I grew up in a household where my parents encouraged my siblings and I to go to postsecondary as soon as we graduated from high school. "Get your degree while you're young," my dad used to say. "You'll be so glad you did."
Against his advice, I decided to take two years off instead. Actually, I started a business diploma, failed a class for the first time in my life and realized I wasn't in the right program for me – then I took two years off, as an extended gap year.
A gap year – which is when recent high school graduates take time off to work, travel or volunteer before they go to postsecondary – is considered a rite of passage in many parts of Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It is, however, less common in Canada. A Statistics Canada survey of 8,500 high school graduates from 2000 to 2008 found that 50 per cent did not go to postsecondary right away, and instead took time off to explore their options.
My dad wasn't happy with my decision. His general concern was that I would never go back to school, which I can appreciate now, but I knew that would not be the case. I wanted to get a degree one day, I just didn't know what I wanted to major in and I wasn't prepared to waste money (or rack up student loan debt) trying to figure it out. My dad's one request was that I work instead – not travel or volunteer, which he explained I could not afford to do – and so I did.
I worked full-time for the two years between when I left college and when I eventually went back – first as a customer service representative at a call centre, and then as a deli clerk at a local grocery store. In that time, I also moved out, paid for everything myself and struggled a little bit financially. I learned I had to go to every one of my shifts if I wanted to pay my rent, and I often agreed to work overtime in order to make extra money (which I desperately needed).
I made a few mistakes along the way, including racking up some consumer debt. I also struggled as I found my high-school friendships were slowly beginning to disintegrate, as most of my friends were in school while I was at work. But in the end, what I "lost" in the possibility of finishing school two years earlier, I gained in experience, life lessons and independence.
Perhaps the most notable discovery I made in those two years, however, was the field of study I wanted to get into: communications. The same college I'd dropped out of offered a two-year communications diploma program, which gave you the hands-on skills you needed to work in desktop publishing, radio, video and journalism. As soon as I found it, I applied and was one of only 27 students accepted into the program for September 2005.
The program was exciting but also extremely demanding, with more overlapping deadlines than I sometimes felt I could handle – especially because I was still working 16-24 hours/week at the grocery store. However, because I had taken the time off to figure out what I wanted to do, I was both motivated and determined to finish and submit each of my projects on time.
This supports the findings of a recent project completed by Dr. Michael Ungar and his wife, Cathy Campbell, who interviewed twenty-something Canadians in the workforce about the different paths they took after high school. Not surprisingly, they discovered that students who chose to take a gap year entered postsecondary with more specific goals; they also wasted less money on school.
I graduated with my two-year diploma in April 2007, and immediately got a desktop publishing job in the B.C. Public Service. A few years into my career, I decided to go back to school and finish my degree through distance education. For the next two years, I continued to work full-time for the B.C. Public Service and took at least 2-3 courses at any given time. I finished my Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication in July 2012, just days before my 27th birthday.
In the end, I got my degree 5 years after many of my friends from high school had completed theirs, but with experience under my belt and a more defined career path. Shortly after submitting my final paper, I received a job offer from across the country. See, while I was in school, I had put my communications skills to good use and started a blog; that blog helped me land the position I'm in now, and it's also the reason you're reading this article.
I don't think everyone should take a gap year; it obviously doesn't make sense, if you know what you want to take in school. For example, my brother has known he's wanted to become a petroleum engineer since he was 15, so I can't wait for him to graduate from high school in June, head off to the University of Alberta in August and see where his postsecondary education takes him.
But if you feel uncertain about what you want to take, I think it's smarter to take a year off to decide, than to rack up a semester or two of student loan debt while trying to figure out your options; that decision certainly paid off for me.
Cait Flanders is a contributor to The Globe and Mail's Education Lab. She also writes the blog Blonde on a Budget.