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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

How to plan a pandemic gap year with AJ

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

AJ had no intention to pursue a gap year. But missing the IRL university experience due to a pandemic didn’t seem ideal either.

With just two days to go before he was to begin his first semester at University of Toronto’s Rotman Commerce, AJ deferred his acceptance and jumped (literally!) into the start of his gap year.

In this episode, AJ reflects on his gap year experience during the 2020/2021 school year, how he approached planning and goal setting, and offers up some gap year gold for students currently considering a gap year.

Want more from AJ? Dive deeper into AJ’s gap year adventures in our CanGap Ambassador series on YouTube. Click here!

And where did Michelle find AJ? See the original article here!


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

If you want tips from the pros, AJ is a pro. I found AJ through a Google alert. Believe it or not, and tracked him down on LinkedIn because I knew he had a story to tell.

This guy has maximized his gap year. He has taken every advantage of that time off even though it was a very last minute decision for him.

Definitely take a listen to this pick up on some of his tips and follow us on YouTube, because AJ has come on board as a gap year ambassador and continues to share wisdom with us through our YouTube channel. So head over to YouTube, check that out. Give it a follow and check up on some of AJ’s other tips for our gappers.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:30

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year podcast.

My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and gap your expert today again. Another phenomenal guest that I actually stopped down on LinkedIn after reading an incredible article about the value that this guest had on their gap year.

So I'm so excited to be welcoming AJ to the show today. Just as a quick background, AJ is an alumnus of the NIST International School of Thailand. Not only that, but he is a very honored recipient of the Lester B Pearson Scholarship, and he is headed to UFT for Commerce and not only that, he is also the CEO of an incredible social enterprise called “Rescue Glass”. So AJ, welcome to the show.

AJ - 2:30

Thank you so much for having me and thank you for the incredibly generous introduction.

Michelle Dittmer - 2:35

Yeah, I'm so excited to have you here, so maybe you could give our audience and our listeners a little bit of background on, because nobody's read that article, but I will link to it in the show notes, but tell us a little bit of your gap, your story, and kind of what brought you to this conversation today.

AJ - 02:54

Yeah, for sure! So, throughout high school I always felt like I had a good understanding of.

What I wanted to do in the future and what I wanted to pursue in university, so I never really knew I wanted to take a gap year and I never knew that was something I kind of needed.

So for example, when my college counselors they, you know, organized the events for alumni to come in to really emphasize the value of the gap year, I pretty much disregarded everything that they had to say, and I thought gap years mainly served 2 purposes.

1 to help students who didn't really know what they wanted to do discover what it is that they wanted to do, or 2 figure out their university position, or reassess their plans.

But I felt like I never really fit into any of those two categories, so a gap year was completely off my plate. It wasn't even something I considered but then.

As the pandemic hit and the scope for university very much was different this year, I started to have doubts about attending online university and what that would entail because university to me was a lot about the experience.

I was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand my entire life, so coming halfway across the world, experiencing and submerging myself in a new culture, meeting new friends, having you know, late night adventures that was very much an intrinsic component of university to me and I felt like I lost a lot of that through the online school.

And so that's why it was a pretty spontaneous decision, but two days before my university was meant to start, it really hit me that wow, this is university I'm starting it online in Thailand in the middle of the night because the time zone differences, this is not really something that I wanted. It didn't feel right, so I talked to my parents and they were very supportive, supportive of it and so I officially deferred my study.

Michelle Dittmer - 4:55

That's amazing. I think so many people have this idea or this story that we tell ourselves about what a gap year is and who it's for and it's amazing.

When I'm at gap year fairs, all these families kind of walk by my booth and all the parents are like oh, that's a great idea but not for my kid because they don't think they fit this particular mold that we've created or that social media tells us or the news tells us that this is what it's for and it's something that's so much more and especially in the pandemic situation like you were saying, like university life or college life is so much more than attending lectures and so I'm so glad that you recognize that you know what you want that full experience and you want that whole experience.

And for people in the pandemic situation this year again, we we, we're seeing some of the same thought process, but even if you're not feeling ready to take on that full experience, you can push pause pandemic or no pandemic to get an experience.

