Resources To Help Students Build A Strong Foundation During Their Gap Year with Michael Shouldice


We all have regrets, however, if we plan our gap year mindfully, we can lay the foundation for a very bright future. Today's guest Michael Shouldice from Athabasca University talks about his three gap years and some of the things that he would have done differently if he were to do it all over again. A lot of that comes down to accessing the right resources that can help you build a successful foundation during your gap year.

Michelle and Michael dive deeper into his gap year experiences where he talks about his time spent abroad working in Australia. He drops some golden-nugget resources for students who are taking a gap year and transitioning on to university, employment or both. Stick around to the very end of the episode where Michael shares a little bit more about how Athabasca University can fit into your gap year and allow you to earn university credits, while still having the freedom that a gap year provides.

Topics Discussed With

  • Michael describes his first gap year between high school and university and his regret for not having access to the gap year resources at the time.

  • Michael discusses the second gap year and moving to Australia through one of the Government of Canada’s visa opportunities (like International Experience Canada!).

  • Michael re-visits his third gap year in his mid-thirties after he transitioned from the Software industry and his regrets for not taking advantage of some of the gap year resources that were available at the time.

  • Three resources to mindfully plan your gap year activities so that it coincides with your goal.

  • The importance of knowing what opportunities are available to students during their gap year.

  • How Athabasca’s distance university can easily tie into a student’s gap year with their flexible intake and their diverse asynchronous classes.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Association

Join Gapper Connect on Discord to connect with students thinking about a gap year, current Gappers, and alum all in one place!


Episode 66 - Resources To Help Students Build A Strong Foundation During Their Gap Year with Michael Shouldice


Michelle - We all have regrets and today's guest Michael Shouldice from Athabasca University talks about his three gap years and some of the things that he would have done differently if he were to do it all over again. And a lot of that comes down to accessing some amazing resources that are out there. So, stick around, listen to what he has to say and if you're interested in earning university credits on your gap year. Stick around to the very end of the episode, where Michael shares a little bit more about how Athabasca University can fit into your gap year and allow you to earn some university credits, while still having the freedom that a gap year provides. Let's dive in!

[Music & Intro]

Michelle - Welcome to the gap year Podcast where we explore the who, what, where, when and why of gap years. It's real people sharing their stories, ideas, and experts diving deep into how you can make the right decisions in order to have a meaningful gap year. This is the place to be no matter where you are on your gap year journey. I'm Michelle Dittmer, your resident gap your expert. Let's jump right in.

Michelle - Hey there and welcome to The Gap Year Podcast. My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and gap year expert. I almost said ghost this time, your host and gap your expert. And on today's episode, we have the incredible Michael Shouldice. Not only is he a gap year alum, but he is an incredible human being that has so much knowledge on everything to do with Athabasca University. So, you've got so much to talk to you about today. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Michael - Thanks so much, Michelle. It's absolutely a pleasure to be able to find some time today to connect with you and in the future, with the people that will enjoy this podcast. Thanks again for the time.

Michelle - Amazing, amazing. So, I gave just like a quick, super, high-level overview. But let's talk about in your present day. Who are you? And what are you doing with your life in the present day?

Michael - Yeah, for sure. So, present-day right now I'm happy husband, happy dad. So, I've been married now, oh my goodness, 2009, I guess, maybe, hopefully, that's right. If it's not, I missed a couple years, 2007, something like that. The kids are ten and eight. So, I coached the one soccer team and happily watch the other because it's hard to coach two teams at the same time. So, that's a lot of fun to play soccer myself, every Sunday, and I work as you mentioned, for Athabasca University, where I'm the manager of partnerships and collaborations. I've been doing that role with different titles for a long, long time and that's actually how we met. Through that role where I was, we were at a conference together for Gap Year Association. And developed a sort of a vision that the two of us are looking to, you know, help students and people in their transition, as they move out of something that they know, and into something that they don't and how can we help them with that foundation. You know, it's with great pleasure that Athabasca University partners with Canadian Gap Year Association and gives us this opportunity to talk as you said. I've done two gap years actually. That I didn't even know I was doing at the time and didn't know that I had done. Until we connected and talked about it and then you know all the switches were flipping, and then oh my goodness, I did that. And couldn't I have done it better, if by knowing a couple more things. So, yeah, that's where we are, living and working in Edmonton, raising the family, doing the thing, waiting for Wednesday when we get back above zero.

