“Hi! Can I take a gap year after graduating from university?”

“Sure – gap years can be taken at any time in your life, really. Can I ask why you want to go to university first?”

“Ooooh – gotta go to university straight out of high school. Gotta go right away – no question!”

“OK – do you mind if I ask why?”

“Bragging rights.”

“Sorry – I don’t understand…”

“Well, my mom graduated from university when she was 21, so she says that I have to graduate when I’m 21, too. Bragging rights.”

“Oh…. Okaay. Well, do you know what you want to study at university?”

“Not really – maybe psychology. I’m not sure what interests me yet. No big deal, I’ll figure it out eventually.”

This is verbatim from a recent interaction I had with a grade 12 student at a local high school. It was a post-secondary information night, and we had a Discover year booth set up to increase awareness of purposeful gap years.

I hope this conversation shocks and saddens you somewhat. Unfortunately, after 15,000 similar conversations over the past 8 years, it no longer surprises me. The only difference between this young person and most others: she was more transparent in communicating her logic for rushing into university.

While this no longer shocks me, it does still sadden me deeply. It’s the reason I founded the Discover year program 4 years ago.

Too many students today see university or college as a path to a piece of paper – to bragging rights – rather than an opportunity to learn, grow and build important skills for their future. Too few students are excited about trying, failing, learning and growing.

Too many students start post-secondary programs without significant interest in their studies. Given that research has shown for years that interest is the most important factor for success in any endeavour, our society’s death grip on direct entry into post-secondary continues to baffle me.

In her book, Grit, Dr. Angela Duckworth shares the four key elements for developing passion and perseverance in any pursuit: interest, practice, purpose and hope. With reference to interest, Professor Duckworth highlights the fact that interest is not necessarily an innate trait - it must be cultivated through trial and error - through action and reflection. My experience in working with thousands of high school and university students has shown me that very few make the time or effort to truly identify what they are interested in. They tend mostly to focus on what they believe society wants them to be interested in (i.e what is best for making the most money or gaining the greatest social status).

Helping students cultivate their interests and better understand how those interests relate to future decisions is a cornerstone of our programming. This journey is always more of a meandering trail through the woods than a sprint to the finish line on fresh pavement. It is filled with tree roots, rocks and sharp turns that seem to come out of nowhere. It is also much more meaningful, the scenery along the way never failing to incite powerful emotions and insights.

Our students come to learn that the end of their Discover Year path opens up to a vast world with many options, hazards and incredible scenery all around. Whereas many young people would be overwhelmed with the seemingly endless choices available to them as they enter adulthood, our students leave with the skills they need to prioritize these options and make good decisions for their future, rooted in their interests, values and strengths.

Perhaps most importantly, they have the confidence and awareness to understand that obtaining “bragging rights” by the age of 21 is both a superficial and unsatisfying pursuit.

They come to learn that the only worthwhile bragging rights are those that help you sleep at night: the ones you win with your authentic self, by coming to identify and embrace it.