After getting a taste of online learning in the spring of 2020 as she approached the high-school finish line, Kristin Wheeler wasn’t exactly feeling confident heading into her first year at the University of British Columbia that fall.
Still, the Whistlerite decided to give university the old college try. She attended her first few weeks of biology classes virtually, but never quite found her groove.
“I can’t really learn that way. I need to be sitting in a classroom, watching the teacher,” Wheeler says. “When I went to the first two weeks of online university, I did nothing. There was no drive for me to do anything. There was nothing really helping me move forward.”
Instead of continuing to flounder behind a keyboard, Wheeler opted to spend her time more strategically. She had the difficult conversation with her parents that she wanted to leave UBC; in exchange, she promised her father she would take that opportunity to gain experience pursuing her passions.
“It was a very hard decision and it was very stressful,” Wheeler says. “It felt like life or death at that point.
“If I’m going to do university, I want to do it right and do it where I’m comfortable doing it.”
Swimming with sharks
For about the first month after Wheeler decided to leave school, she admittedly felt “useless” and second-guessed her decision. But, with tuition in hand, she started researching internships and soon discovered the Oceans Research Institute based in South Africa. With an opportunity to gain relevant, practical experience in her chosen field of marine biology, Wheeler applied in October, was quickly approved and, after a pandemic-related rescheduling, was off to South Africa for two months last summer.
Oceans Research Institute specializes in population and habitat assessments of species such as sharks, dolphins and other marine life.
For Wheeler, hands-on experience meant she literally had her hands on these creatures, such as when she contributed to a project tracking white sharks’ migration patterns using satellite tags.
“We learned how to safely catch, release and handle sharks, and also how to tag them, remove tags and take the data from the tags,” she recalls. “We had to do all the catch-and-release [process] in less than a minute so the shark would be safe.”
Other projects included assessing the number of species present in a given area of an intertidal zone (an area where the ocean meets the land between high and low tides) and trawling the water to measure plastic pollution.
In addition to developing baseline skills in seamanship and research methods, Wheeler also learned how to inform local communities about Oceans Research Institute’s work.
And, thanks to a partnership with a local dive shop, Wheeler went from rookie to dive master in the span of two short months, even descending down with the sharks.
“You don’t wear chainmail or anything,” she explains. “They can sense what you’re feeling, so if you’re just calm in the water while they’re swimming around, they won’t bother you.
“I’ve just learned how to stay calm.
“It is a little bit scary when they turn and come right up to your face first, but I don’t really find danger in it. I’ve been told I’m crazy for it, but it’s just normal for me.”
Breaking things up
While Wheeler took her gap year, for all intents and purposes, straight out of high school, sometimes it makes more sense to break up the university experience.
That was the case for Squamish’s Shondra Martin, who took her first two years of her business degree at the University of Victoria before getting bit by the travel bug. Luckily for Martin, the midway point was a natural place to take a year to explore abroad before entering the “core years” of the program. She also wanted to smoothly transition to the workforce upon graduation rather than journeying at that point, so the timing was perfect.
“Sitting in lectures for weeks on end was driving me a little crazy,” she acknowledges.
In January 2018, Martin set her alarm for 6 a.m. each day and started plotting out her gap year before her morning classes. The early wakeup call only lasted a few weeks, but it gave her a needed headstart on planning her tricontinental expedition.
“It would help me get out of bed, make some tea and just be excited and inspired,” she says. “It helped me get through the semester, just knowing I had this adventure coming.”
Martin took two trips starting in the summer of 2018, spending a month in Peru with her family starting in mid-June, then spending a globetrotting five months that saw her start in Iceland and end up in New Zealand. In between, she spent time in Switzerland visiting her grandmother before heading to Nepal, Bali and Thailand.
“It was a full-circle zigzag in both hemispheres,” she says.
An avid climber, Martin hit up several iconic ascents along her path, including completing 6.1 kilometres from Everest Base Camp even after falling ill and not consuming food for 48 hours beforehand.
“There was a moment maybe 400 metres from the top that I did not think I was going to make it. I was really struggling and not eating was catching up to me,” she recalls.
Her climbing partner noticed her struggling, turned around and gave her a fist-bump of encouragement. She made it the rest of the way.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it, and I made it,” Martin says.
After a whirlwind that saw her not only attain great heights, but also relax on Bali’s beaches to help recover from a bout of frostbite, Martin returned home on Christmas Day and worked until returning to school for 2019’s fall semester.