Michelle - Oh, my goodness. Yeah, yeah, I was talking to somebody in Winnipeg today, they're at minus twenty-one. So, think zero's pretty, balmy. I think you said a couple things that were really, I just want to kind of underline there. That that transition, moving from something known to something unknown. Because that's a kind of a scary place to be because we're creatures of habit, and we like to be in that comfort zone, and anytime we're making a transition, whether that's from elementary school to high school. Or whether that's out of high school into adulthood. Or from single life to married life. Like all of these transitions are, going from known too unknown. And that's a tricky place to be in life and to have resources out there and to have tools at your disposal, and to know that they exist. That's such a huge piece. I think we're going to circle back to that probably a little later in this conversation, but I think you foreshadowed it pretty well with that introduction there. You said you took two gap years. How did that come about? So, at the time, you didn't have the language of gap year. You didn't have that terminology, which is very common in Canada. I would say nine out of ten people I talked to they say no, no, I'm not on a gap year, I'm just taking time off. So, I would say you're not alone in that we're starting to see a shift. But when you took that time off what you now know, as a gap year, what led up to those decisions?

Michael - Yeah, for sure. So, I was old, or I am old. So, I was young once, and at that point I was going through the Ontario high school curriculum, as they were changing from grade 13 to OEC credits and I had my university paths sort of in mind. I was going to go to Guelph or to Ryerson. Either for Hotel and Food Admin, or Hospitality and Tourism Management, because I was working hotels at the time - a part-time job. And through the credit system, I didn't have a full year's worth of classes to do for my last year of high school and I said. Why would I spend a whole year going to school, if I could change high schools and graduate in January? And bless my parents, they let me make my own mistakes, because what you want to do is, you want to stay in high school with all of your friends for your last year, and have no classes, because that would have been awesome. I mean, I had an equally good time, maybe at the school I went to. I find I made a couple of new friends, but being only there for one semester, and doing only like two classes that made that a bit of a challenge. So anyway, I'm out of high school now, January. University doesn't start till September. So, this is what's the math on that nine months, eight, nine months, which is, you know, the better part of a gap year that didn't have the label at the time, because this is '89, ‘89, '90. So, I wound up working, which was great. Still, in hotels, I was working in my field, I was getting experience that I was going to be able to take into my university classes. But there's a ton of stuff that had to have the resources that exist now. Or had I known about the resources that exist now, because some of them were still there probably. I would have been able to build a stronger foundation, even than what I had going into university, got some more knowledge about what that academic piece was going to look like, to balance with what I already knew from industry to bring with me. So, that was the first one.

Michelle - Yeah, and I just want to jump here, because I love that you keep using this term, these foundational skills. Or build a stronger foundation for whatever your next step is because that's essentially what a gap year is. Is really solidifying maybe what direction you want to go in, or you're developing some maturity or getting some world experience, that actually will make you a stronger. Whatever the next step is, whether that's a student or an employee, or whatever that next step is. But it's a year to really build that really solid, rock-solid foundation so that you can be successful. I would also say that that idea that your gap year wasn't twelve months because a lot of people think well, it starts in September, and it goes to the following September and that's the definition of a gap year. But there are tons of people that have gap two years or gap nine months or gap six months. Even right now in the pandemic, we are seeing a lot of students may be going back for an additional semester like you did, because they didn't get the courses they want or the marks they wanted, or they just didn't feel ready for post-secondary. So, they're also finishing up in January, February and they can take that second semester off and I really encourage people to do it. Because being in that same environment, like you talked about the shift into a new school giving us like some new friends and some new experiences. But I would also argue that sticking around past your kind of expiry date, you're not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Whereas if you choose to step away from the formal schooling and do something different, you can have a really fruitful experience. So I just wanted to pull out those two little pieces there that I just find so fascinating and so noteworthy, I guess I should say.

