Go Higher: Volunteer to be challenged

Discover new skills abroad, writes Tamsin Smith
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The Independent Online
One of the most popular options for students taking a gap year is to find work abroad, whether it is because they have tired of academic pressure and see a gap year as a means to recharge their batteries, or have a burning ambition to broaden their horizons by exploring the world. Some adventurous types might just pack a rucksack and head into the wilderness, but the majority need something more organised.

Whatever your needs, there are hundreds of organisations both in this country and abroad which offer short or long-term placements on projects abroad, from teaching in developing countries, to conservation or environmental projects around the world.

Gap Activity Projects offer places on voluntary projects in dozens of countries. It says that young people are attracted abroad because places where the lifestyle is different and the culture is unfamiliar can be a stimulus to new thinking.

If carefully planned and constructively used, it is also an excellent foundation for gaining a more balanced approach to higher education.

One word of warning though, most schemes cost a lot of money to set up and are run on the smallest of budgets, so it is likely you will have to pay for your place.

Again, the key is start planning early so you can save enough money (around pounds 1,500 to pounds 3,000).

"Doing voluntary work abroad gives you the best chance to become assimilated into a totally new way of life," says Ali Latham, 22, an accounting and business management graduate from the University of Wales, Cardiff.

She spent five months as a "parent" looking after girls at an Indian boarding school in north east India.

"I had to get the children dressed, breakfasted and ready for school in the mornings and organise things for them to do in the afternoons. Then I'd make sure they did their homework, read them stories and put them to bed.

"I was paid 50p a day, but my food and lodgings were free, so although I didn't save any money, I didn't spend any either.

"It was a real eye-opener to a different way of life. It certainly made me a lot more confident and sociable and I think I found it much easier to settle into university as a result because I was used to being in new places, meeting new people."

"Working abroad develops a higher degree of self-knowledge and self-reliance through a tough and rigorous testing experience," says May Morton, from Raleigh International, one of the best known adventure/training organisations.

Raleigh is a UK-based youth development charity which takes people aged between 18 and 25 on expeditions to some of the far flung corners of the world to help local people with environment and community projects.

Volunteers travel to places like Chile, Mongolia, Ghana, Oman and Namibia to help local people build schools and health centres in remote areas. They also conduct environmental research in national parks and take part in adventure trips kayaking, canoeing and camping in the wild.

The trips often become defining moments in the volunteer's life changing people's aspirations and career choices as a result.

"Both college tutors and companies sending employees on expeditions find they return with better leadership qualities and improved general knowledge," says May.

"They are enriched by what they have learnt and in turn enrich their own communities, domestic and work-related."

The Gap Challenge Scheme, run by World Challenge Expeditions, offers pre-university students the chance to work abroad, from teaching posts in a Tibetan refugee camp, to conservation work in Ecuador, helping disabled children in Malawi to working on an Australian trail farm.

The Challenge team try to match your ambitions with what the world has to offer and provide support in which ever country you end up working in.

"A work placement is not only a great way to discover a country," says Katherine O'Driscoll, from World Challenge Expeditions. "It also provides lessons for life and fosters attributes sought by employers, building self-confidence and reliance, interpersonal and communication skills."

Alexander Smith, 22, a Maritime Studies student at the University of Wales, Cardiff, took part in a programme typical of many.

He spent three months on an environmental expedition in Tanzania studying the effects of dynamite fishing on coral reefs.

"I wanted to do something which would combine travelling abroad with my studies and teach me new skills at the same time.

"Friends told me about various organisations that run foreign expeditions which sounded interesting, so I went to the careers library to find out more about them.

"I wrote lots of letters requesting information and eventually applied to a group called Frontier, Society for Conservation and Exploration. It runs environmental schemes around the world for volunteers interested in scientific research.

"It was just what I was after. One of the projects in Tanzania was about marine conservation which was ideal for my course and it involved doing loads of scuba diving - one of my favourite past-times.

"There is only one setback and that is we had to raise pounds 3,000 for the cost of our stay and buy our own diving kit. It was a lot of money to raise and I admit I struggled. I wrote to shipping, marine, and environmental companies asking for sponsorship, organised charity events, and worked in a pub during the holidays to get the money.

"It was a fantastic experience, but not for the fainthearted. We spent ten weeks living on the beach in grass huts, in one of the remotest parts of Tanzania eating nothing but rice and beans.

"We were up at the crack of dawn, in an extraordinary beautiful part of the world diving on the reefs surveying fish.

"It was very interesting and I think I'll have lots of material for my dissertation. I also picked up lots of new skills not only learning how to and analyse the research, but also how to plan dives, work in a team and explore the country."

Teaching the Tibetan way

VANESSA RUBIN, 19, is studying English and French at the University of Warwick. She spent five months on a Gap Challenge project teaching English to Tibetan children in a Nepalese refugee camp.

"While I was studying my A-levels, I decided I definitely needed to take a break from school. I was fed up with working all the time and although I knew I wanted to go to university, I wanted to relax and see a bit of the world first.

"I'd found out about World Challenge Expeditions while I was still at school, and decided that volunteering was a brilliant way to experience life in a different country as I could combine work with travelling.

"I wrote off asking for details and applied for a place teaching in Nepal as being in the Himalayas really appealed to me.

"Gap Challenge arranged for me to help teach English and Maths at a Tibetan refugee camp in Pokhara, Nepal, but before I could go I had to raise pounds 3,000 to help cover the cost of the adventure training, admin, teaching materials etc.

"To do that I worked for four months before I left - in a pub, for a temping agency and for a mobile phone company.

"The first month in Nepal was spent adventure training. We went trekking in the mountains, on safari in the south of Nepal and white water rafting. We also did lots of sightseeing on an induction week, so we could learn a bit about Nepalese culture and pick up some of the language.

"It was a fantastic way to unwind, get to see the country and meet volunteers from other Gap Challenge projects before settling into the routine of work.

"After that I and 14 other volunteers spent four months living in the refugee camp teaching Tibetan children English, Maths and a bit of French. I was petrified at first, but the Tibetans are such lovely people and you are in the same boat as all the other volunteers so you help each other along.

"It was hard work, but great fun. We were up early every morning, teaching all day, organising activities in the afternoons and marking homework every evening. But every day was different and you came to expect the unexpected. It was not uncommon for a goat to wander into the classroom, or for it to be flooded during the monsoon.

"I loved every minute of it and miss the children a lot. It was such a privilege to be treated like one of them rather than as a tourist.

"It was also a fantastic way to discover a country as you become so immersed in it. I learnt so much about Tibetan and Nepalese culture and felt I had loads more to talk about when I arrived at university.

"It was also the first time I discovered real independence. You could go where you liked when you liked and there was no one telling you what to do.

"Since then I've realised I'd like to work as a teacher abroad, preferably in developing countries. I've never done anything that was so rewarding."