"Thinking about the people we met and the adventures we had, even the bad ones, always brings a smile to my face. Looking back, taking a breather from education was a wise move. I felt refreshed and ready for the challenge, although admittedly I've been struck with wanderlust ever since."
Next Thursday thousands of 18-year-olds will receive their A-level results. Those who don't make their grades and apply through clearing will find themselves up against as many as 80,000 extra applicants, rushing to qualify for the last fee-free year of higher education. Many, like Ben, will end up with a spare 12 months on their hands. For these people there is always the prospect of taking a gap year and travelling, along with many of the 20,000 others who have deferred entry until 1998.
After receiving her results, Rhiannon Batton found herself over-qualified for the places she had applied to. "Taking a year out allows you to better tailor your application simply because you know your results," she says. "I'd always had this image of South America as this exotic and mysterious place. My gap year gave me the chance to find out."
Despite spending her birthday in the freezer room of a vineyard in Chile, she was not disappointed. "After a spell working in Santiago, just for the experience, I spent three months back-packing through Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, visiting Lake Titicaca, desert ghost towns and even a witches' market. Travel gave me something in common with the people I became friends with in university. Somehow we were a bit different," she says.
Indeed, the increasing popularity of the gap year has made travel into a valuable conversational currency on campus. You and your new-found friends will inevitably end up in the small hours amazing (or boring) each other with stories of your exploits, whether they be shark encounters while scuba-diving in the Philippines, drug raids by the Goan police, or the frustrations of trying to buy a train ticket in Hohhot.
Some people mix work and travel, which is a solution if money is a problem. Being based in one place also provides an opportunity to become more familiar with local people, their culture and environment. Catherine Murch organised a gap year with the charitable organisation School Partnership Worldwide. "I spent nine months in Africa, seven teaching in a remote rural area in northern Tanzania and the balance travelling to places such as Lake Malawi and Zimbabwe - for some white water rafting."
However, she adds: "It is important to be committed to a project once you've agreed to it. We were given pounds 1,000 to build and stock a library for the local people, which we did. Me and another guy, Jerry, were the only two westerners for miles. At times it was hard. The work was frustrating and it could be lonely, though on the whole it was brilliant. It was the most memorable experience of my life."
And a final thought, if on Thursday your grades leave you howling. A recent survey of employers by the Royal Mail showed 87 per cent believe taking a year off for travel would make better staff. A gap year may turn out to be the best career move you ever make.
Further reading The Gap Year Guide Book 1997-98 (Peridot Press, pounds 7.95) is an absolute must. It is packed with information on how to apply for deferred entry and lists of voluntary work organisations. Also useful is Planning Your Gap Year by Mark Hempshell (How To Books, pounds 8.99), which tells you how to have a good time while working, studying or travelling. The Royal Mail has a brochure which contains some useful hints and tips. It is available free from: Royal Mail, Gap Year Guide, 22 Endell Street, London WC2.
An inexpensive option is the kibbutz, a communal rural settlement in Israel, where workers receive accommodation, food and pocket money. For details contact Kibbutz Volunteers, tel 0181 458 9235. For the more adventurous there is Work Your Way Around the World by Susan Griffith (Vacation Work, pounds 9.99). This book has travel information and job details for many countries. If you fancy an experience similar to Catherine Murch's, contact School Partnership Worldwide, tel 0171 976 8070. If you would prefer an expedition to voluntary work, call Raleigh International on 0171 371 8585
A good place to start a search of the Internet is the page produced by Oundle School, Peterborough. You can link up with more than 40 relevant organisations including au pair agencies and charitable voluntary groups. Contact: http://box.argonet.co.uk/users/
oundlesch/abroa.html for further details.
Cheap flights are available from: STA Travel, tel 0171 361 6262; Trailfinders, tel 0171 938 3366; and Campus Travel, tel 0171 730 3402. As well as organising tickets, these can offer good advice and discounts to student travellers.