As some students return to school this fall, others have made the decision to take an alternate route: a gap year. Gap years provide the opportunity to develop many skills, all while making fulfilling and lasting memories. Many students are opting to build on their experiences and resume through volunteering.
As a new semester approaches, Knowledge First Financial will be drawing on conversations with experts from across Canada, who are providing their expertise on navigating the new “Back to School” season. Our next conversation is with Michelle Dittmer, who leads the Canadian Gap Year Association. They share a few considerations that “gappers” (those taking a gap year) like you should think about while planning your time away from postsecondary education.
KF: What are the key elements in a successful gap year for most students?
The key to a successful gap year is to know your goals—every gap year is unique and in order for it to be purposeful and worthwhile, you should emerge as a changed individual at the end of your gap experience. Once you know what your goals are, the best gap years include paid or volunteer opportunities, connecting with mentors and guides, and working on large-scale passion projects that move you towards your own goals.
KF: Many students think of travelling when they think of planning a gap year—but that may be more challenging this year! What other options are popular?
Immediate international travel is off the table. For those itching to get out there, you can still plan for future international travel or get on the road domestically. Beyond travel, this year gappers are looking to start businesses (think lawn care, child care, selling artistic creations, freelance web development), to learn languages, to explore different career options, and spend time improving their physical and mental health.
KF: Thinking specifically of volunteer experiences, how popular is volunteering as a gap year experience in Canada?
The vast majority of gappers will volunteer during their gap year. Gappers are connecting with their immediate network (community groups, faith-based groups), with audience-specific opportunities (the elderly, kids, animals, those experiencing homelessness) or connecting with larger global movements (Anti-racism & Black Lives Matter, Climate Action).
KF: What are some of the benefits of volunteering in your gap year versus trying to find work or an internship?
Volunteering is not the same as unpaid work, rather it is a way to step up and put your time, skills, and talents to work for a project that you believe in. Often volunteers take on tasks beyond their official credentials or experience, which allows them to grow their skill set, explore new career options and gain access to a larger network that is normally inaccessible in paid opportunities.
For example, if you are volunteering on a planning committee for a festival, a student volunteer might be assigned to lead the marketing efforts, whereas obtaining a marketing internship could provide the same learning, it might require that you have formal training in marketing.
On a gap year, you have more time available to commit to organizations and are available during hours that are typically taken up by school—this means you’ll be able to take on larger projects and connect with a more diverse and cross-generational group of volunteers who will undoubtedly help you on your career and personal development journey.
There is also more opportunity to create your own position. Good at web design? Reach out to a local small business that is struggling due to COVID-19 and lend a hand. Are you good with a camera or video editing? Find a local charity and see if you can create some marketing material for them. Have a car? Support your elderly neighbours by bringing them groceries. There doesn't need to be a job posting to volunteer; be creative by taking a look at what you can offer at the moment!
KF: What are the first steps a student should take if they're looking for volunteer opportunities in their gap year?
Similar to goal setting for your gap year, you need to start by knowing what type of experience you are looking for and what issues you want to tackle. Finding your passion and knowing the type of experience you are looking for will help narrow down the search and you’ll be more likely to enjoy your volunteer experience.
Once you know what you are looking for, find your local volunteer centre. They are all listed at volunteer.ca. You can also find national opportunities listed on this site.
Don't forget to ask your own network. So many opportunities never get listed, so let people know what you are looking for. Speak out at your family barbecue or post on social media; someone always knows of something that will be the perfect fit.
KF: Is there a checklist or criteria that students should consider when evaluating a volunteer experience or organization?
- Volunteer Canada is a wealth of resources when it comes to finding the right fit. This PDF is a great tool for finding and evaluating volunteer opportunities.
- From a gap year perspective, you want to keep a close eye on:
- Time commitment: Are you aligned on how much of your time you want to volunteer for this organization
- Fun: Do you like the people you will be volunteering with? Are the activities interesting to you? Will you be motivated to keep it up?
- Growth Opportunities: Think about what you will learn about yourself and the world. Think about what skills you will develop by participating. Does this align with your gap year goals?
KF: Our many thanks to Michelle for sharing her valuable insights on gap years and volunteering!
As Canadian families begin to navigate “Back to School” in 2020, Knowledge First Financial will continue to provide information, support and curated resources to Canadian parents and their children. We are all in this together, as our communities carefully navigate a safe and healthy return to the classroom.
Michelle is an educator and youth advocate that has taught grades 4 through College, developed International Service-Learning Programs, nurtured Educational Partnerships with school boards from coast to coast, and developed youth policy. Having a finger on the pulse of the needs of young learners, combining their need for experiential learning and developing reflective and values-aligned practices, she founded the Canadian Gap Year Association to raise the profile of gap year as a solution to mental health, lack of clarity, and the skill gap. Learn more at www.cangap.ca.