Michael - Yeah, thanks for that, I appreciate it. The second gap year time, which also was not a full year, happened after I graduated from university. So, I did the Hospitality and Tourism Management program at Ryerson currently University X soon to be something else. And when I graduated, all of my experience had been in hotels, barring like one Maitre’d job that I had. And I got a really cool Assistant Manager job at a hotel restaurant. So, it was a big shift for me to go from rooms division to Food and Beverage as Assistant Restaurant Manager. And it was pretty taxing because it was new and I wasn't really sure that it was something that I wanted. Some difficult relationships with the staff because they're like, why is the rooms division guy running the restaurant and stuff like that? So, it's dealing with all of that and I'm just trying to figure out what's happening. And I was running letters on paper with like a pen to a guy that I worked with, at the Prince of Wales hotel in Alberta, the previous summer. And he's from Australia and he's like, well why don't you just come down here? And like, you're right, Jeff, why don't I just come down there. So I packed everything in here. Well, in Toronto where I was working at the time and went to the Australian Consulate offices to work out the passport stuff, which was super easy. Back then they had a plan where you could go for a year if you're under thirty-five and you could work like anywhere, as long as your title changed every three months. So you're allowed to go and take a job away from someone, right. But it was a really great system. And I know that they're similar systems now through the Government of Canada and all of their partner countries, where young people can take advantage of those kinds of visa opportunities. So that was great. So, I wound up going down to Australia, give up my apartment, had a really interesting conversation with my girlfriend about what our status was. It's like, well, we'll stay together until we don't. Right? And I think that worked out really well, for both of us. My dad sold my car, which I found out over the phone while I was away. So that was a bit tricky. But you know, he answered the phone one day, and he's like, hey, Michael, you don't owe me any money. And I'm like, well, that's odd, because I owe you a lot of money. So how did that happen? He says, well, I sold your car. So, bye, bye, 1967, Nova and hello, parental debt-freeness. Well, it's a trade-off. That's it. That's it. Yeah, exactly. So that's about. So yeah, so I moved to Australia and I did a couple months, we're going to ski resort a couple of weeks off, moved up to Cannes and the Great Barrier Reef and did some work up there, and came home, and went back to rooms division hotels for a long time after that. So, it was just like a reset. I got the job that I had, as Assistant, Restaurant Manager. It was a great job; it just wasn't a great job for me. And finding that out and really being able to take some time to reset, and see what the foundation I built; where's that meant to take me? And be able to work with that. So that's sort of the story of my two gap years.

Michelle - One thing that you said that I want people to really know is that you did it after graduating university as well. And I think sometimes people have this preconceived idea that a gap year happens only after high school. And I would say that 30% of the people that we work with are coming to us mid-post-secondary or after graduating. Because they just need something different at that time in their life. So, I think we need to expand the definition of gap year, a little bit more to include alternative times that are more frequent than people realize. So, I think that's really important and I love that you took on a similar role, but you took it on halfway around the world. Because then not only are you gaining experience in your field, stuff that you already are good at that you have some expertise in. But then you're also developing this whole other set of skills about being in a new culture, being halfway around the world, being completely self-reliant. And those are equally valuable to the career-based skills that you were developing, and I want people to understand that both of those parts are so important to your success. Not only do you need to be like blinders on strictly career focus, getting experience building my resume. But there's so much more to who you are as a person and that comes from doing things outside of your comfort zone, and it doesn't have to be traveling halfway around the globe. But that's one way to jump in and grab some of those extra skills in a very accelerated way.

Michael - Yeah, no, and I realize now as you were just framing all of that, that I have a third gap year to tell you about. Yeah? Everything really evaluated as a gap year before. I was working for a software company just north of Toronto and they were preparing to IPO. And as a result, a number of us became less important than we had previously been and were encouraged to appreciate our freedoms. And that came with some checks, which was good, but it was a very hard time, for some of us. I made a switch right to working for software, and in Customer Service for that and so I got let go and packaged out. But this was the same time that Nortel was collapsing. So, there was lots of people that had Nortel on their resume, where the company that I worked for was very small. So, finding another job competing against them was really hard and I didn't work for a long time. And during that time, you know looking for work, had I been able to take advantage of what's available now for gap year. That would have been really interesting. And this is like my early-mid 30's. So now we've got a gap year experience that I did, high school to university, then a gap year that I did after my first university graduation job didn't quite pan out. And then now fast-forward like a number of years later, I've left hotels, I went into cell phones for a bit, and then transitioned from them to the software company, and then transitioned from them to unemployment that lasted, you know, the better part of a year, at that point. So, yeah, that would have been a great time to take advantage of some of the tools that are out there now, for people that are doing gap years at, you know, any of those different life stages. I only just figured out that third one, like right now, while we were on this podcast.

Michelle - Amazing, amazing. Yeah, sometimes people call it a sabbatical and I think it's a really healthy reframing. Anytime you're in a point of transition, anytime that you have some space that you want a definite end to.

Michael - I did want a definite end to that with all of my pre-retirement. Perfect! Yeah, I made some bad financial decisions that encouraged me to move back in with my parents at the end of them. That's a story for another day.

Michelle - That's a whole other podcast. Yeah. So, you keep talking about all of these resources that you would have tapped into. So clearly, looking back there are some things are now having the knowledge that you have, there are some things maybe you would have done a little differently, or you would have access to some different resources. So, knowing what you know, now, now that you are older and wiser and have these things, what of that would you bestow on somebody who's either currently on their gap year, or thinking about a gap year, as some things they might want to consider or tap into?

