Unhappy with virtual campus life, some students take a break from school to find new momentum
Anthony Russell spent much of February teaching street art to elementary and high school students in Calgary: showcasing black artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and helping them create stencil pieces in oil pastel, acrylic and watercolour.
The kids were so engaged that some stayed through lunch and even after school just to finish their creations.
Although Russell has been creating art himself since his own elementary school days, becoming an art teacher was never on the 19-year-old’s radar. As the youngest child of immigrant parents, Russell said the careers he envisioned growing up typically revolved around “doctor, lawyer, dentist, engineer.”
Today, teaching art to children – while taking a break from studying law, crime and justice at the University of Alberta – has completely changed his mind about his prior intention to become a lawyer.
“It’s one thing to make art and share it that way. It’s another thing to have kids producing art and learning from you,” Russell said. “It just clicked.”
Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospect of being in line to start university or college led some students to consider a gap year.
Now, some post-secondary students who have only had virtual learning amid the pandemic are taking a break from school and finding that time away productive and rewarding.
The pandemic shattered Russell’s dream of college being his first big experience away from home and family in Calgary, but he embraced the online college format in the fall of 2020.
While his grades were good and he enjoyed the topics covered, he knew by the end of the first term that he didn’t want to keep paying “those obscene tuition” while logging on to class from home – or , worse, from a dorm room if he had actually moved to the Augustana campus of the University of Alberta in Camrose, Alberta.
After deciding to defer his second year, Russell got back into making art fully when an opportunity arose for an exhibition at Art Commons, a performing arts center and gallery in Calgary where he had already exhibited works. That, in turn, led to the ability to speak via Zoom with an elementary class who had seen his exhibit.
“The show led to my first [teaching] session with Arts Commons and my second session,” Russell said. Then teachers from other schools in Calgary also started reaching out.
While his mother “couldn’t understand the idea of me not being in school”, Russell said she returned after realizing he was working towards a goal.
“I walked in today and she called me Mr. Russell because I was [teaching an art workshop].… She’s come a long way.”
A pause with intention and purpose
In Canada and especially within different cultural communities, taking a gap year before or during post-secondary education is not as commonly accepted as in countries like the UK or Australia. The stigma around it persists here, according to Michelle Dittmer, president and co-founder of the Canadian Gap Year Association.
“We have this will, this dream to go faster. Go harder. Go harder. Don’t stop… because you’re going to fall and you’re going to be late,” she said.
“There’s a difference between taking time off and sitting on the couch for a year and taking a gap year. A gap year is intentional time, planned time, and purposeful time.”
The pandemic, however, may encourage greater openness to gap years. Young people told Dittmer that they see college and university as a holistic experience. When classes and campus life have moved online, “they miss a lot of those other formative components of post-secondary education, whether it’s residence or the cool week or extracurricular activities or labs or other components that enhance the experience,” she said. .
She referred to a 2017 report on the matter commissioned by the Privy Council of Canada. He reviewed various international studies and reports from a Canadian context, examined the factors influencing the delay of post-secondary studies by Canadian students and identified the barriers. He noted that some young Canadians “would benefit from the extracurricular learning experiences offered by a gap year.”
Coming out of a gap year, Dittmer said, people report feeling more independent, confident and ready to take the next step, whatever that may be.
However, it all starts with being intentional, thinking and setting goals, she noted. “You have to figure out why you’re taking a year off and how you want to be different at the end before you can tackle what you’re going to do.”
Stephen Mensah has carefully thought through and planned his sabbatical, which the Ryerson University student officially launched in early 2022.
Last month, he interrupted his double major in criminology, politics and governance after completing his entire second year online. His grades have plummeted during the pandemic and the 21-year-old has found virtual learning to be “overwhelming”. He greatly missed the in-person connections and support he received from teachers and classmates before the pandemic.
Although he tested a move to part-time study for the recent fall term, it didn’t really help. He was already considering a full hiatus, with plans to “come back strong” next September in hopes of having more consistent in-person learning.
“I have my goals and my plans and pulling out this semester is not something too crazy,” said Mensah, who is aiming for law school after graduating from undergrad. “I’m a person who really cares about my grades and wants to excel, especially watching where I’m trying to go.”
As a member of the Toronto Youth Cabinet – Toronto City Council’s youth advisory body – for the past three years and its current chief executive, Mensah knew that taking a break from school would mean he could devote a lot more time to the group.
Read our statement below!
One death is one too many, our young people deserve to live. https://t.co/XAOYKTkEzP
His advanced planning also included applying for job opportunities at City Hall – and securing a position as an assigned assistant to the legislative affairs team in the office of Toronto Mayor John Tory.
Mensah says his goals for his hiatus were to prepare for success, stay productive and take time for his own mental health. He is delighted to have gotten off to a good start, with eight months to go before he gets back on the books.
Back in Calgary, Russell described himself as “a struggling, hungry artist” who would return to post-secondary education to become an art teacher. For now, he is happy to have opted for a break.
“I feel the most fulfilled right now that I’ve ever felt in my life,” he said. “I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and nothing happens before its time. … Where I am right now is exactly what it takes.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.