Gap Yah: A Guide to Taking a Year Out

Paul Mitchell peers beyond the post-colonial, noble savage cliches of the 'gap year' to proffer an array of alternatives, minus the beads and tie-dye Aladdin trousers

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 16 Sep 2011
  • Backpacking

Like the metaphorical embodiment of News International, it’s difficult to disentangle the concept of a Gap Year from all that bad press. Particularly in this straitened era, the notion of deliberately setting aside some time instead of just ‘getting on with it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be) is an exclusive preserve of the ridiculously wealthy, ‘doing’ Peru, Thailand, Narnia (well it might as well be, the way University fees are going) in a semi patronising, neo-colonial fashion.

Perhaps it’s just a branding issue, the use of the word ‘gap’ having almost exclusively negative connotations. There are knowledge gaps, wealth gaps, gender gaps, Mind the Gap (ouch!), the gap between your ears or, eh, The Gap. Or perhaps the concept has been sullied somewhat by the abiding memories of tedious willy wavers boasting endlessly about single-handedly (remember, one hand on willy) saving the orphaned children of Africa (all of them) whilst talking about the self-fulfilment and path to enlightenment (as embodied, naturally, by ethnic beads and ill-fitting poncho).

It’s not just you, these people ruin the party for everyone. Next time someone you encounter talks about ‘finding him/herself', politely refer them to Google Maps. Enter the relevant postcode and hey presto! There you are buddy, all found!

However, Übercynics we are not. Some time away from the comparative rigidity of the education system can indeed be a force for good, personal development and a way to contribute to the community.

The world is your holiday resort...

The obvious option, and one most heavily identified by the cliches of privileged youth: seeking spiritual enlightenment, wearing shoes in Buddhist temples and littering the Inca trail, whilst teetering ineptly over squatting toilets. But it’s not an idea to be sniffed at; entered into with an open mind, it teaches toleration, or at the very least, whether Asian ganja trumps that of South America. There are lots of ways to do it creatively, and/or cheaply. Babysit someone’s house in Moscow, or deliver a car to San Francisco. Help Exchange (www.helpx.net) lists a large variety of organic farms, hostels, B&Bs and hostels where travellers can stay for free in return for a few hours work a day. The big daddy of internet phenomenona is, of course, www.couchsurfing.com, a site where an army of volunteers all around the world offer to host or be hosted.

...but, you could do something useful while you're at it

Despite the inexorable decline of the US as the world’s superpower, the English language is still a highly treasured asset, and we assume (perhaps naively) that most UK students can actually speak it, so why not get paid to teach it (all the funnier if taught in a Weegie accent, you can never have enough bemused Korean businessmen admitting that they 'huvnae a scooby’). It might be an idea to get a technical qualification in the form of a TEFL certificate (see www.uk-tefl.com for details), and the opportunities for using them stretch all over Europe and Asia.

Maybe you could build an orphanage for endangered whales, or some such life-affirming, globe-improving act of altruistic heroism. But, be careful with this one. A lot of companies provide ‘Voluntourism’ services, offering the opportunity to engage in community-based activities all over the place. Some of these can be quite expensive to coordinate, and may result in little or no real benefit to that community, with the paying tourist taking the place of the local unemployed, who won’t really like you very much. Still, Global Vision International (www.gvi.co.uk) is a non-political, non-religious organisation aiming to provide volunteers to fill gaps on a massive range of projects in over 40 countries.

Get a ‘proper’ job

So school, uni not doing it for you right now? Well, why not dip a toe in what’s colloquially known as ‘the real world’ by engaging in the sort of renumerated activity you are probably actively trying to avoid. Working in a pub, cafe or restaurant is a great way to develop social skills (or even more killer anti-social skills), whilst taking on an admin role or call-centre work lets you know what it’s like to have responsibility, and lets you save in order to take part in the activities listed above.

If you’re thinking 'fuck that!', but aren’t sure what else to do, then you’re not being imaginative enough. In theory, your gap year will provide the glowing lamp on the otherwise darkened road to the well-rounded, perfectly-contented, vital member of society you clearly strive to be. And it can be done on your doorstep (not the one you puked on last night) but the metaphorical one that is Scotland.

ProjectScotland (www.projectscotland.co.uk) is Scotland’s national youth volunteering organisation, providing opportunities for full time, structured volunteering in not-for-profit organisations. Through connecting young people with their communities, they aim to create positive impacts on individuals, organisations, communities and Scotland. Again, it'll do no harm to your career prospects and you're less likely to come back dressed in beads and dripping in smugness.