For a truly alternative gap year, why not have a year here?

More school leavers than ever before are heading off, but if the thought – and cost – of saving elephants in Kenya fills you with dread, there’s a new option closer to home

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The Independent Online

The ‘gap year’ phenomenon is reaching its peak. It’s now a multi-million pound industry, sending thousands of school leavers abroad every year to, say, work saving orphans in Tanzania. One company in London is offering school leavers something a little different.

The founder of Year Here Jack Graham explains the origins of the organisation: “I got thinking about why we feel we have to go thousands of miles away to make a difference, when actually there’s a lot of stuff going on in our back yard?

“I'm interested in the idea of reinventing the gap year for the 21st century, if it could be applied to that very big purpose of getting really bright kids really well prepared to go out and become social leaders or politicians or whatever. To try and make society better for everyone by crafting an experience that actually prepares them.”

Year Here is a social enterprise project that aims to put Britain onto the traditional ‘gap year’ map. Instead of heading to Asia, the impetus behind Year Here wants to see change on our doorstep, offering the opportunity to top school leavers and graduates. The scheme is billed as an ‘aspirational UK-based gap year’, and Jack hopes to attract socially minded ‘bright young things’. All will be engaging with their local community in London, within three key ‘challenge’ areas of homelessness, educational disparity and helping the aged. 

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do leaving university” says Michael Simpson, 23, a Manchester university grad, and now a 2013 ‘Fellow’ of Year Here. Michael is now one of 12 graduates piloting Year Here’s six-month graduate scheme, having competed with hundreds to secure a place. Over the last few months he’s been involved in a variety of projects, principally working with kids from Hatch End School in London, under the education challenge.

He’s enthusiastic about the scheme and what it’s given him: “It really makes you think on your feet, and I think a lot of that is lacking in the way we’re educated at the moment, because we’re not taught to deal with real life situations when really the working world is very different from university or school.”

Onto our own front lines

Almost from the beginning the graduates were thrown into the front line of their challenge areas. Cambridge graduate Vanessa Lefton, 22, who worked with young people in a homeless shelter, says that “Year Here seemed to be the first internship that let you do things yourself, on your own terms and kind of challenge yourself in a much more exciting way than just sitting in an office.”

Although she conceded that the first weeks were tough, as the graduates quickly acclimatised from the rigours of slow-burning academia to fast-paced active involvement, the opportunities were invaluable.

“I’d never have so much responsibility first of all in the front-line placement, working with young homeless people. I know that other people wanting to get into that kind of work have to go through a lot more stages to get there so that was a real opportunity.”

Indie Shergill, 24, was a St. Andrews graduate who struggled to find work coming out of university. Accepted to Year Here, working with dementia patients, he considers the months he spent with the project invaluable. He says it’s given him the ‘soft skills’ that older representatives in the social sector lack.

“I think often the subjects of the social sector, the recipients, are being represented by a lot of people who have never worked with them, and it's difficult to have that connection with them.”

The three graduates had all been thrown into the deep end of their challenge area. The months, starting in March and finishing a couple of weeks from today, had been inspiring but never easy. Year Here has a large network of individuals, from the staff to mentors, who help the graduates out but its emphasis on responsibility and front-line work means you’ve got to be prepared to work.

Speaking to Jack, it's clear the gap year students will follow a similar mould – but a little more relaxed: “The gap year programme is going to be similar, but a bit more fun. We’ll be going to a couple of festivals, we’ll be going to Scotland and stuff like that. The social entrepreneurship project will be more like building a portfolio of different experiences.”  

But, like everything nowadays, it isn't free. It’ll set you back £1,000, and unless you live in London, you’ll need somewhere to stay. The costs will go into access and training from top social entrepreneurs and cheap tickets to entertainment events. Crucially, it’ll offer the opportunity to build a portfolio of creative projects, superficially allowing school leavers to boost their employability. 

So although the programme will cost you, as Vanessa says, “if I thought it was going to be for the sake of the CV I don’t think I would have done it. It hasn’t disappointed because the things we’ve done have gone a lot deeper than a couple of sentences.”