So I love that you had that self-awareness to be like, well, pause time out. I need something a little bit different and that your parents were on board with that and they also recognize that.

So kudos to you for having the courage to have that conversation because the easier route would just be like, oh, just keep going.

Just keep going and then sometimes that like dissatisfaction sets in and unhappiness and if you go for it too long, that can lead to depression, so having the courage to do something about a situation just speaks to your character and the boldness that you have. So I'm really, really impressed with that.

So you were keep going with the story so you were you were kind of last minute for you this gap year. What did that feel like and how did you start the process?

AJ - 07:05

Yeah, so the second I did defer my study and that was confirmed. I had no plans of what my year would entail.

I had ideas of what I wanted to do, but I didn't necessarily have any set plans or anything set up for me.

My first step is recognizing the uncertainty of the situation we are living in amid a pandemic. I wanted to travel, but I knew that maybe this month I could travel, perhaps next month I can't.

And so it's firstly recognizing that and adapting my strategy and my plan in accordance to the situation at hand and throughout the year I really learned to embrace uncertainties and to find a way to ensure that I can have the most valued experiences amid all these uncertainties and things that randomly pop up because that's an important skill to have either way and too cold with you throughout your life.

So Speaking of that, I created a document with the month by month plan of what I wanted to accomplish and this was something that I reassessed at the end of every month.

So I would put a day aside at the end of every month to really reevaluate how my previous month was.

What did I learn? Did I get to meet as many people as I wanted to meet? Did I get to experience life in different ways? Did I get to gain practical business skills? Cause that's something I aspired to do as well so it's really being able to identify overarching goals that I wanted to accomplish and then segment that within different months. And how would accomplishing that goal look like?

Michelle Dittmer - 8:45

I think that's amazing and that follows what we teach in the gap year game plan as well. Is that first and foremost you need to start with your goals. You need to know what you want to get out of it because the worst case scenario is you're just a year older. You haven't developed any skills. You haven't experienced anything. You haven't learned anything, and you're you've just kind of spent a year, and that's not what we want. That's not what a gap year is about, so knowing what you are looking for really sets the tone so that you can make sure that you are moving forward, that you're finding the experiences that are going to make you feel good and give you the things that you want.

And then I love the fact that you broke it down month by month, especially right now With uncertainty and having to be flexible and adaptable and embracing that because like coming out of this pandemic, we were in a gig economy before and that's just going to be magnified.

You're going to be changing jobs. You're going to have to be finding your own opportunities and these are the like core skills that are going to make you successful after you graduate as well.

So I love, love that and it gives you that agility to be able to change plans if you if you set your schedule in like in stone for the year, you're going to be disappointed because things are going to change and I see it sometimes even with gappers who they try something and then they learn something about themselves and they're like actually, you know what, I don't like that or I found this other thing that's really cool and I actually want to follow that path instead. So I really like that approach.

Yeah, and the other thing that you said that really stuck out for me was having that day of reflection. Because I think sometimes we're so busy and we've just been taught to go go, go that we forget about that part to like sit down and stop and to think and to say well did I accomplish what I said out to? What could I do differently?

So what were some of the questions that you asked yourself? I know you kind of mentioned a few, but for the people listening really succinctly thinking about what. What are those questions that you asked yourself at the end of every month?

AJ - 11:05

For sure, so at the end of every month I would look back at the previous month because I would really identify particular goals and I tried to make it as specific as possible because I knew that would allow me and push me to actually have a quantitative way to know if I met my goals or not so. I would ask myself what went well? What did I enjoy out of these experiences? What have I had enough of? What do I? Want to continue doing what new things do I want to learn based off of this and do I see myself? You know, doing this in the future?

All these different conversations, really thinking that to myself and one important thing that I used to overlook a lot is the experiences I am in nature, quite academic and very ambitious, so I'd like to, you know, do this, then do this and then pursue this and work on academics and study more, but also what are my values and trying to rebalance that so I value spending time with my friends? You know, spending time with family, doing things beyond the traditional route of, just like achieving my ambitions, those are as important, if not more than your actual academic goals, for example, so recognizing that and asking myself at every month at the end of every month, and my balance, am I spending my times in proportion to what my values are?

