Students are taking a gap year because of COVID-19: 'It won't be a normal first year'

Why the coronavirus pandemic pushed some Canadian students to take a gap year

The novel coronavirus has changed nearly every aspect of daily life in Canada — and now, it’s the reason a whole cohort of students have decided to put their studies on pause and take a gap year.

For some, the decision was made easy by the lack of in-person classes. McGill University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa are just a few of the major post-secondary institutions that have already moved online as the COVID-19 outbreak drags on.

But for others, the pandemic has thrown a major wrench in their school and long-term career plans.

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“What we’re hearing from students is … uncertainty in terms of what the (next year) will look like, in terms of whether the value of their tuition is worth the same if you’re coming to a screen as opposed to attending in person,” said Erik Athavale, executive director of ED Marketing, an advertising and marketing agency that services universities and colleges across Canada and the U.S.

He saw these concerns come to light in interviews with current post-secondary students who completed their last term online.

“I have yet to hear the review that says, ‘My experience exceeded my expectations,'” Athavale said.

“At ED, we always look at things from a brand perspective, and the brand is the sum of the experiences around your product — the product being a college or university and the social aspect of university. Not just interacting with your peers, but with the other services and extracurricular activities and opportunities that are afforded to you on campus.”

For these reasons, rather than endure a year online with little to no on-campus interaction, some students are choosing to take a gap year to work, earn money and add experience to their resume.

However, when Global News reached out to students who decided to take a gap year due to COVID-19, the overwhelming majority were white.

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According to Ratna Ghosh, a professor of education at McGill University, there are also cultural factors that can deter a young person from taking a gap year.

“In certain cultures like South Asia, taking a year off is not traditionally done,” Ghosh told Global News. “Parents may see that as a wasted year, even when they can afford it.”

Ghosh warns against lumping all students of colour into one group, but she says affordability can often play a role.

“(Students of colour) are not a homogenous lot, either — culturally, historically, in the way they see education or in economic terms — but one factor that influences all students, especially students of colour who are international students, is the economic factor,” she said.

“When affordability becomes an issue, (students) are less likely to take a year off.”

Unfortunately, said Ghosh, a gap year during the pandemic won’t look the same as gap years of the past. Students likely won’t have the chance to travel or do an international internship — year-long activities that are popular for developing other life skills.

Below, Global News spoke with five Canadian students who have decided to take a gap year between their studies due to COVID-19. Here’s what they had to say.

Alexandre Laflamme, 17, Ottawa

What were your post-secondary plans before COVID-19? I was (looking) at some programs that might introduce me to some new things since I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I know what I’m good at but I’m not sure what I’m interested in.

Why did you decide to take a gap year? Now that it’s all online, I don’t feel like I’ll be able to get a taste of what I like from behind a computer screen inside my own house. It was already hard to finish Grade 12 motivated from my own house.

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How are you feeling about taking a gap year? I’m glad I decided to do this because I realized that if I were to go straight into university, as soon as I’m done, I don’t think there’s a break there. It’s just straight into the job market … it doesn’t stop after that. I might as well have a break now while I can.

Elena Bentson, 19, Ottawa

Illustration by Laura Whelan

Illustration by Laura Whelan

Illustration by Laura Whelan

What were your post-secondary plans before COVID-19? In January, I found the Discover Year program (a structured, one-year career and leadership development program). In high school, I was somewhat of a sheltered child … and I knew that I had a lot of growth and development I needed to do before college or university or joining the workforce.

How did the pandemic influence your decision? I had already signed up for a co-op program with my high school, and I thought Discover Year would be a great way to continue what I was learning with my co-op program. As it turns out, that was a really important decision to make because of COVID-19 — I lost most of my co-op placement and I was only able to work for less than a month.

How are you feeling about taking a gap year? The gap year is going to be really important for me because now I can have a (job) that allows me to get that experience and continue building on what was unfortunately cut off by COVID-19.

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Mike Gould, 19, Calgary

What were your post-secondary plans before COVID-19? I had previously gone to school at Carleton University for (about one year), and then I got really sick and came home for a few months. I expressed my intentions to go to school here in Calgary at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) … but the pandemic causing everything to go online and taking away that sense of normalcy made going back seem pointless. It felt like I would be returning to the sense of flux I was in before.

Why did you decide to take a gap year? I decided to take a year off between going back to school to work, get some money and get some experience under my belt before I committed to going back (to school).

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How are you feeling about taking a gap year? I’ve always known all along that I have the full and complete support of my parents … so it’s always been firmly in my control, whether I want to go to school or not. Plus, I have a good job and it’s helping me get some experience in a field that I had never really entered before — retail — and the people I’m meeting there are the mentors who I would’ve valued at school. So to be able to improve my library of connections with that sort of experience is more valuable than going back to school in a (modified) format.

Helin Tasdemir, 23, Toronto

Illustration by Laura Whelan

Illustration by Laura Whelan

Illustration by Laura Whelan

What were your plans for next year prior to COVID-19? I just finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, and my plan at the beginning of this year was to pursue my master’s degree in Europe doing international studies because I’ve always had a passion for it.

How did the pandemic influence your decision? Everything for me shifted very quickly. In mid-March, right after I submitted my applications, I realized it wasn’t going to be possible to pursue my studies abroad. I looked into (doing a master’s online), but they weren’t the programs I wanted to take.

How are you feeling about taking a gap year? At first, I was very in denial and I assumed it would be over by now … but there were no talks of a vaccination (coming) soon and there were also talks of a second wave hitting, and I began to realize doing my studies abroad would be very costly and not the same experience.

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Laura Grisim, 18, Ottawa

Illustration by Laura Whelan

Illustration by Laura Whelan

Illustration by Laura Whelan

What were your plans for next year prior to COVID-19? Originally, I planned to go to Carleton University for a bachelor of arts undeclared, but I didn’t want to waste my first year of university trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and (so I decided) to take a gap year — even before COVID-19 happened.

How did the pandemic influence your decision? Once the pandemic (began), I was really happy with my decision because it won’t be a normal first year of university anyway. When I first thought of going to Carleton, it was for the social experiences — the clubs, meeting new people, (living in) residence, and now that that’s all changed, I’m happy I’ll be able to do that maybe not the year coming but the year after.

How are you feeling about taking a gap year? I’m super happy because I want to be able to find my strengths and weaknesses and find out what I can use them for in the future. Hopefully, if the restrictions are lifted, I’m hoping I can travel across Canada. I was aiming to do all the capitals and ending my trip in Victoria, B.C. … I’m hoping to do that, but it’s more about finding out my strengths.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

⁠— With files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun and the Canadian Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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