“That eight months was a really nice time to process my trip as well, instead of coming home from this crazy trip and going to class seven days later,” she said. “It was really nice time to take everything I’d learned, the ways I’ve grown, and apply it to my life during that time.
“By the time I got to class, I was motivated, strong, confident, ready to go.”
Not just for travel
Gap years like the ones taken by Wheeler and Martin come with significant price tags. Wheeler works full-time to fund the internship while Martin used savings she accumulated while working in high school and in advance of her trip while noting that her parents paid the bulk of her postsecondary expenses such as tuition and residence in her first two years.
However, students don’t necessarily need to have a huge outlay to have a fulfilling gap year, stresses Michelle Dittmer, the president and co-founder of the Canadian Gap Year Association (CanGap).
While going overseas to backpack across Europe—or ski-bumming around the Sea to Sky—are stereotypical ways to spend a gap year, Dittmer’s organization has identified several other reasons a break could be worthwhile.
They can range from the need to save up for tuition and myriad other expenses associated with university, to recovering from burnout or other personal circumstances, to focusing on starting a business or committing to a social justice cause.
According to a 2015 national alumni survey conducted by the American Gap Association in conjunction with Temple University, more than 90 per cent of survey participants declared outcomes such as developing as a person, improving their communication skills, boosting their self-confidence and developing a greater respect or understanding for other cultures.
Dittmer estimates that 70 per cent of students taking a gap year do so between high school and entering university, which is where CanGap, a registered non-profit, steps in.
“They’re going from a system where bells literally ring and they know what seat they have to sit in to planning a whole year of activities,” she says. “Everybody would benefit from one, but if you’re not ready to do the work, then that’s a red flag for me, because it’s not easy to take a gap year.
“It’s not easy to schedule your time 17 hours a day. That’s a big job to do that.”
To help students determine if a gap year could make sense for them and, if so, what they hope to get out of it, CanGap hosts a number of free resources on its website, cangap.ca. The organization also offers paid programming and one-on-one sessions for those who need additional assistance in researching and planning a gap year.
According to Dittmer, the COVID-19 pandemic was a turning point for the gap year movement. With travel options halted and education suddenly coming in a dramatically different package, the other reasons for taking time away from school came to the fore.
“Historically, in Canadian culture, we work on this idea of ‘Go faster, harder, stronger, do not stop,’” she said. “In order to be successful, you need to hold the line and any deviation from that means you are failing in some way. The pandemic has caused a lot of people to re-evaluate that.”
While attitudes toward gap years are shifting to being more accepting, Dittmer notes that CanGap can also help facilitate conversations where one of the parties is hesitant.
“About half the families, everybody’s on board, everybody feels good,” she said. “A quarter of the time, it’s the youth that reaches out and says, ‘I want to do this, but I’m scared my parents will say no.’ The other quarter of the time, it’s the parents saying, ‘My kid needs this, but they feel pressure to continue on.’”
In the fall of 2019, Martin returned to UVic with a renewed vigour for her studies. She was on top of work, had constructed a healthier schedule and was active in class.
Shortly after settling into her new and improved university experience, though, Martin faced an unimaginable tragedy, as her sister Mikayla died in a mountain biking accident on Oct. 1, 2019.
As she grappled with the weight of her grief and struggled to participate remotely once ready to resume her studies, Martin was granted a second deferral.
“I was going to go back the next year, but then it all went online due to COVID,” she says. “I really struggle with online, so I deferred another year.
“I’m kind of in a weird in-between state.”
Martin stresses that the timing of her gap year was best for her, and highlights that another time could work better for others.
“In your last year of high school, it feels like you’re being washed down this creek and it’s taking you towards university,” she said. “After taking a gap year, you realize that’s not the only option.”
Even though the tide is turning with respect to gap years, Dittmer says she hopes those who are wary of the idea come to realize that they can be a sensible option for many students.
“The most highly desirable university and college programs are the co-ops where they get hands-on experience and yet the idea of getting hands-on experience independently is still stigmatized,” she says.
Wheeler, meanwhile, will continue to get practical experience after she opted to take a second gap year in 2021-22 as virtual learning continued. She’ll be returning to South Africa this spring to take part in the Africa Media program, which teaches participants how to use technology such as underwater cameras and light rigs.
She also retook Biology 12 to help better prepare her for when she returns to the classroom, also at UVic, as UBC did not accept her deferral request.
“I had a lot of doubt, but I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, and I’m terrible at decisions.
“If you have a vision behind it, go for it.”