That's something that I really learned was extremely important, so balancing all of that was an important component in that reflection.

Michelle Dittmer - 11:05

Yeah, and I love the fact that you know your values because I know in North America and in a lot of the international schools, it's so focused on academics and like your STEM subjects and your business subjects and we lose a lot of that ability to really identify our core values and that's what drives us that's what makes us feel fulfilled. That's what when we're unhappy, there's actually something rubbing up against our core values and if you don't know what those core values are, you can't identify what that thing is that's really getting under your skin.

So I love the fact that you brought that into your gap, you're experience and that you were able to identify like, whoa, I need to feed all of these values that I have in order to feel good, and I think that's something that will follow you out of your gap year into your studies and then into your life post academics as well, so I think that's so beautiful.

AJ - 13:41

I think in terms of actually because it's not as easy as it sounds to just know your values. It's something that you discover overtime, and so something that helps me throughout my year was actually starting to journal.

That's never something I really looked at or even considered doing. I kind of thought it was like weird like, but then, actually, you know surrounding myself with positive and like minded people who are really ambitious about self help and self improvement. I took inspiration from them and I started to journal and I didn't do it as often at first, so I would maybe perhaps like at the end of every week or at the end of every two weeks Just write about my experiences and through that process I actually started to identify values.

I started to realize that these were the things I'm writing about, but I'm spending 70% of my time doing something else. Why am I not spending my time doing more of this, so I'm actually taking the time to write or reflect in any way that suits you best would be really beneficial in understanding your values.

Michelle Dittmer - 14:38

That was gonna be my next question was did you put it down on paper because I think you and I are very similar like I have this perception of journaling as I'm not a writer, that's not how I tend to express myself, but there is something so clarifying about putting pen to paper or an I find it's even helpful, like literal pen to paper instead of typing because it engages my brain in a different way and the thoughts that come out come out so much more clearly than when I'm just laying in bed thinking about it. That's really cloudy. And there's all this confusion. But when I have to put it down into a sentence on a piece of paper, all of a sudden, I realize how brilliant I am, because those thoughts are in there, they just need to be untangled and writing it down like literally untangles it.

So if you're listening if you haven't tried journaling, give it a go. My recommendations would be to go out and buy a fancy pen and a fancy notebook. I'd like make it super special for you.

It's not just a scrap of paper, make it something that you that you really honor and give it its own space and fancy things, and even that small investment will give you a little bit more impetus to keep to keep journaling. So yeah, give it a go.

So how did you stay motivated over the course of your gap year? Because we all have ups and downs and there are things that come along and some days it's a little bit harder to get out of bed. What were some of the things that really helped you to stay focused, stay motivated and when you had those downtimes, how did you pick yourself back up?

AJ - 17:40

I think the main overarching thing would be to do what I genuinely love and do what I genuinely enjoyed and found interesting because that within itself was intrinsically motivating and so as I spoke about in my monthly plans, that was something that I really emphasized. Is this something that I love?

And so for example, I pursued a law internship at a law firm and I realized that law wasn't something that I necessarily loved, but that experience was really important within itself.

Because firstly, you taught me so many practical skills that I could apply no matter what, and it told me what I didn't like, which is perhaps even as important as knowing what you do like and so.

By constantly finding and changing things up based off of what I do like, I found that motivating within itself.

So since I didn't like law, I ended my internship early and then I spent another eight months doing an internship in marketing and business development which I really loved and so doing things that I was excited to do everyday that was motivated.

But as you said, there's always bad days and that even happens when you're doing things you love because you always have those moments of you know doubt and reconsideration.

And I think the most important thing for me was making sure that I surrounded myself with motivated, positive, ambitious people.

People who I've really wanted to hang out with and people who inspired me, that was perhaps the most important aspect of my year, I feel like that really kept me going cause I really value friendships and having a strong community around me and so I ended up surrounding myself.

