DILEMMAS: Mum and Dad don't approve of a gap year

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I wonder what it is that makes Geri's parents so panicky? Were they themselves denied any further education and feel, like starving children, that you must snap up what's on offer in case it mysteriously disappears next year? Or is Geri an only child, whom they want to keep tabs on for as long as they can? If she goes to university now, at least they'll have her back in the holidays for the next three years. At least they'll be able to ring her every night. It sounds as if not only are they tremendously insecure themselves, but they are also insecure about Geri's own maturity.

But of course she should go travelling now if she can afford it. She's spent a whole gruelling lifetime at school, and to go straight from school to university, unless there's no alternative, has lots of disadvantages. She'd probably take with her a school mentality, in other words a "do as little as possible and then only to get through exams" attitude to learning.

If she goes abroad for a while, she'll be able to come to university from a different angle, and see it not as school but as further education, something that she could enjoy and appreciate.

Then, if she goes away now, she'll meet people of her own age. If she goes later, she'll be in with an entirely different crowd. Pre-university people look after each other when they're backpacking around the world, and have a great time seeing new things.

And finally, if she goes round the world after university, she'll be a year late in applying for jobs. And she'll be doing it on her own, having lost touch with so many university companions who could have helped her in the work market. Not only that, but she'll probably be saddled with the debt of a student loan; not an ideal time to take a carefree trip.

My son went travelling to India and Nepal before university. He set off as a schoolboy and came back as a seasoned traveller, far better able to cope with university than if he'd gone straight up. He knew how to shop and to cook and how to find better rooms, and generally how to survive, far better than those who had come straight from home. It means that he got far more out of the place than the others.

While dozens of school-leavers were spending every night drinking in those awful competitions called boat-races and competing with each other as to how many pints they could down, he felt he'd been there, done that. There was no sense of "now I'm at university I'll go stark, staring bonkers" about it all.

And, sorry to sound so po-faced, but it's true that there's nothing like coming across a few limbless beggars covered with sores to make you realise how incredibly lucky you are to be going to university. It suddenly becomes not some ghastly three-year extension of school; it becomes a privilege.

Geri should show her maturity now by putting her foot down and saying that she's going abroad, whether her parents like it or not. When she does this she may find that their true anxieties come spilling out, which she can deal with one at a time. She can reassure them that she'll ring them every week, if possible; she can get all her jabs and buy her anti- Aids kit. She may reassure them by cutting Bosnia and Albania off her list to visit, and go to Australia or India instead. She'll have a great time. And she'll grow up fast.


Take a gap year

A year off is fine, so long as it stretches your psyche as well as providing an escape route from your present stale patch. Domestic help to a rich American family could numb your intellect for ever. A year working with the disabled or refugees could dramatically recharge your emotional batteries.

If you have the courage to backpack abroad, you'll enjoy showing initiative and resourcefulness; you'll probably have to take some seedy jobs along the way but will return enlightened.



Your parents will benefit

My 19-year-old daughter has almost completed a gap year which she was actively encouraged to take by her father and myself. She has travelled to India, had two office jobs and two catering jobs, saved money, and travelled for three months in Europe. For us the year has been a chance to enjoy the company of a delightful young woman without exams looming. Since she was 14 the major focus of her life has been school and exams.

This is perhaps the last chance your daughter will have to take a little time for herself, to grow up and develop with your support.



Make sure you have a plan

I am coming to the end of my gap year, during which I travelled extensively. Taking a year off shows commitment to study. On returning you will unquestionably be more mature and in fact probably be keener to study.

However, ensure you have plans. How are you funding the year? Where and why do you want to travel? You may find it harder to go away after university; act on your enthusiasm. Go, go, go!


A year off gives insight

Geri has the right idea. I didn't start my degree until I was 25 and it has given me insight against which to measure the values in the work of people I am studying. Younger students seem to be more passive, or critical in a fashionable, blinkered way. I am on no treadmill and my academic life is intensely personal. Perhaps Geri's parents didn't go to university, or did and don't realise that they could have made even more of it.



Job prospects are improved

Having spent my gap year teaching English in China I would summarise the most important reasons to take this year off:

1. It is more difficult to travel for a year when burdened by debts and trying to get into the competitive graduate job market.

2. The experience gained is invaluable for graduate jobs - these days, a good degree is just not enough.

3. What else will you put on application forms when they ask about your greatest achievement to date?


Ashford, Kent

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My mother died on the same day as Diana last year, and I can't tell you how distressing I found it. Even the funeral was on the same day, and I was horrified how few people came because they were watching Diana's funeral on television. I felt that my personal grief was completely overwhelmed by the grief for the Princess. With all the recent publicity about Diana, I feel surges of the same fury, and impotence. Has anyone else been in the same position? How did they cope? And how can I cope, year after year?


Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send comments and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail: dilemmas @independent.co.uk - giving your postal address for sending a bouquet.