Michael - Yeah, for sure. I mean, first of all, is to check out all the great resources that you curate, through the Canadian Copier Association, because there's all kinds of things there. I wasn't fishing for that, but I'll take it. I know, but it's true because that's just the one place where you go to look for it, right. And it's all there for you. Obviously, Google or Bing, or whomever is going to help you as well. But you can just go there. And there's great things, you know, I really like what Discover Year is doing. I think I could have benefited from that a lot. If I'd known then what I know now about Athabasca University, I would have for sure taken some classes with that during my post-high school pre-Ryerson time. Because if I got rid of Stats, that would have been amazing. When I was at Ryerson, I failed Managerial Accounting, because that class conflicted with when the squash courts were free. So, you know, I didn't know that at first. But yeah, so when I failed it, I could have taken that through Athabasca rather than waiting to the next year and then add it in. Right. So, I mean, those are some things that I think would have been good, I think, some of the planning pieces and how to set the years up and doing them more purposefully. Like I knew what I was going to do with my time at the highest level. But I didn't have, you know, the guidance around. Okay, so now you're working for these number of months before you go to school, you're going to go to school in your same field. But how can you tie that in together to doing something purposeful, that's going to help you succeed when you do get to university. And then when I was doing that transition, after my restaurant job in Australia, what could I have done there differently and to take more advantage of what was available through some of the great partner opportunities to do some service work or something down there, rather than just doing like Michael work? Those are opportunities there. And then great resume building pieces and stuff that I could have done in the post software, pre-post-secondary education timeframe. At that point, I did go to school, I went to Centennial College to get a teacher of adult certificate, which kind of paved the way for what I'm doing now. But having done that, you know, with some more thoughts and more conversation behind it rather than just oh, this is something. So, I think those are the pieces.

Michelle - Yeah, I want to come back to the stuff about Athabasca in a second. But my grandfather, one of the wisest things that he said that's really stuck with me is you don't know what you don't know. And so, a lot of people when they are embarking on their gap year, they're thinking within this tiny little box about what you can do, like I can work and earn money, I can find a volunteer job like I had in high school, and I can travel, like do tourism. Those are the three tiny things that everybody sows up in this little gap year box because they don't know that that teeny tiny box is just like one tiny box in this big giant universe of all of these opportunities and resources that are out there. And I think that's where folks like myself can come in and open the box and push the walls a little bigger and say well, have you considered X, Y, or Z? Do you know that these opportunities exist, whether that's internships, or some coaching opportunities, or volunteer, or work abroad, or volunteer abroad, or start a business. All of these things that maybe not don't necessarily land on your radar initially means that there could be some missed opportunities that might actually enhance what you're doing on your gap year. So just knowing what's out there, I think is a really big piece of it. And that's what we try and do with the Canadian Gap, Year Association. That's our reason for being. Yeah, I raise on that, if we can use it twice in one, one podcast. That's what we do is we say, here is all of the things that are possible for you, let's plug you into the one that's going to help you achieve the goals that you're setting for yourself. And you're in the driver's seat. But like, here's a menu of things you didn't even know were possible.

Michael - No, exactly. I mean, those are the things. I imagined it then because I'm old. And I don't know how many people listen to the podcast ever been to a library looking at a card catalogue. But it's like you open one drawer that says Gavia, but there's all those other drawers beside it, and under it, and around it and above it, and there's files and files and files. And you just need, you know, that librarian, that curator to take you through it and say, yeah, you're thinking about this, but hold on a second, there's like, let's go way over here, and I'll tie it back for you. Yeah, that's where we need the help.

Michelle - And that's one thing that people don't realize, they think, well, we've got Google, I don't need any other help. And so, they type into Google gap year programs. And they get a handful of gap year programs. But I would say 95% of the experiences that you could have on your gap year are not tagged in Google as gap year. You can find it in Google, but you're not looking for the right things because you don't know what you're looking for. So just expand your horizons a little bit. And maybe I'll do another podcast episode on how to expand those horizons. But for now, I want to jump back into Athabasca and the ways that Athabasca functions because I think again, not knowing what you don't know a lot of people don't understand how this works and how this could plug into a gap year. So, can you give us the insight that somebody on a gap you're considering gap year may need in order to leverage this tool in this resource?

