Fast Track: How to make the most of a year out

It used to be de rigueur to bum around for 12 months before going to university. Not any more. By Claire Walker
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The Independent Culture
USING YOUR gap year to bum aimlessly around the world on Daddy's credit card is, these days, passe. The smart kids - both pre- and post- university - are using their time abroad in a more focused way. And many have realised that the year is a chance to boost both self-esteem and marketability.

It was thanks to a scheme run by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) that Matthew Bush, now 23, who studied agriculture at Newcastle University, was able to take a year out to work on a camel improvement project in Kenya. The Samburu people are nomadic pastoralists whose subsistence diet is milk and meat, and it was only recently that they started to keep camels in order to sell their milk. Matthew set up a mobile outreach project, which followed the Samburu to provide them with information on the best use of veterinary drugs, how to improve their camel-breeding programme, and general advice on camel husbandry.

"I wanted to make a positive contribution to individuals, and ultimately to myself," says Bush.

Voluntary Service Overseas' overseas training programme (OTP), set up in 1992, works in partnership with universities to give 40 undergraduates each year the chance to work in developing countries. For Bush, the only drawback was losing his immediate peers, as he was a year behind them on his return to Newcastle. He is emphatic, though, that his experience in Kenya more than compensated for this. While there, he walked 300km across the country with camels and herdsmen to raise money for the charity Farm Africa. His time on the project made him more serious, he says, and also gave him a renewed sense of respect for his home country. "I came back determined to make as much effort to fit back into the UK as I did to fit into Kenya," he says. It obviously worked: he now has a job as an agricultural researcher and is certain he got the post because of his time on the scheme. He is still involved in OTP, and says: "I had a fantastic experience, thanks to them."

If you do not have the inclination or opportunity to take a year out during your course, there is always the option of going abroad as part of your degree under the European Communities Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, known by the acronym Erasmus. The scheme, in which more than 200 higher education institutions participate, allows students to study in a EU country for between three and 12 months. Gavin Jack spent a year in Germany as part of his degree in international business and languages. He swapped Edinburgh's Napier University for a business school in Augsburg.

It was difficult at first. "The shock initially was being on your own for the first time," he recalls. Fortunately, he was confident in the language; others not so competent may find that their home university provides basic training, topped up by an intensive language course in the host country. There is also the possibility of a grant from Erasmus to help with costs while abroad.

Jack, once settled in, loved his time abroad and sat his exams in German; he undoubtedly gained by resisting the temptation to mix with other UK students. In fact, he relished the challenge of relaunching his life abroad. "You have to sort every single thing on your own - in a foreign language. Being away from your own environment means you reflect on yourself, your friends and country. Others have commented that I seem more comfortable in myself," he adds. Jack is in no doubt that the experience of living in a different Western culture will help him in the employment market. He is now studying for his PhD in international communications, which involves shadowing Scottish and German managers to ascertain differences between them.

But there are those who are not quite so adventurous, or confident. Aside from the inevitable summer vacation in Ibiza, they have not ventured outside the UK at all. Perhaps the backpacking bug has bitten at a later age. Is it too late to find a way to travel? No: anyone who can speak English well and has the patience to tutor those who want to learn can find their way, after taking a Celta - the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults.

Increasing numbers of graduates are taking this option: the number of certificates issued has gone up from less than 5,000 in the early Nineties to more than 7,000 last year. It is an especially attractive option for those who cannot afford the time or the cash to travel while still at university, or for those who wish to put off repaying student loans.

But perhaps the most important thing to remember is that although a year abroad can be a valuable experience, it can also be a temptation to escape from reality, if you extend it. The smart kids are the ones who know when it's time to come home.

For more information about the OTP, call VSO on 0181-780 7200. To consult the Erasmus UK Guide, visit your local university careers service. For more on Celta courses, write to: The CILTS Unit, University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, 1 Hills Road, Cambridge, CB1 2EU