This wasn't actually on purpose, but I ended up surrounding myself and spending a lot of time with people who are older than me people who were perhaps nearly done with the university, or even some people who completed university.

And I think that actually gave me a lot of perspective as to how to approach university and how to make the most out of my experience because they've already been through so much and so just staying with them gave me so much insights on how their life to trajectory has been after university or how they approach university and their regrets and that has allowed me to not only change my mindset in the present, but I feel much more equipped to attend university and make the most out of my experience now.

Michelle Dittmer - 20:00

I love a couple of the things that you said there and this circles back to when you were talking about your reflections. Even you said, did I meet as many people as I wanted?

Did I meet the right type of people and I think that having that community of people that are going to push you and drive you and give you different perspectives and a lot of that comes from meeting people who are one stage ahead of you, like mentors or people who have been through what you've been through because there's so much we can learn.

There's so much wisdom there and by leveling up and surrounding yourself with other people that are that are pushing you is such a healthy community to be a part of.

And two of those things we do in the gap year game plan, which is the support system that can gap has is we have a community of people who are on their gap years and then we bring in people running workshops every month.

That can be those mentors and one of the pillars for the student of leadership and Humanity award is having a mentor having somebody who has been there and done that and can guide you and keep you accountable and challenge you is such an important relationship to have. And sometimes when we're in high school, we see our teachers in that role, there's kind of a formal structure for that, but when you leave that, you've got to make that happen on your own. And so I'm so glad that that's something that you were able to recognize and to do, and that it was so formative in shaping your gap experience.

Super cool I love it! What would you say are some of your biggest lessons that you were that you were taking away from this whole experience?

AJ - 21:57

Yeah, I think the first one would definitely be to embrace failures and so this was something that obviously you know your high school teacher.

Everyone is telling you to embrace failures, but I feel like you can never at least me. I never really recognized the merit of failure, until I really failed, right?

And in high school there was this idea of failing You know you fail your exam, you fail your test, and then you never really do that same test again. So I failed, but am I really learning from it?

Not as much as if I failed during my gap year, which I did obviously so. For me, it honestly took, you know, losing a significant portion of my personal savings to investing in cryptocurrencies and stock trading, it took being rejected to more than 25 different internships. It took literally failing every day in the social enterprise that I leave with my friends called Rescue Glass.

We fail every day and overtime I understood to embrace failures by failing and I understood that failure can be one of the most authentic learning journeys you can have because it really stimulates you to it, pushes you to move forward, and so just an example of that, for example, is when investing in cryptocurrencies and stocks, you can learn from a book you can learn from you to videos that it's important that you have good risk management skills.

And so that's something I knew but then as I as I invested, I started to be more and more risky in my management because I you know, wanted the gains and emotion takes over.

And so I ended up because of that losing a significant portion of money within two hours.

All of the money that I gained, plus more throughout the entire year, and so that really hurt essentially that idea of failing that, really sticks with me now because rather than just reading on a book that you need to have risk management, good risk management skills.

I know because I failed that it really hurts and I and that sticks with me really strongly because I went through that experience and essentially doing that not only has that lesson stick with me, but it pushed me to want to learn more.

Obviously, after feeling really bad about it for a week or so, I then realized that what can I do about this? What can I take this experience and turn it into something positive as a catalyst for me to move forward?

What I did was I started watching YouTube videos, something as simple as that and then from there I read a book about investing and then I was motivated from that book to pursue more Coursera courses and from that I did virtual internship programs online and this was all because I initially failed.

It really pushed me to try all these different things and one thing that's important is you need to recognize when you fail and you need to be as devastating as it is at the time push yourself to make the most out of that experience and so that's something that I really learned how to embrace failures.

Michelle Dittmer - 24:03

I love it, I love it. Failure is the best teacher that exists and it is real.

It is hard and it's how we grow. If we're successful at everything we never encounter, those things we never have the opportunity to be curious and to iterate and to grow and to evolve.

And so taking those small risks on your gap year is a great time to do that because the consequences of failing are so much less than failing and beyond your gap year, so this is really a time to experiment and to get out there and to test and to try and to fail, and to be OK with failing.

