top of page
  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

How to evaluate the safety of gap year programs

Calling out all gappers and gapper parents 📣 are you leaving home for your gap year adventure either to another country or continent entirely?! While this is super exciting, it can be very intimidating and anxiety inducing.

But, you are in luck because we have safety expert Dave from Cornerstone who's going to walk us through how we can look at risk in a different way and how we can evaluate different program providers for the level of safety they're able to provide us when we are on the ground with them.

You don’t want to miss this, take a listen!

Topics Discussed

  • Meet safety expert Dave and learn about Cornerstone Safety Group.

  • Safety green flags to look out for in experiential gap year programs.

  • Risk and Safety in 3 Core Buckets

    • Understanding yourself and onboarding with the program.

    • Developing support systems within your group.

    • Managing events when they arise.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode


Leaving home for a gap year experience can be really intimidating, maybe even scary.

But we're going to jump in with our expert today, Dave from Cornerstone Safety, who's going to walk us through how we can look at risk in a different way and how we can evaluate different program providers for the level of safety they're able to provide us when we are on the ground with them.

It's a wonderful episode, so take a listen.

Michelle Dittmer 00:27

Hey there, everyone. Welcome to the Gap Year podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year expert.

And today's episode is all about safety. We know that is top of mind for gappers.

We know that is top of mind for parents. And knowing that our young people maybe haven't done as much travel or as much overnight experiences In the last little bit, we all are extra sensitive around this and with good reason.

So that's why we brought in our expert today who's going to share with us all about what we need to know, what we need to do in order to make it the best experience possible for everyone and that includes all of the safety elements which are the foundation to making sure all of those other beautiful things that happen on program can happen.

So I want to welcome Dave Dennis to the show today. Welcome Dave!

Dave Dennis 01:25

Hi, Michelle. Thanks for having me.

Michelle Dittmer 01:26

Yeah, I'm so excited to have you here, and I'm excited because you are a true expert in this field. So much so that you have your own organization that is centered around this. So maybe you can give us the backstory and the history about what has led up to this conversation today here on the podcast and your journey and why this is such an important topic for you and your organization.

Dave Dennis 01:56

Yeah, thanks for that. You know, I really think of it in a two-fold kind of exploration and just kind of evolution of where the industry has taken me.

So, to start off on the personal side of things, you know, when I finished university, I kind of did my own self-exploration for a period of several years where I was doing a gap-like Experiment, if you will, meaning I worked seasonal jobs, I wasn't happy in corporate America, I just knew that there was something beyond what that looked like and I found my way into travel and I spent four years as a tour leader or a program leader taking international groups all around North America.

So that got a little bit of flavor into this travel environment and it really resonated with me and I've stayed with it now for 28 years.

On the risk and safety side, I really started managing offices and managing situations that just happen out there in international travel. Found a liking to it in a strange enough way, but really there was a pivotal moment where we had a pretty significant event as the organization and it really started reshaping how I thought about travel and risk and safety, which led to me planting roots and getting a master's degree and I found my way as the vice president or leader of global risk and safety for multiple organizations that work in the high school and the gap year space.

Fast forward to what that actually means, when I was in that leadership position I always had a challenge wanting to have a doctor, wanting to have a therapist to help support me and the students in the field in terms of challenges and struggles and just things that were outside of my wheelhouse if you will and there was just nobody speaking that language organizing these types of systems and tools so I created Cornerstone and what we do at Cornerstone is we very targetedly and intentionally Work with program providers of gap year and high school programming.

We have myself and another colleague focused on the risk management side, but we have two doctors, two therapists, and we're really the phone a friend or the extension of the program providers, both helping to onboard students, develop programs, and we're there on call as well. So that's the kind of work that we do at Cornerstone.

Michelle Dittmer 04:00

I love it and I love that you bring to the table this lived experience from your personal gap experience to being a professional in multiple organizations and I think that's really important because every organization is structured differently, they are functioning in different spaces, different lengths of program.

So the fact that you've kind of seen it all is really helpful because I think as we are going to go through this conversation we're looking kind of at the 30,000 foot view to hopefully give people as much information as possible and stuff that's going to be relevant to them and you are definitely very relevant and are going to have so much great to share and as a side note I also started out as a tour director so we have a lot in common. Those humble roots of not sleeping and eating in restaurants and staying in hotels forever.

I feel you, I lived it, it's great.

Dave Dennis 05:02

Yes, the nomadic lifestyle, no doubt.

