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How has the pandemic affected gap years?

Most of us have a pretty stock-standard expectation of what a gap year entails – perhaps some time spent working to save money, followed by an extravagant overseas trip where your child can spread their wings, experience the world, and come home with a full suitcase and empty wallet. Cue the coronavirus pandemic.

As we all succumbed to quarantines, stay-at-home orders and border closures, the traditional idea of a gap year quickly melted away, leaving many fresh high school graduates around the world feeling disappointed and aimless. Even as we transition back to ‘normality’ (or the new reality we’ve all come to understand), gap years are still a tenuous concept – are students keener than ever to get out there and experience the world, or is the classic gap year destined to fade into the background?

Australian students weighed in on the gap year and their plans for after high school in a post-COVID world. Here’s what they had to say.   

Post-school plans are changing

In a study conducted by EdTech company Year 13 and youth insights platform YouthSense, 70 per cent of surveyed high school students said their plans for after school had changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what does their future look like? 

One of the biggest casualties of COVID was, of course, the overseas gap year, with students cancelling their travel or forfeiting their gap year entirely to start their studies early instead. Others decided to pursue a different activity during their gap year, such as travelling within their country of residence, starting full-time work or balancing a job and volunteering opportunities.

Thankfully, all’s not lost for the beloved gap year. When asked if a gap year was desirable in a world with no COVID-19 restrictions, 38 per cent of students said they wouldn’t take one, whereas the remaining 62 per cent were still interested in a year off, whether that was spent in Australia, overseas or a combination of the two.

It’s clear that students’ post-school plans have had to be adaptable, and many have sadly crumpled in the face of a global pandemic, but high school leavers have kept hopes high for a break as travel restrictions ease.  

Students need a break

The Class of COVID is undeniably one of the most resilient cohorts on record. Not only have they had their plans for after school been upended thanks to travel restrictions affecting gap year plans, but they’ve also navigated additional life stresses through a very difficult final year of school.

Between the strains of remote learning and rescheduled exams, it’s no wonder that today’s Year 12 students and fresh graduates are in need of a break. COVID has taken an undeniable toll on our collective mental health, with young people disproportionately affected by the stress of figuring out their place in a world that’s rapidly changing. A gap year can, for some students, provide a necessary reprieve from the realities of life, giving them something to focus on and creating fun opportunities to look forward to.  

Gap years don’t feel like an option for some

Unfortunately, for some students, taking a gap year isn’t as simple as deferring their university offers. The uncertainty surrounding changing circumstances and the volatility of the COVID-19 situation, even as we progress towards a more ‘open’ world, is creating a fearful mentality to taking time off – even when it’s the right choice for their mental health. 

“I don’t just want a gap year, I need a gap year,” says an 18-year-old female from regional NSW. “I’m not sure what degree I would do if I went to uni, but I know I want to do some sort of tertiary education. However, my problem is that I don’t want to rush into it, and now I feel forced to.” 

“If I take a gap year, will there be work for me? Will I be able to travel anywhere? Will it be worth it?” she says.

This is a common concern amongst young people, it seems. The pressure to keep up with the changing tides of the workforce is overwhelming, and creating a disproportionate sense of urgency for those in high school or university. Instead of taking a break, young people feel forced to jump straight into their studies to ‘stay ahead of the curve’.

What does this mean for your child?

Although it might seem like a difficult reality to navigate, it’s not all doom and gloom for those on a gap year and the university students of tomorrow. As their parent, encourage them to spend valuable and present time thinking about their options. Focus on considering the right thing for them, not what they might think satisfies your expectations or what will get them ahead.

Here are a few conversations to explore with your child.

Give them the space to talk about their mental health: If school in the time of COVID has been hard on them, it’s likely you’re already aware, but some teens are better at hiding these feelings than others. Encourage them to open up to you if they feel comfortable, or seek out a counsellor or psychologist if they’d prefer to talk to a neutral third party.

Support their decisions unwaveringly: Ultimately, your child is coming up on adulthood, and your relationship is inevitably going to change. This is a huge transitional period for them, and likely, having your support will make it infinitely easier. Even if it’s not what you would do, holding their hand (figuratively) through it and offering your support will give them the confidence and peace of mind they need to do what’s best.

Seek out alternatives: There’s no one traditional way to do a gap year anymore, so it might be worth exploring your child’s options and seeing how you can adapt their experience to the circumstances. Maybe they’d like to take a gap semester to relax, and then jump into university studies after that with the hope that they can travel again after their degree is complete.

Here at Bond, we have three semesters per year, which means your child could take a gap semester and commence in May or September. Plus, our accelerated programs mean they could be done with an undergraduate degree in just two years, setting them up to take a gap year soon enough, with professional qualifications under their belt.

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