Why taking a gap year is good for you

Thinking of taking a year out before uni? Whether you choose to volunteer, travel, learn a language or work abroad, here's why it's the smartest decision you'll make

5 mins

Learn a language overseas...

Becca Rees spent five months learning Spanish in Valencia. She worked at a four-star hotel's beach bar, picking up the lingo along the way.

Why I did it... I studied Spanish and French at university so had already lived a little while in Spain, but the first time around I'd spent a lot of time with fellow English-speaking classmates. I felt I hadn't immersed myself in the language, so I decided to go back two years later for an altogether different experience.

What I learned… Firstly, I learned to converse much more fluently in Spanish. As the only native English speaker at the hotel, I had no option but to get stuck in. It was a steep learning curve and there were several misunderstandings, like the time I accidentally called the chef a cochino (filthy pig) instead of cocinero, and the time I accidentally referred to a chicken breast (pechuga) as a human breast (pecho)!

I have also made friends from all over the world for life. I was lucky enough to work with Spanish speakers from the likes of Mexico, Cuba and Argentina, which taught me a lot about different cultures and customs.

Any words of advice? Having a degree is not a free pass into any job! I wanted to work in a bar or restaurant in order to improve my conversational skills, but jobs were scarce at the time and I went in the peak of the credit crunch (which the Spanish refer to as el crisis).

My waitressing skills were not amazing, so I did end up doing a couple of trial shifts before I got offered work. Working on the beach is not the easy life you might imagine, but as long as you are prepared for a bit of hard grafting – often cleaning, and maybe longer hours than you might be used to in the UK – the culturally-rich experience makes it all worthwhile.

Muck in as a volunteer...

Want to do your bit? A ten-week Natural Resource Management project with Raleigh International took Michael Carroll to Achuapa, Nicaragua.

Why I did it... I’d always been concerned by poverty at home and abroad, but I had never really considered how I could actively work to reduce it. However, after discovering Raleigh International whilst Googling sustainable development, I was immediately drawn to the depth and range of projects on offer – and the decision to apply was a simple one.

What I learned... My time in Nicaragua taught me a multitude of things both about myself and the world around me. I always knew I was lucky in the respect that I was brought up in Britain, received a good-quality education, had access to reliable medical care and – most importantly, for me – possessed a supportive and loving family to support me whenever I needed it. Yet the experience of Raleigh reinforced how fortunate I really am, and illuminated how others in more difficult circumstances can struggle so much.

I was aware that in ten weeks it would be almost impossible for a group of young people to establish a fully-functioning education and healthcare system, but what I did realise was how working with the community, speaking and living with them, could dramatically improve their self-belief and confidence and international ties.

Any words of advice? When volunteering, retain an open mind and a can-do attitude at all times. During my spell in Nicaragua I learned that charity does not necessarily have to involve a huge construction project: it can be as simple as talking to those in need and listening to them. An experience with a charity like Raleigh is valuable not just because it helps you to flourish as an individual, but because it can make a tangible improvement to the lives of less fortunate people.

Earn money overseas...

Pippa Rollinson fulfilled a lifelong ambition to travel to Australia – and worked her way around the country. She gained experience and confidence, as well as cash...

Why I did it... I couldn't shake the feeling that if I went straight to uni without taking a break I would regret it. I'd saved up in the UK, working all the hours god (and my boss) could send. I can't stress how nice it was to have a money cushion to travel with. I've always made sure I have a barrier between being broke and having enough. That's why I worked despite having some money!

I travelled to Melbourne, where I got work in the most amazing little French bistro called Madame Sousous. I worked there for three months and made great friends, and really started to learn how to become an adult! I headed off solo to Tasmania, then flew back to Sydney for some more work in the City Hall – again, a great experience.

What I learned... How to manage money properly, and how to think as an adult but still make time for fun. It showed me what I value most about myself: that I can work hard to achieve my goals if it's something I feel passionate about.

Any words of advice? Never feel that your trip isn't as good as someone else's! Plan, but understand that the best experiences are accidental. Enjoy yourself: don't look back, don't look forwards. Fully experience where you are.  

See some world...

For Hazel Plush, a gap year meant backpacking: she went overlanding though east and southern Africa, hitched through Australia, and explored New Zealand in a camper van.

Why I did it... I'd been dreaming of travelling since I was small, and had been saving all through my college years, sometimes working three jobs at a time. It seemed that now was the time to go: wait any longer, and I'd probably get sucked into the uni and career path quickly – and the opportunity to travel would be lost.

What I learned... At first, how to save. Most of my friends would blow all their cash on clothes and going out – as the only one who wanted to go travelling, I was a bit of a loner. Not many people understood why I wanted to go! While I was away, the lessons were endless – and I think that's one of the biggest benefits of travel for young people. Everything from using laundrettes to communicating with non English speakers. It was invaluable when I went to uni.

Any words of advice? Plan, plan, and then rip it all up and go where the wind takes you. Research is essential if you want to get the most out of your backpacking trip, but don't be tied to itineraries and routines. Be open minded, and talk to as many people as possible, see as many things as you can possibly fit in (and afford). This is probably the only time you'll be this free – so enjoy it!

Main image: Tourist woman in Parc Guell, Barcelona, Spain (Shutterstock)


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