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Mind The Gap: Is Taking A Year Off After High School A Good Idea?

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With her intention to take a year off -- more formerly known as a "gap year" before starting at Harvard in 2017 -- now a matter of public record, President Obama's eldest daughter's decision comes with it the predictable flood of raised eyebrows, analysis and opinion.

Indeed, Malia Obama is no ordinary high school student and her choice likely involves a host of considerations foreign to millions of students her age. Still, a topic worth healthy debate.

Having had intriguing conversations with many parents over the past couple of years about the concept of a "gap year," as my eldest son began his journey to post-secondary education (he is currently in his first year of university), it truly is a lightning rod-type of subject matter for many.

You could call me a traditionalist on this idea of taking a year break, following high school. I firmly believe you take your foot off the gas and it becomes very hard to get back in the car, let alone accelerate. And yes, every child is different. But what, truly, are the advantages to halting the academic bus for 12 months?

Proponents of a gap year -- and there are many, including Ivy league schools, suggest a halt-refresh-reset approach following high school -- provides students with greater"'experiential" knowledge. They have the ability to go out and experience the world, travel, figure out what they want to do in life, try new things, deal with burnout if they have encountered that in a competitive highs school environment, set and achieve personal goals, earn money to afford post-secondary schooling. It's a long, robust and, at times, compelling list. But truthfully, I don't fully understand the logic.

How does a pause in one's academic life at age 17, 18 or 19 impact their momentum?

Why not spread some of these key experiences -- structured or otherwise -- across more than one year? Why not better leverage the four or five years of high school depending on where you live, to try some of these very "life experiences" on for size.

Volunteering, internships, special projects, travel -- are all things that would help mould and shape decision-making for high school students about their future -- in real-time. In other words, they can have their sought-after "experientia"' encounters on a regular and consistent basis during their formative teenage (high school) years rather than stockpiling it into one 'break' year. So that by the time they reach Grade 12, they might have a better grasp of where they want to go and the roadmap to get there.

The other key piece to this "gap year" concept is the one I tend to hone in on. How does a pause in one's academic life at age 17, 18 or 19 impact their momentum? Is it advisable to halt the habits, routine, schedule, demands necessitated in high school for 365 days? How challenging is it then to jumpstart that bus again? I would think the pause would present challenges for the average student, especially, given the break-neck speed of today's world. My opinion. Goodness, a fully-unplugged, two-week vacation from the workplace today these days or a maternity and/or paternity leave for that matter, is a block of time during which minor or wholesale change can and does occur in the workplace. Depending on what industry you work in, the breadth and scope of that change can be daunting for the employee impacted.

In fact, many progressive businesses have programs whereby they engage a mother on mat leave to come back to her workplace on an informal basis during her maternity leave -- just to keep in touch with what's been happening and stay on everyone's radar. In 2016, that's a forward-thinking approach to ensure that an employee who is away for a lengthy period of time (such as following the birth of a child), can be kept abreast of the changes in their working environment, and hopefully lessen the anxiety often associated with 're-entering' the work force, for these individuals. These offerings should remain voluntary. It should be up to the employee.

Let's face it, not every colleague will be kind to a co-worker who has been 'off' for a long period. Whether that colleague has experienced the rollercoaster ride that is becoming a parent for the first time or again, has experienced the depths of sleep-deprivation for weeks on end or some other such thing -- the pace of business these days makes any kind of prolonged break a challenge when it comes to reintegration into the job.

And that's my point when it comes to students. There will always be exceptions. There always are and that's fine. But the bottom line is that leaving an academic setting for a year-long period, whether for structured or unstructured pursuits can be a slippery slope. Remembering, re-learning, recalling and then executing on the very skills that supported one's high school academic journey can be challenging to resurrect. And if that is the case, could ultimately lead to a whole set of other problems and frustrations previously underestimated or unforeseen.

A more prudent and perhaps logical approach would be to empower parents and consequently schools to equip high-school and even elementary-age children to an array of experiences. These don't all have to involve copious amounts of money to be effective, either. Exposure is one of the cornerstones of education. If you don't see it, you won't be inclined to experience it. If you don't experience it, how on earth can you know if you like it or not.

Maybe with that type of focus and mindset, we will all be teaching kids how to embrace change, think outside the box, shift gears, adapt to new things, build a network, foster a sense of empathy and compromise, and who knows even become more resilient. Incidentally, a lightning-rod of a topic, all on its own. And by the way, key attributes that keen employers, regardless of industry, should want to see on a resume.

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