How to cope when your offspring embark on gap years

Hilary Wilce was worried when her daughter, Katy, went on an independent gap year to Tanzania. But her fears were allayed when she paid her a visit

As a parent, I thought I was an old hand at gap years. I had waved my eldest child off to teach in the Borneo rainforest, and my middle one off for a year in a school in Australia. I had twice driven home from the airport to face the dreadful poignancy of an empty childhood bedroom. I knew how it felt to count the minutes until that first precious message, announcing a safe arrival, and had grown used to texts that read like a geography lesson - "Flying to KL next week, then on to Thailand and Laos". I had survived heart-stopping midnight phone calls, crises of stolen credit cards and my own middle-of-the-night panics about robbery and rape.

But these first two times had at least had an organised framework around them. I knew that if something went wrong, there would be someone whose job it would be to pick up the pieces.

However, my third child announced she had no intention of doing an organised gap year placement. After all, she wanted to know, what did they actually do, in return for all those thousands of pounds they took off you? It seemed an awful lot of money just to save a few turtles or help out in an orphanage. She was sure she could make her money stretch much further if she did it alone. And have a much more "real" experience, in the bargain.

Oh, I said, doubtfully. It bothered me that there would be no office I could ring if there was a problem, no in-country representative who would be her lifeline if anything went awry. But, never one to be thwarted by parental disapproval, she arranged, via her school, to return to an area of Tanzania that she had visited on a school trip a couple of years before.

I was mildly reassured that she was going with two friends, and that her school had longstanding links with this region of Tanzania, but even so, the arrangements seemed worryingly fluid. She was to fly to Tabora, deep in the heart of the country and then... Well, things would be sorted out once she got there.

I hated seeing her disappear through the departure gate at Heathrow, knowing I had no precise knowledge of where she was going, or what she would be doing. But, three months later, when I was lucky enough to be able to visit her in Tanzania, I realised that not only need I not have worried, but that she was probably being far better looked after than if she had been just another gap year student being fed into the pipeline of an existing scheme.

While my son was in Borneo, he had persistent problems with his visa, which he always had to sort out for himself. My older daughter, in Australia, had travelled halfway round the world to be greeted only by a bare mattress and no one even to say hello to her. By contrast Katy Dickson, my younger daughter, was being assiduously looked after. She had good accommodation, good food, a sensible teaching load and felt well integrated in the villages where she had been living. Sitting on a rush mat outside the house where she was staying, she and a friend reflected on their experience.

"It was scary when we first arrived and didn't know where to go or what to do, but after that people have looked after us so well," said Dickson. "People are always looking out for us. It's been amazing to be here on our own like this and not part of some big organisation. It's much more personal. We've been to a funeral and a wedding and a kitchen party, which is a party you have just before a wedding. You have such good friendships, because it's all so personal, and it's a really satisfying feeling to walk into the village and know so many people."

"You feel it's much more of an achievement, too, coming on your own like this," said Ellie Davidson." You feel proud to have come as an individual. I can't help feeling it would be fake, just traipsing round in a group and having people say 'Oh yes, they're the latest ones from Gap Whatever.' The group thing never appealed to me. You'd just feel you were one in a long line, and not anything special. Whereas here we know we've been able to do something useful, and we've made so many friends."

Emma Prest, an Edinburgh University geography student, also arranged her gap year herself. "I thought organised gap years were insanely expensive, so I looked online for something different. I started to fix on archaeology, I don't know why, and I thought it would be a good idea to go somewhere where I had a vague grip on the local culture, so I was thinking about Mexico, because I'd been there quite a lot. My mum helped me look. I remember we kept ordering field guides to different places." In the end, she did three months with an eco-tourism project in Central America, run by a University of California academic who was exhuming an archaeological site in the rainforest. She met the academic briefly in London and also spent some weeks helping her in California, before flying to live in a monastery in Belize. "It cost me $2,000 for the three months, for all food and accommodation - although I realised after a time I was the only one paying. The others were all older and doing it as part of their studies. There was a 24-year-old French girl and a rather bizarre German guy, but we managed to bond in the jungle far away from home.

"I basically just pottered about, finding things to do, and there was a time when I wished I was with my friends who were all going to full moon parties in Thailand. But I don't regret any of it. It was an amazing experience, and it gave me so much confidence. I felt I could do anything afterwards. I thought: 'Wow! I organised all that myself!'"

But Tom Griffiths, founder of the gap year organisation gapyear.com, warns parents to be cautious about solo placements and urges them to get stuck in and help. "The first thing is to encourage them to focus. If they want to teach in Nepal, ask them whether they want to be in the capital, or in a village. Then ask them if they can they can find somewhere that already has links with the UK. Perhaps a local town might be twinned with somewhere, or a church might have a connection. If you can find a link like that, it is likely to be a lot safer than just heading off into the blue." Because, he stresses, it's important to ask searching questions about any independent placement. "Like: who's going to be looking after me? Who runs this? Are they nice people? A lot of projects tend to be in neighbourhoods with problems, so is there going to be a crack house next door? Then there's the question of safety. Say you're planning on going off to help build a church. Well, that sounds fine, but you have to remember there won't be health and safety regulations, no one will be wearing hard hats and the scaffolding will probably be made of bamboo.

"You also have to be sure there is going to be something worthwhile for you to do. You could fix up your own teaching placement in Fiji, say, but do you know who will be managing you? And will you have a timetable of when you're going to teach and what you're supposed to do? Or will you just be following along behind a teacher and helping out in their lessons?"

He also warns parents to be cautious about their children impulsively heading off to help disaster relief efforts. "After the tsunami, for example, there were live wires everywhere and walls that could come down. The first people into a disaster zone should always be the disaster relief experts. Then, when they've worked out what needs doing, other people can come in and help."

Dickson and Davidson's independent gap year worked out because it was fixed up via trusted relationships between Tanzania and their school. Prest had a chance to meet the academic she would be working for, as well as the reassurance she was attached to a well-known university, before packing her rucksack for California and Belize.

"Basically it's all about using your common sense and asking the right questions," says Griffiths. "It's what you'd do if you're buying a car, so the same is true if you're fixing a gap year. And if you do that, you probably won't run into any problems and have a fantastic time."

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