Michelle Dittmer 05:06

You got it, you got it. My house was my backpack.

All right, so our audience here is parents and gappers and a lot of questions I get when people are looking at various programs and experiences. How do I know if this organization is legitimate? How do I know if this organization is going to be safe for me? That's like the foundation to being able to say yes to participating is knowing that you're going to be fundamentally safe. So when families are looking at programs and evaluating programs, what are some of the things that you think they should be really looking for?

Dave Dennis 05:51

Yeah, at first, let me start by just kind of teasing the word safe for a moment, because I think on one side, safe means different things to different people.

We all have that inherent kind of risk threshold. What's good for me isn't necessarily good for the next person. And the other that I speak a lot to with program providers is around we make it as safe as possible, but nobody can guarantee safety. We know that there's inherent risk to travel to begin with as well. I dare to say that there's more risk walking down the street because we're more casual, we're not paying as close attention to if we're surrounded by new environments and so forth as well. And you don't have other people looking out for you when you're walking around the street which is what the program providers do.

So the first thing, how do I know if they're legit? I think there's tangible pieces.

Are they registered? Do they have insurance? You know, are they accredited by some sort of an organization or accrediting body? I think that's important and that just speaks to the credibility piece to the organization. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they're safe. Again, pulling on that thread of what does safety mean to individual people? That's really where having conversations and speaking transparently around what is my experience or what is my student or child's experience looking like and what are we trying to gain from the gap component and this gap experience?

Then I think we can think about regionality of it. What are my personal needs? And we'll dive into all these later. But what do I need to support myself while I'm traveling? Is it Regular communication with the therapist, do I need to be within Wi-Fi range or do I want to go tech-free and go out to Nepal in areas that are a little disconnected in those regards because that's the experience I'm looking for.

So I guess the underlying point is it's that alignment of what I'm looking for in my experience and how does the organization, the program provider, speak in terms that resonate with me because that alignment and that fit is really the driving force.

Michelle Dittmer 07:56

Yeah, I couldn't agree more and when I'm talking with families, I always say you need to create your own risk profile. What is acceptable and not acceptable to you as a family? What are your expectations? What are your needs? What does that look like? Because there are lots of different providers out there that provide different levels of service or different dimensions to the programming that they're providing.

So really you need to know what you're looking for before just blindly jumping in and saying, is this safe or not? Because that's not necessarily true. Each person has their different risk profile and so it's about finding that match.

Dave Dennis 08:40

I totally agree! When I put on my provider hat, I think about really risk and safety in three core buckets. It's the student, what do we know and how do we onboard? It's how do we develop programs and support systems therein? And then how do we manage events when they come up? So if I can, I'd love to just quickly dive into each three of those.

When we think about the student, not only should they be asking what the experience is, what are you looking for, we want to hear from the families or the students themselves. There's of course the legal paperwork that needs to be signed, but really where the nuts and bolts of everything risk-wise speaks to the health information that's shared from the family or the student to the organization.

Give you an example, my son has celiac so gluten is kind of a no-go for him and he has various different reactions and so forth. I would want to share with the operator that this is something that is troublesome for my child right or if there's Insulin needs or epinephrine related to allergies and so forth. Those are the types of pieces that I think organizations need to know and they should be responding and giving confidence to a parent and a student likewise in terms of how do they manage that, how do we work as a team and what part of that risk relationship do you own and what can we provide in that regard.

Where I do find a hiccup is around the mental health component and I understand why, right? We're asking to speak to somebody that we don't know, maybe over a phone or a Zoom or even just a form, and share what this looks like in my personal life. But when we think about the context of going, even domestically, but internationally, going into these environments, because those operators and their guides are their hands on the ground overseeing the safety and well-being, we deem it as duty of care within the industry. But that duty of care is real and if we don't know the information and we aren't aligned in that but then it's revealed later on once we're in the program. The example being I need to speak to a therapist or I have chronic anxiety or something and I'm starting to have a distressful moment on a program.

If we know about that as an organization we train our staff on it that's one way to approach and support but if we're really on our heels and we're unaware of it I think that's where the complications and the deeper impact surface in that regard. I think that relationship in what are my needs as a student and a family, how does that relate to the operator, but also feeling comfortable in that sharing component as well.

Michelle Dittmer 11:08

I think you hit the nail on the head when you say it's a team effort. The transition from adolescence into adulthood is so similar to the toddler years.

