, that's why I love this transition period.  I would have loved to have done it myself, but as I said, we didn't even know about this. And at first, as you said, you have a lot of first-generation, um, uh, their kids, the parents are like, no. Okay. And so I think it's good to have that education and understand like you really, it's not just a gap year. They're not just taking off and traveling. There's a tremendous amount of growth here that one really can't quantify. And you don't know, nobody's done research to show a person takes a gap year and one who doesn't and the trajectory of their life or how their emotional intelligence increases. What is it? What does it do? Like the interconnectedness, how much more open-minded? We don't know any of these things, right? That I could tell you that there are a lot of people who, you know, from my experience meeting people, I could see like just the willingness to know different people, the diversity that you meet. It's amazing. You're not like in this one Like a box and just constantly this one way of thinking it allows the world is huge we have different viewpoints let's go out and explore see what's happening and to have that at a young age like imagine how much that would just set you up i just think it would be amazing you know so i really like that and i think you're right this is one of the best times to go you Don't have to worry about anything, right? In terms of like if you're in that position, you don't have to worry about student debt, you don't, you've already applied for universities, hopefully you've gone into something, you can defer it, you don't even have to consider that anymore, you know, and now it's just like an open playing field to go and see what the world is for you, you know, and that may inspire that person to do more of it later, but you had that chance now and I think that's amazing, so you know.

Michelle Dittmer 26:20

So all of this experimentation and going out into the world and developing all of this, you are one of the most interesting people that I have met and I think that people who do this Who do take gap years are the most interesting people in any room, not just because of what they've done and the places that they've gone, but as you said, the perspective that they have, the openness that they have. To communicating and listening and understanding and seeking to understand and to fundamentally connect with other humans. And I think that's what makes them the most interesting person in the room. And that's a really great badge to wear. So you have received my seal of the most interesting person I've talked to. So wear it with pride.With that, if you had to embark or impart some wisdom on the listeners of this show, what would you share with them?

Sukaina 27:35 I would say don't overthink it. You know and as we said just do it and really like we have this one life to live we want to try to experience as much as we can and the job will be there you know um you'll be your career will still be there in fact you may get more out of it you know but this opportunity to go for self-discovery it's uh one should not miss it everybody should have this opportunity and if you can start at a younger age Wow, you've really set yourself up, I believe. Don't overthink it, just do it as we said, as we're stealing the Nike model. Yeah, absolutely. I feel like going now. I feel like I should be going now.

Michelle Dittmer

Exactly, now we've got to start planning. We've lit that fire again.

Sukaina Exactly, absolutely.

Michelle Dittmer Well, it's been such a pleasure having this conversation with you, and I know we could talk for about six hours, but for the sake of the people who are out on a walk with their dog with their earbuds in, we'll let them turn around and head home. So thank you so much for joining me.

Sukaina Thank you so much, Michelle, and I really appreciate you wanting to hear my story.

Michlle Dittmer 

Yeah. One last question. How's your nephew's gap year planning going?   


You tell me. It's going very well. I'm excited to see actually what he does. I might follow him that's his problem. Well, I will make sure that his plan might include some of that, but he also has that independent part. So absolutely, that makes me very excited for him.

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