New Frontier for gap year students

If you're worried that a year off might be a waste of study time, one organisation has the perfect solution, says David Quin
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The Independent Online

You know the conversation. You've had it planned well in advance: retorts, replies and reposts all figured out. "Mum, Dad... I have been thinking... well... that I might not go straight to university... I would like to take... a year out." At the very least, questions will be asked about motivations: what you're going to do, and who is paying for what. At worst, there could be the slow descent into sullen silence as they express disappointment and wonder if you are doing the right thing.

You know the conversation. You've had it planned well in advance: retorts, replies and reposts all figured out. "Mum, Dad... I have been thinking... well... that I might not go straight to university... I would like to take... a year out." At the very least, questions will be asked about motivations: what you're going to do, and who is paying for what. At worst, there could be the slow descent into sullen silence as they express disappointment and wonder if you are doing the right thing.

But with many employers and universities welcoming people who have taken time out to do something other than slave over a hot textbook, attitudes have definitely changed. And they may yet change further because it is now possible to gain qualifications on the back of your time abroad.

A pioneering scheme run by the environmental organization Frontier offers volunteers the chance to gain a BTEC qualification while taking part in their expeditions abroad. The Level 3 certificate is an A-level equivalent and may be the key to opening doors at university and beyond.

Frontier volunteers work in some of the world's most remote locations, with current projects based in Madagascar, Tanzania and Vietnam. And with the organisation already established as a sponsor of Open University research degrees, its academic and professional conservation credentials are well known. If you're thinking of entering the highly competitive world of conservation, this may well boost to your chances of success.

Catherine Banks was a volunteer on Frontier's Vietnam rainforest project in December 2001 where she was involved in measuring the region's enormous biodiversity. "I had a great learning experience," she says, "and the BTEC helped secure my place at university. I've decided I would now like to follow a career in conservation."

Expeditions can last from 28 days to 10 weeks depending on the location and the job in hand. Many of the projects are on an ongoing basis with local universities and institutes. The project in Vietnam has been running since June 1993 and has greatly helped in establishing the range of species in the protected areas in the north of the country with volunteers identifying key groups of fauna and flora.

The Frontier BTEC qualification in Tropical habitat conservation has been undertaken by 245 volunteers since it began in July 2001. The new BTEC offered in expedition management starts in August this year and has already recruited a trainee NASA astronaut to its ranks. Frontier spokeswoman Emma Davenport says that, for those up to the challenge, the rewards are high: "Even for those volunteers who are unsure of their future path the scheme is a great opportunity to learn new skills alongside qualified scientists."

Volunteers are expected to raise between £1,850 and £4,000 for the cost of food, accommodation, travel, equipment and training. While this may seem expensive, when placed next to the relative costs of other gap year options without qualifications at the end of them, it may be the option for you. Funding can also be gained by a career development loan from several high street banks, which in the main don't lend money for a gap year.

'I wanted to do something of value'

John Gibson, 18, is a first-year software engineering student at Edinburgh University. He taught English in Vietnam through Project Trust

After three years of exams, I didn't want to go straight into a university course, so I deferred for a year. I'd heard of Project Trust through friends; the community aspect appealed to me. I didn't want to go to a country just as a tourist; I wanted to do something of value.

I didn't know much about Vietnam before I ended up teaching English in a teacher training college in Thanh Hoa, one of Vietnam's poorest provinces. The amazing thing is that I probably made better friends there than I have here. People assume there will be language and cultural barriers but I didn't find that. Of course, you have to invest time to become part of a community. I had to work hard and adapt my behaviour. I ate what they ate, shopped where they shopped, lived where they lived and we didn't drink at all. I tried hard to learn Vietnamese and put a lot of work into lessons, which I think helped earn me some respect.

It was incredibly hard to leave Scotland but it was harder to leave Vietnam because although I can go back, it wouldn't be in that role. I would have to go as a tourist. The year just made me so much more confident about my own abilities and it also gave me a different view of the world. The Vietnamese call it the American War, not the Vietnam War. I ended up calling it that too.

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