When you pass your kid off to a babysitter, your little kid, you're like, oh my goodness, here's their bedtime, here's the type of food they like, they don't like their sandwich cut in four squares, they need triangles, They really need this little stuffy when they go to bed and we provide that person who we're putting our child in care with, with all of the details they need to be successful in caring for our child.

And it's the same thing when we are launching our older young person and we're entrusting them into somebody else. If we don't give them a heads up, if we don't share those details then they kind of have to deal with it on the fly and might not have the resources that they need or it might not be equipped to support that particular need on the ground and that's kind of a worst case scenario. So, while it is very personal and it is something that can be really, again, sometimes still stigmatized, Having that language and that awareness doesn't mean that provider is going to share it with every other individual on the trip.

They are taking that into the design of their program, into the support that they're going to be able to provide and making sure that they can support you on the trip.

So, I just wanted to underline, underscore how vitally important that is to have that dialogue so that everybody can have a good experience.

Dave Dennis 12:53

Well, and I think what you're pointing to as well as I reflect because I have a 23 year old and a 19 year old and letting them go into the real world is challenging.

I think in many cases it's harder on us as parents. The kids feel equipped and so forth, I call them kids. I know they're young adults and so forth, but I think it's harder on parents, right?

And we try to create that comfort blanket and that structure when that actually needs to be loosened up to create that independence and that flexibility and so forth, because really this space in life is all about exploration, not figuring out what am I going to be or what am I going to do for the rest of my life, but what does the next few years look like as I learn how to be an adult and away from that safety blanket.

In many cases, obviously, situations differ.

Michelle Dittmer 13:37

Yeah, I love it. All right, so that was bucket one. You had some other buckets you wanted to jump into.

Dave Dennis 13:43

Yes, when I think about the program and the program design, I could bore you and everybody else listening on what we do as organizations to design programs.

Michelle Dittmer 13:50

You couldn’t bore me, but let's think of the listener!

Dave Dennis 13:55

Yeah, thank you, Michelle. I appreciate that. But really, it's a deep dive.

It takes on average about a year to 18 months to plan a trip before we actually launch it, advertise it, and put students or boots in the field in that regard.

But there's a lot that goes into it in terms of the destination, the itinerary, we want to create these wonderful experiences that walk this line of pushing sensible boundaries, you know, when I talk about risk tolerance and risk appetite and what that looks like, you know, the appetite is who I am as a person, the tolerance is what is it on the program, what is it as the organization.

I highlight that because we always speak in the tolerance of the organization.

We want to do controlled risk measures where students feel pushed to try new foods, sleep in different type of accommodations, create these experiences that are pushing those boundaries, but in the backdrop we're doing it responsibly.

We've put in risk management plans, we've dialogued with service providers if we're going rafting, what does their organization look like, and so forth. So there's a lot of nuts and bolts that go into that program design.

What families, students, parents, and guardians need to understand is, again, what are my special needs, what do I need to think about in those regards, and how does that relate to the success of what I'm trying to get out of it. And that's the program piece as well, just because there's a lot of components and I think we all need to understand that If I'm a program provider, I know the experience but I don't know transportation in the local culture or in the local region. I'm not a rafting guide or a kayaking guide, so those are outsourced activities and I spend a lot of my time through Cornerstone about vendor vetting and building those relationships and running incident scenarios and those type of things to firm up that alignment between organizations.

But that's the boring stuff that I don't think families and students need to know about.

Michelle Dittmer 15:43

But they need to know that it's happening and there's accountability there behind the scenes. That this isn't them just driving down the road seeing a sign saying whitewater rafting, hey let's pull over and do that. This has been in the process for a long time and there are lots of checks and balances before anything will get approved along the way. So I think that's a really great point.

Dave Dennis 16:05

Awesome! The third bucket is all around like what happens, both from an incident response standpoint, but just a general communication.

You know, again, when I spoke earlier about the release of our young adults into the real world, it's very easy. We have find friends on our phones, we have those type of things. So tracking is kind of real. And it's that separation anxiety and again I've gone through it as a parent as well.

So I think understanding what is the organization, what is their frequency of communication and in what methods. We want to make sure that we're aligned when WhatsApp or a text message is appropriate versus a monthly or a weekly email if that's the way they approach it. Maybe they have student blogs and so forth in that regard.

What I can speak to industry-wide is organizations typically will make a phone call to parents and guardians if their loved one, if their student has to go under medical care. Now sometimes a day visit to a clinic for a rash or maybe I'm a little ill and we just want to get checked out, maybe there's some nuances there, but generally speaking if somebody's admitted to a hospital that's going to be a phone call and that's what we want to have is that conversation.