Michael - Yeah, for sure. So, Athabasca University's a distant school by design. We've done distance delivery of university courses for the last fifty years prior to '94. It was through Canada Post and then post '94 When we went online with the world's first online MBA, we've been digital natives since then. So that's great. And what we've done in the delivery model and trying to remove barriers for people accessing their post-secondary education is classes start every month. And that's what makes it brilliant for gappers. So, if you look back at my experience, you know, I was done high school in January. So, I didn't miss the January intake for university, but not at Athabasca, I can get February intake, March intake, April intake, May, like, oh I guess there's a traditional May intake. So anyway, February, March, I could have started that, which is no problem. And the classes are all delivered asynchronously. So, you study when you want. So, if you're you know, bartending and all your evenings are full, you take your classes during the day if you're working on a tax thing in the accounting office, and you're working all day, then you could take the classes at night. If you know you're a hardcore sphere. From the beach! Yeah, exactly. From the beach, I've done that. We were in Dominican and my wife's reading whatever she's reading on the beach, and I'm studying for my master's. She's like, what are you reading? What are you reading? You know, so we had a who's reading something better moment. And you can totally do that, that the snow is dumping like it wasn't like Louise last week, and you have to get out to ride it, you just go, you know, there's nothing holding you back. So, you get to balance the things that you want to do for your heart with the things that you need to do with your mind and have those grow at the same time. So, I think that's really fantastic. And now with the prevalence of 5G and really strong internet connections. As long as you have your phone, but you could do anything. I know people that have typed papers on their phones. I don't know how they do it. But they like typed papers on their phone while they're away. And your connectivity is there, so then you just upload. And we've had students living in Yurst in Africa who would like walk five miles to get to the local internet cafe to download stuff. Then they would walk home and work for a week, they would walk back, they would upload, and then walk home. So, think all those opportunities exist to pick up some credits while you're doing all of this other great gap experience to build you into the most complete you can be.

Michelle - I love that. So, I love the flexibility that it provides that it can plug in at anywhere. I love that you can get ahead on credits. You can get some of them out of the way so you have more free time throughout your undergraduate experience. I love that the diversity and the courses that are offered to like there are just so many different things that you can dip your toes in. And I know a lot of people are concerned on their gap year that they're going to lose their ability to study that they're going to forget how to study or if they're in the STEM fields like they're going to forget their calculus, or they're going to forget their Stats and that's a real big fear and they want to stay sharp. And so, this is another way that you can maintain that academic brain as part of your gap year without it being the entirety of it. You don't have to take a full course load that's going to consume all day and all night of your gap year, this is a nice little piece of it that will fit into your other existing experiences that you're setting up for yourself.

Michael - No, exactly, and you talked about the flexibility piece, and the classes from Athabasca, designed to be done in a normal semester, like sixteen weeks, most of them, and we allow you six months. So, there's an extra two months of, hey, I'm doing this now. So, you can fit that schedule, we give you a study schedule to get the classes done on time, but you can extend them or accelerate them however you see fit. So, if you want to keep your stem stuff up, you can stay in one keep those parts of your mind working. What I always recommend to people is take the introductory composition course, that brings your writing up from your high school level of writing to your post-secondary level of writing, which will make everything else easier for you, teaches you how to put the structure into what you're writing, which will help you in anything you do.

Michelle - Definitely, amazing! I love all of that. I think it's just such a great way to marry together this idea of freedom and experiential learning with some of the ability to acquire credits and to stay sharp when it comes to the academic side of things as well as it provides us such beautiful balance in everything that gets done. So now that we have talked about your whole journey, and all of the things that Athabasca brings to the table, you might have piqued the interest of some people who might be curious about your journey, how one goes from hospitality to cell phones to technology to post-secondary and that whole journey as well as the three gap years, not two anymore, but three gap years that you've taken. So, if they're interested in following along or getting in touch, what's the best way that they could do that?

Michael - Yeah, for sure. I think probably the easiest and the one that makes the most sense for this kind of storytelling is just to find me on LinkedIn. So, it's Michael Shouldice, I think Michelle will be good enough to put the link in for you on the podcast. And I'm happy to chat about you know, any of those gap year periods, independently, all of them as a group. If you're looking at using Athabasca as a tool for your own year, then I'm happy to chat about that too. So, at whatever those things piqued your interest, feel free to reach out and I'll connect back with you no problem.

Michelle - That's amazing. Well, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast and sharing your story and all the amazing resources that Athabasca has for students on gap year. So, thanks for coming.

Michael - Yeah, thanks so much for the time, Michelle. I really appreciate it.

[Music & Outro]