We have this. This fear of failure failing is bad. We don't want to fail. We don't want any of that, and especially with social media, we don't want anybody to see us failing, so I'm glad that you have the confidence to say no, I failed. I failed again and I failed again and I'm OK with that because I learned from it and I think that's such a powerful thing to say.

There was a workshop I did, I was doing a small exercise on failure and you take your paper if you want to do this at home, take your paper, divide it vertically and on one side list all of the things that you failed at.

So put that down there and then on the other side of the paper right at the top wisdom and what did you learn? What was the wisdom that came from that failure?

And then you take that paper and you rip it in half, and you hold both those pieces of paper in your hand and you can throw out one of those papers, or you can throw out both of those papers and what is going to stick with you so you have to learn to.

In the best case scenario you can throw, I should say in one scenario you throw out both of them, you throw out the failure and the learning and it's gone. You forget it, you move on.

In the best case scenario you let go of the failures and you let those experiences go and you acknowledge them and you say thank you. But I'm going to keep the wisdom. I'm going to keep the learning and I'm going to let go of all the hurt. And the pain and the disappointment that came from those failures.

I'm going to let that go. But I'm going to keep this wisdom because this is what this is. What I was meant to learn. And this is what I'm going to carry forward with me and like for you, it's it can be very motivating if you stay curious about it and that's something else that I hear a lot from you is following your curiosity and sometimes you hit that roadblock that failure and then you do a U turn or a left turn or a right turn. But you don't keep going on that same path you figure out.

What is the next obstacle and how are you going to attack it with new knowledge and new experience? Amazing, I think that's such a powerful message and to not be afraid of it and to embrace it, because there will be other things in life where that we're going to fail at.

And that's yeah, amazing. And so how do you think your gap year is going to set you up for success in your future, either in your studies or in your career, or with your social enterprise? What are some of the things that you think are going to translate really well?

AJ - 28:47

First of all, talking in terms of mindset. I think one of the most pivotal things that I've learned is the power of saying Yes! Beyond saying yes, consistently seeking opportunities that discomfort you and knocking on every door you can find, cause these experiences will open you to unimaginable outcomes. For me, that's going to stick with me for a while. Even in university, for example, I'll be more than willing to join different organizations. Say yes to different networking events, to different opportunities and social events to meet new people, to try new careers and activities. I think that's really important, because it allows you to have a breadth of experience.

That mentality will really stick with me for a long time I believe, and I think that will allow me to really explore different interests to fail more to succeed more, and to try all these different things that will help shape me into the person that I want to be.

So firstly, the mentality and then now into more of the specific things that I'll be able to take with me more of the practical skills that I've learned throughout the year.

Firstly, through investing in you know cryptocurrency stocks and ETF's. I failed and I learned from it and I really learned some valuable skills in terms of, you know, personal finance and I think that could really stick with me later, especially because with personal finance we know about the power of compounding and so being able to learn that lesson earlier would really allow me to set myself up for success later on in the future, hopefully getting that head start.

More than that, I talked a bit about my internship at a law firm as well as an internship at a mattress company where I did marketing and business development and so before I was very much on the finance and economics route of things, but doing marketing and digital marketing within an internship really showed me that I really enjoyed it and it was much more dynamic and I felt like there was more strategy and more interpersonal skills involved within that process, which I found much more fulfilling.

So now I will perhaps be adjusting my university plans to focus on marketing and finance rather than taking the you know more technical finance and economics route of things, and so that's something I also developed.

And beyond that, working with my social enterprise that I spoke about essentially what we do is we upcycle and recycle glass bottles and we turn them into household items, such as candles, wine decanters, drinking glasses and things like that.

So I think that process really for one, reiterated the value of giving back to society of recognizing how fortunate I am and how fortunate we can all be and our role to play in giving back to society because that's what we really emphasize throughout that social enterprise, and I think working on that for the entire year really embedded that value into my own values as well.

