People involved in the student gap-year business freely admit that placements can sometimes be expensive, and can therefore often seem like a kind of "poverty tourism" that is bought for rich kids by their indulgent parents.
But consider the case of Cameron Saul, now 20, who left his boarding school, Millfield, to spend his gap year in Africa. Many people would consider him the very epitome of a rich kid – his father is chairman of the fashion company Mulberry. But his months in Uganda, teaching HIV/Aids awareness in remote villages under the auspices of Students Partnership Worldwide, were about as far from any kind of tourism, teenage or otherwise, that you could get.
And his involvement didn't end there. When he discovered that local people were making a funky kind of shopping bag out of metal bottle-tops tied together with wire, he thought that this was an idea he could profitably bring back to England. Since he had persuaded his parents to visit him in Uganda, and they had been shocked at the suffering they had witnessed there, they agreed to back the idea. Mulberry now plans to manufacture and sell a Westernised version of the shopping bags – with all the profits being ploughed back into the Aids charities working in the area.
The moral of this is that gap years, like so much of life, are what you make them, and that you will almost certainly get out of them at least what you put in.
Your task at this early stage of proceedings is to be acutely aware of how much the gap-year organisations differ from each other, and to look closely into what they offer. "You ask questions, and you ask the right questions, and you don't be afraid to go on asking the questions until you get the answers," says Tom Griffiths of the independent forum yearout.com.
Griffiths suggests asking questions such as these. Who takes part and how are they selected? What will I be doing, and how and where will I be living? Who benefits from the programme? What will it cost and where exactly does the money go? Is the organisation a charity, or for-profit company? How long has the organisation been going? Is this a new placement? Can I talk to someone who's done it before? What training will I get? Who arranges travel and insurance? What about health risks? What back-up is there on the ground? And, what happens if there's an emergency?
I had a gap year, and it was the best year of my life. But when I was researching the possibilities, my discoveries about the costs and benefits of the kind of trips where you had to pay thousands of pounds to work made me agree with your parents. I found other choices, virtually free and more worthwhile. Community Service Volunteers (
www.csv.org.uk) provides funded placements in the UK for four to 12 months; UNA exchange (
www.unaexchange.com) organises work camps anywhere in the world for very little. I also had three fantastic months on a kibbutz in Israel (but safety issues may rule that out). When you are not paying for a project, you know it is your input rather than cash they value.
Our son Charlie is back from China, where he spent five months teaching English. He was adamant that, having worked solidly since A-levels to fund a year out, he did not want to spend his cash on what amounted to a sight-seeing trip. Nor was he interested in anything that used the words "character-building" or "physically challenging". We decided that GAP Activity Projects offered the right mix of freedom and supervision. Charlie would spend his time with a like-minded partner teaching in a middle school, for which he would be paid pocket money. He would be supported by a network of link teachers and GAP representatives, and there would be opportunities to meet other gappers for travel. Through his e-mails and diary we have seen how our son has coped with challenges and developed a real sense of adventure.
Whatever you do, you'll get a lot out of a gap year. Anyone who wants to make the most of university ought to have one. I spent mine teaching in Nepal and travelling in Asia. When I went to university, the people I hit it off withhad done similar things. We'd had to rely on ourselves, and grow up a lot. We were ready to work. People straight out of school often seemed really young, and some went crazy in their first year because it was their first taste of freedom.
OUR NEXT QUANDARY
My 12-year-old son went to an overnight camping party with his friends recently, during which – so I heard on the grapevine afterwards – some of the boys were smoking cannabis. He is my eldest child, and this is the first time that drugs have come into our family life. I am shocked by how early something like this has happened. What should I say about it to my son?
Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 5 August, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send your e-mails to email@example.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser
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