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."

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Guru Careers: Graduate Media Assistant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an ambitious and adaptable...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'