Sometimes students have their phones, sometimes they don't, so we don't always rely on the students, but again I think creating that unidirectional or bi-directional aspect in terms of when are you going to call me, when should I hear those updates, if it goes outside those boundaries, that's when I begin to worry, but I think it can be very disruptive if there's an overcompensation of, hey, what's going on, what is my student up to today type of thing, we have to let go to a degree and that flexibility, which means we need to have comfort in the organization that's overseeing that.

Michelle Dittmer 17:44

I stand behind that so wholeheartedly and I think really knowing the communication plan is so helpful. From a personal anecdote, my husband is a teacher and he travels with his students and out of the blue I got a text message from the head of school into my phone and I started panicking because I thought something was wrong, but it was just an update, everything is fine.

But I hadn't had that conversation with the team about the frequency of updates I should be receiving as somebody staying home while my loved ones were abroad.

And so I think really understanding that cadence is really important. And also, I think one of the other pieces as a parent and as a former tour leader, when our kids do have the access to their phones or access to communication at home, we as parents need to divert some of those concerns back to the tour leader. I've experienced where kids have called home, mom I have diarrhea, well did you tell the tour director, like did you tell the people I can do nothing from here in Canada to help you with your diarrhea? The people on the ground need to hear that and so really encourage, not only parents passing on their trust to the organization but the young people as well and so that they know when they're on the ground this is your de facto parent.

This is the person that needs access to the things that are happening in your mind, in your body, because they're the ones that can give you the best support on the ground.

Dave Dennis 19:26

And I think that's so important. I love what you're saying there. And I think what I'm also picking up is being an advocate, a parent advocate to our child.

If we're allowing them to text us about every little ailment, yes, I want to underscore your point around talk to the people, have you told your guide, your leader and so forth, they can help you out, their systems in place. But if we're also allowing and even encouraging our student to reach out to me to talk about all the problems on the trip, rather than, hey, are you engaging? Have you made a good friend on the trip? Tell me about what you're enjoying. What's your favorite thing on the trip so far?

To kind of redirect to the positive aspect. I think it's really easy in my experience, both with my own children, but just being in this line of work, it's easy for us to go down the wormhole of all of the things that are wrong.

And now I'm just reaching out to my parent or guardian because it's easy and I'm comfortable and I think it's our role to repivot that or reposition that into, hey tell me about the good things, okay great let's talk in a few days if that's the case or so forth, go out there you're doing great I'm proud of you. Like those are wonderful messages to bring that fulfillment and that excitement back into the student if they're starting to go down you know a different channel.

Michelle Dittmer 20:38

And allowing them to do their own problem solving on the ground. We hear this tiger parent, we hear this helicopter parent, the snowplow parent, all of these things where parents are coming in and solving the problems for their young people and when your continents away that's not possible and it's not in the best interest of your young person who's going to be an adult very soon and going to be independent and if they are not getting the opportunity to practice those skills and to advocate for themselves or to manage relationships for themselves or to even express displeasure or discomfort with something that's happening. Those are all very human skills that are super important for the young people to experience while they're on the ground because goodness knows the trip is not going to be perfect because no experience is perfect and by being able to have those conversations and navigate those challenges that's where a lot of the real growth will come.

Dave Dennis 21:43

You know, you touched on a really important topic and it makes me think about the communication or the engagement. We talked about alignment between families and the organization themselves.

What I will say what brings a little bit of pause or hesitation with the organization when it's always the parent or guardian phoning into the organization. The student isn't involved in their own experience or design or asking questions. So, I love that we were talking before recording this just about the commitment level and what we're starting to see within trends and patterns and I get the nervousness.

I mean, if we think about the challenging years that we're coming out of with students, making a commitment to jump into a gap experience is scary, especially if we've had that decision-making or that getting out of comfort zones removed for several years and now we're trying to thrust it back in.

It's a really nerve-wracking time, right? So I think, again, talking to organizations, parents can just speak to the terms of, hey, are you excited? What excites you about this? What are you nervous about? Let's have that dialogue and really pull back the covers a little bit and explore some of that vulnerability piece because then I think parents can articulate that well to the organization and become that ally, you know, combined ally towards the experience.

Michelle Dittmer 22:54

I love that, I love that. So our young people are having these experiences and you and I know what the end result is going to be coming out the end, but when it comes to being their own advocate and going on these experiences and having all of this transformation, how does that kind of play out with the narrative of risk

Management? What does that look like for the young person and what does their journey look like?

