The time of your life

A gap year is a chance to experience things that you would never see or do as a tourist. Don't miss out, urges Peter Slowe
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The Independent Online

The gap year opportunity comes once in a lifetime. When else will you have a whole year under almost no pressure? What about when you've graduated and urgently need a job? Not a great time to take a long break. When you get bored with your job and want a career break? There'll be the mortgage, the missed promotion, your partner, both kids. When you retire? OK, if you live that long and you don't have arthritis - and you don't have to work till you're 82 because there are no pensions.

The gap year opportunity comes once in a lifetime. When else will you have a whole year under almost no pressure? What about when you've graduated and urgently need a job? Not a great time to take a long break. When you get bored with your job and want a career break? There'll be the mortgage, the missed promotion, your partner, both kids. When you retire? OK, if you live that long and you don't have arthritis - and you don't have to work till you're 82 because there are no pensions.

The gap year is a one-off, and now it's yours for the asking. You've seen off the minister and the bureaucrats. They've done a U-turn. You won't now have to pay an extra £7,000 in tuition fees if you take a gap year and go to university in 2006 instead of 2005.

So you can start dreaming and then planning. The year is yours. No parent, teacher or bank manager has the right to take it away from you. It simply won't come round again. Miss it and that's that.

There are quite a number of arguments you might have to face down when you decide to have a gap year. "It's just a middle-class rite of passage". So what? Most people are middle class - and besides, what's wrong with a rite of passage? Then: "You'll forget how to study." Why should you? Are you going to forget how to go to the pub or forget your name? We're talking about a year, not three decades.

Then there are the tedious arguments - but they are all on your side. Most university departments now think a gap year is a good thing because it reduces drop-out rates. Ucas, most vice-chancellors and a whole spread of the great and good have all issued statements at one time or another saying a gap year is a good thing because of the extra experience and maturity it brings.

These are good and important arguments, but there is something else, something more difficult to argue in public but no less valid than any other part of the debate. It is the intrinsic value of the gap year. Even if it couldn't be justified as a career-move or a CV-builder (though it will probably be both of these anyway), it has worth as and of itself. It's like justifying the study of history or the classics, which have their own real value. They enhance life. So does a gap year. It is the right thing to do regardless of its other merits.

You should, at least, spend part of your gap year in a developing country. Because of gap years, tens of thousands of students have lived and worked in the Third World. In a few years' time, they will be heading the government, the banks and big businesses. That's very different from the present generation, and will inevitably make a difference to the way these institutions are run. The fear of the unknown will be gone. By going to the developing world, you can be a part of this change for the better. Louise Ellerton, a veterinary student at Bristol, spent part of her gap year doing a veterinary project in Ghana with Teaching & Projects Abroad. "After A-levels, everyone needs a break," she says. "I got involved in another culture and gained an experience I will never forget. I also had a great social life."

Add up what it costs to go abroad and earn the money. Stack shelves, fit tyres, do whatever you like (unless it's something you'll be spending the rest of your life doing), but give yourself the dignity of earning your own money to do your own thing. This also means you keep control. Of course, you can also try to fundraise in other ways, but you're not Oxfam so it's always difficult. Other people's money usually comes with hidden strings. Your own cash is guaranteed strings-free.

When you do go abroad, do a project. Teach in a school, look after kids in an orphanage, work in a hospital, look after sea-turtles or the rainforest. No one expects you to be Mother Teresa or David Attenborough. You might find it difficult, or you might be brilliant. But whatever you do, by working - even voluntarily - you become part of a community. You really will add a new dimension to your life, as others who've had this kind of gap year will always tell you. Louise's friend Richard Turnbull also went away with Teaching & Projects Abroad, and spent part of his gap year digging up Incan archaeological remains high in the Andes. "The experience of living within a community was good, getting a glimpse of Peruvian life - a chance that a tourist will never know," he says.

Don't try to earn money for university in your gap year. Unless you belong to the richest 0.001 per cent of the student population, you'll finish university owing money anyway. Don't ruin your time off by reducing your eventual debts from £12,000 to £10,000. (You'll probably take on a massive mortgage a few years later anyway, which will make all your student debts look like borrowing fifty quid.)

No one can deny that a gap year is a gift to students. You could just take the summer off and do wonderful things. You could go straight to university and get a job in a merchant bank and earn a fortune a year ahead of all your friends. But will it make the years of regret at not taking a gap year any more bearable?

Muster the arguments. Dream. Plan. Then go for it.

The writer is Director of Teaching & Projects Abroad: 01903 708300; pslowe@teaching-abroad.co.uk; www.teaching-abroad.co.uk

education@independent.co.uk

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