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Why Gap Years are Worth the Risk

Just as I had ultimately taken a leap of faith and paid for a round-the-world flight instead of tuition, I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and stepped off that tiny ledge and into the big blue abyss of crisp air.

I think the moment came when I was standing on a narrow platform on a bridge 17 storeys above the rough Auckland, New Zealand harbour with a thick rubber cord tied around my ankles. Far below me, long, white sailboats glided silently over dark blue water. Close above me, rattling cars roared over the bridge. Across from me, a group of bridge climbers had gathered to cheer for the Canuck who was crazy enough to attempt her first -- and most definitely last -- bungee jump.

That was the moment when my churning anxiety over choosing a gap year to travel instead of going to grad school finally subsided. At long last, something else was on my mind -- my own survival. As the strong wind whipped at my face and pulled at my tense body, I edged my toes over the board and looked down. I shut my eyes and visualized myself hurtling down, only to be impaled on the tall, sharp mast of a passing boat.

But just as I had ultimately taken a leap of faith and paid for a round-the-world flight instead of tuition, I took a deep breath, opened my eyes and stepped off that tiny ledge and into the big blue abyss of crisp, kiwi air.

One year earlier, I had been celebrating my last reading week with my university housemates in the Dominican Republic after my acceptance letters from grad schools started coming in. Between rounds of piña coladas and sunscreen applications, the dreaded question finally bobbed to the surface: "So, what are you going to do when you graduate?" In just a couple of months we would graduate and the four of us, who had grown to be like sisters over the last four years (sisters who actually like each other, that is), would instantly scatter and head to separate corners of the world. I should have been happy with my acceptance to grad school -- to have an answer to the dreaded question.

But instead, I felt panic. I worried I might burn out by jumping straight into a demanding master's program right away. And the idea of a gap year -- a year off after graduating before continuing with school or the real world of the workforce -- had been sitting impatiently in the corner of my mind since I began my undergrad. But would a gap year make me look lazy to future employers, parents and friends? I realized this might be the only time in my life where I could travel without worrying about a job, a house, a car, or a family. And even though I feared I might not get in to grad school again the following year, I knew it was worth the risk.

So in September, when I should have had my nose buried in books, I boarded a packed plane in Toronto and headed for Dublin. I had a passport, a backpack with a week's worth of clothes and a plane ticket from Fiji to Toronto for the following April -- just enough time to get back to start my master's, should I be admitted again the following year. And I never looked back.

For many students without an answer to the dreaded question of what they'll do when they graduate, their uncertainty and inexperience can be enough to make them run away -- and many do. Outside North America, taking a gap year to travel or work abroad is not only popular with students, but encouraged by parents and employers. It's so well-respected abroad that even the royal family sets a good example for gappers. Prince William spent his year in Belize where he worked with the British Army; he also spent time in Chile as a guest rap DJ for a radio station. Prince Harry worked at an orphanage in Africa and a cattle farm in Australia before later travelling to Argentina.

And now Canadian students are beginning to catch on.

Students choose many different paths for their gap year -- some pursue their next degrees abroad or just take a six-week language course in the country of their choice. Others pursue contract work like teaching English in Japan or casual labour in Australia or New Zealand. A popular option still is to travel first and then volunteer, like a safari in Africa followed by a volunteer mission.

In seven months I travelled to 17 countries and 45 cities. I lived and worked in Australia for four months -- just enough time to finally learn the difference between a pot and a schooner of beer (I forget already). But I did finally decode enough Aussie slang to make my way down the whole Gold Coast. I saw the world. I made lifelong friends. And on that brisk March day in New Zealand, I climbed up the Auckland Harbour Bridge and -- eventually -- mustered up the courage to jump off.

My gap year was life-changing and I experienced more in seven months than some do in a lifetime. But the decision to take a year off from the rat race was a hard one to make. I felt pressure to start my grad program right away and then start working.

But now that my gap year is (gulp) five years behind me, I often think of it as one of the best decisions I ever made. I was accepted again to every grad program I applied to (the second time around, I was offered even more scholarship funds), and when I turned up on my first day of classes, the program coordinator sought me out to tell me that declining acceptance to travel had actually beefed up my application. The casual boyfriend I convinced to accompany me is now my fiancé (he was able to defer law school) and I have been asked about my gap year in every job interview I have had, often by avid travellers eager to know if we had been to the same destinations.

It's not for everyone and, as with everything in life, there is never a guarantee that it will work out as well for someone else. But for me, it was a risk I had to take -- and as I jumped off the Auckland Bridge, I finally understood that great rewards are always worth the risk. And I never would have learned that in the classroom.

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