Dave Dennis 23:28

I think that freedom to gain that independence and understand the journey, right? Because there's a lot of inherent nervousness around how am I going to be safe? What does that look like? Right? And I think we can manage some of the tangible pieces around health, around emotional well-being and so forth.

But where do we find that comfort and safety in exploring and being independent?

To really get the experience or the fulfillment out of that experience. What I'm personally going through and what I talk a lot about with students and families themselves is what is the purpose of my GAP experience? And for me it's not trying to figure out who we are as a career adult, who we're going to be with a wife and family and kids.

Really this moment in time and it sounds funny coming from Somebody later in their years, career-wise and otherwise, but there's a lot of pressure put on figuring out who we are as individuals and why GAP kind of fills that, you know, GAP for lack of better phrasing, because that's it. It creates this independence, it creates this time in life where I think we need to preserve and be able to do that in this manner.

So again, utilizing the risk measure, whether you're going with a program provider, a student may design their own gap semester or gap period in life. What does that look like and what am I trying to do?What are my overarching goals for any of those pieces? And then doing so, of course, in a safe measure, but once we can get rid of the inherent risk and the most poignant risk to my individual safety can free up my brain to then really focus on that experience of where I'm going, what I'm gaining out of that from a program goal.

Michelle Dittmer 25:05

I love it! Anybody who listens to the podcast knows I harp on the goals of the gap year all the time. If you don't know what you're trying to get out of it, you're going to be wasting your time. So I'm behind you 100% on that one. And another thing that I often talk about is These three zones that we exist in.

We have our comfort zone which is where we are just completely at home, comfortable, no stress, life is good. Then we have our challenge zone where we're getting out of the comfort zone and we are pushing our boundaries. We are a little bit uncomfortable but we make things happen. And then we have the overwhelm zone where it is just so far out of our comfort zone that we are not growing, we are not learning, we are just in fight or flight mode, not helpful to be in that overwhelm space and I think the more that we can push ourselves into that challenge zone.

The more that we as parents can encourage our young people to get into that challenge zone, the more they're going to grow and learn and develop and the challenge doesn't have to be jumping out of a plane or whitewater rafting in a foreign country.

It's about defining what those zones are for you as an individual and making those incremental, taking those incremental calculated risks so that you can get into that comfort zone and that's how you're going to grow and that's how you're going to evolve as a person and become the adult that you want to be.

Dave Dennis 26:40

That's exactly right. You know, when I reflect on my own personal experiences and travel, yes, it's fun to have skydiving and bungee jumping and the rafting experiences.

Those are just great adrenaline things which are fun in their own right. But the most meaningful pieces is Understanding how the world operates and how other people live and how does that reflect on whether it's the privilege or just the comfort that I have in my own life and how does that relate to other people and seeing their joy in living in a different way and it gets to be uncomfortable and it's challenging in the moment but those are the pieces and the elements that I carry on forever and when I think about it people ask me what is most meaningful about your travel give me some of the experiences It's never the jumping out of airplanes or anything, it's

always let me tell you about this homestay, let me tell you about this meal I had in a community, let me tell you when I ate guinea pig in Peru, like weird strange things like that are just outside but it helped me understand my place in the world, that we are connected in so many fundamental ways in around the world and aside from all of the chaos and the perception of how dangerous the world is, it is a very safe place and that's where we're driving towards and that's how we can create these and these situations, these experiences in that safe manner, just understanding what does that look like, what is my piece in it and having the courage to jump out and do those things. No pun intended with the jump out.

Michelle Dittmer 28:05

Well, I think that's a wonderful message to wrap up this conversation today about how this is really an opportunity to build understanding and perception and perspective on life and those skills and the realities that we can take back with us after getting out of our comfort zone can really help not only shape who we are but how we interact with the rest of the world and goodness knows right now the world needs people who have broader perspectives and Can be empathetic towards all sorts of other walks of life, the environment and the way that the world operates because we are in a moment of change where our young people are really going to be leading that forward.

So I'm excited for them to take those calculated risks, get out there, develop themselves and experience the world so that we are in great hands moving forward.

100% agree, well said Michelle.

Well Dave, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today.

This has been a great conversation and I'm sure there's going to be lots of follow-up questions so please feel free to send me an email and if there's interest we will set up another chat where people can bring their individual questions to Dave and we can get that all set up for you.

So you can send me an email info at and we will get those questions in front of Dave at another time.

So thanks so much for coming Dave and thanks everybody for listening.

Thank you, bye.

bottom of page