Gap years fill the space left by traditional academic programs

A year spent away from school doesn’t mean a year spent without learning

Image by: Tessa Warburton
Molly Gangbar opens up about her experiences abroad after high school.

“Wait, so you’re going to be a first-year when everyone your age is in second year?”

Questions like this surrounded me in the final months of high school. Out of 120 students in my graduating class, I was one of two students who decided to take a gap year. The idea of a gap year was off most people’s radars, seeming distant and somewhat fantastical. 

The overwhelming mentality around gap years was that a gap year was something a student would consider, but never actuallypursue. 

This is because of the common stereotypes surrounding the academic break.

When the average student thinks of a gap year, their mind usually lands on two possible scenarios. The first one is working a banal job to earn money for school or to figure out their academic goals, spending days scrolling through Instagram to vicariously live through their peers’ university experiences. The second envisions partying on a yacht, maybe in Fiji or Greece, drinking one’s own body weight in alcohol, and sharing the journey on social media.

The gap year I embarked on was far from either of these plots, and taught me a lot about how to approach the rest of my academic career. It proves gap years can enhance your learning rather than simply taking you away from school.

My gap year was a year on, not a year off. For nine months, I studied in and explored Jerusalem, learning about Middle Eastern history, language, and politics while exploring the same themes in different regions across Europe, Asia, and Africa.

While travelling the world, I immersed myself in different cultures and religions. I was fueled by new foods and surrounded by new perspectives. I learned two new languages. I also obtained 30 units of academic credit. 

The experience heavily influenced who I am as a person and learner. Through mentorship and exploration outside the classroom, I’m now set up for deeper in-class inquiry and academic success. My curiosity and sense of perspective—both necessary skills to excel at school and life—are expanded and continue to expand. 

High school didn’t leave me sufficiently prepared to face the academic challenges of university, whereas my gap year shaped me into a person ready to embrace these hurdles. 

Throughout our academic endeavors, we’ve all had teachers press us to look at an issue from multiple points of view. We’re challenged to step into others’ shoes and acquire a full scope of perception. Although you can read about an opposing perspective in a textbook or decipher a complicated slide, personal anecdotes and experiences are enduring. 

After all, you can’t feel a textbook’s emotion, or debate statements of fact with a slideshow.

Throughout my gap year, our teachers pushed us to understand that human encounters are what teach us best about ourselves and each other. 

Once you see and feel a different perspective rather than reading about it, you become immediately invested in that viewpoint. It becomes a new lens for you to use in your interactions with people and ideas. With this new mindset, you become curious and hungry for more information. 

Stepping outside the classroom has immense value—but finding opportunities to do so can be easier said than done. As a student, you’re preoccupied with school, work, friends, and extracurricular commitments. It can be a difficult feat just to leave campus. As a result, the chaos of student life can sometimes keep you from experiencing the real world. 

My time spent away from campus life immersed me in situations that reinforced my independence, a consideration for outside perspectives, and a thirst for knowledge. Many students miss out on this, getting lost in the shuffle of bird courses, late-night study sessions, and tight-knit social groups. 

But you don’t have to miss out on the merits of a gap year just because you didn’t take one. 

As young people we need to seek out opportunities to question our own perspectives and worldviews. We need to be uncomfortable and leave our bubbles. If you aren’t being challenged, it’s time to explore the world outside of Queen’s. If you are, channel those experiences and reflect upon them. 

Next, step outside the classroom. Look for opportunities to climb out of your comfort zone and engage with your wider community. Volunteer on a local or global scale. Push yourself to see both disadvantaged and thriving communities. 

If you’re given the opportunity to travel, take advantage of it. A trip to a different coast of Canada might seem drab to you, but you’ll meet new people, see fresh vistas, and expand your worldview.

Finally, apply to take a semester abroad. A year studying while exploring is incredible. If the opportunity arises, snatch it. 

Take it from me, it’s an invaluable experience—and you get to skip a year of school.


Exchange, Travel

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