More than that I learned just so many skills, business skills, meeting new people, making new friends and I think having those experiences really allow me to learn those practical skills for the future, but also give me that mindset to be able to adapt and tackle any other different opportunities that I may be faced with as well.

Michelle Dittmer - 32:09

So no small learnings here, all big giant learnings! And just imagine if you had just gone straight into school and how different your perspective and your mindset would be and how different your career trajectory would be without all of that experiential learning and without all of those experiences and the people you met, your life would probably be very different. Even if the mechanics of it are the same, the approach and the value and the perspective that you're taking is completely different.

AJ - 32:49

Just something to add to that I think especially for people taking a gap year during the pandemic, it may be hard to navigate as many in-person experiences, but one thing that I found was exceptionally useful was websites like Coursera or Forage and all these like there's virtual internship programs, so I actually pursued over 28 online courses throughout the year, so anything that I was interested in, anything that I felt like I wouldn't be able to learn within schools, so something as specific as Excel skills for business or market research and consumer behavior or brand management or something within Google, because Google has, you know, Google Ads video certification or pursuing the Facebook, you know social media marketing certificate.

There are so many different niche topics that you can really delve into and a lot of these you can get for free or at a very low cost compared to for example universities. So really taking advantage of these opportunities, all of this online is available to you at your fingertips. I think it's really important, especially during the pandemic, when there's perhaps not as many experiences to do. You know in person, so I think that's something that I just wanted to point out.

Michelle Dittmer - 34:00

Yeah, I think that's such a great point because a lot of people feel disappointed that they can't do an in-person internship, or they come up with so many can’ts and we really need to flip that into, “well, what can you do?”

And if you have that curiosity, if there's something that piques your interest, there is something out there to learn or to experience, and you can't just sit at home with your arms folded across your chest feeling sorry for yourself.

You have to take the initiative and you gotta go out there and you gotta find it. You gotta make it happen and you can make magic happen when you put the energy into it. But you've got to have number one like we started off with those goals, you've got to know which direction you're going. You have to put in the effort to find those experiences. And then you've got to exit them if they're not serving you, get out of there, try something different there's no reason to stick something out till the end if it's not working for you and you are a living breathing example of somebody who's been through that and has navigated it so successfully.

So do you have any advice for people, um, who are taking a gap year like I think you've given so many solid pieces, but is there one Cornerstone piece of wisdom that you want to just like mic drop with?

AJ - 35:26

So yeah, because for me particularly I know that now having experienced this gap year because I was forced into it because of the pandemic. If there was no pandemic, really understanding this experience would have pushed me to take a gap here.

But unfortunately for me I was perhaps a bit stubborn at first there was no way that someone could have convinced me to take a gap year, so I hope that by me saying this, that really emphasizes that message, but I'd say to go for it even if you know exactly what you want to do, or you have no clue at all. I think it's a great opportunity to explore your interests, have fun, broaden your perspectives, learn invaluable skills, and all of this, if anything will put you in the right mindset to go to university or whatever it is that you decide to do next.

So in terms of my overarching advice I'd probably say you know, be ambitious. Try new things you know. Aspire to meet new people and have fun. Have fun doing what you love. Have fun trying new things, delving into what you enjoy and learning what you don't enjoy. I think the year is for you and it's really what you make out of it.

So I think if you have an entire year to really shape it and do whatever you want to do, you can really accomplish some amazing things and learn some amazing things at the end.

Michelle Dittmer - 36:54

There have been so many incredible pieces of your story that I think really resonate with our listeners and the people following along and maybe they want to follow up with you a little more, is there somewhere that they can get in touch with you?

AJ - 37:05

Yeah, for sure, I'll be more than happy to talk to anyone about my experience and to guide them in whatever way I may be able to so you can contact me through LinkedIn or on Instagram.

Michelle Dittmer - 37:20

Amazing and we will put those links in the show notes so everybody can find you a J you are just such a delight to talk to. You are so wise and you have had some incredible experiences and I'm just so grateful that you've shared them with me and it will really help so many people on their gap year experience, so thank you so much for joining me!

AJ - 37:42

Thank you so much for having me. It's truly a pleasure. I really appreciate it.

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