Taking a gap year is becoming a rite of passage for most students – and even workers – as young people recognise the need for relevant, interesting experiences to secure coveted university placements or gain a foothold on the career ladder. In today’s financial climate, there’s never been a better time to put life on hold and experience the world from a surprising point of view, too. WideWorld have asked educational development charity Lattitude Global Volunteering to offer their most useful advice for anyone considering taking that gap year off.
Make the most of it
“A gap year is a one off opportunity and you get out of it what you put in – so make the most of this chance of a lifetime,” advises Linden Baxter, Marketing and Communications Manager of Lattitude Global Volunteering.
“A gap year provides the opportunity to gain work experience and save money towards university, and to do something exciting and different. Volunteering overseas offers fun and adventure, combined with CV-enhancing work and life experience.”
Don’t be a tourist – become part of something
“Backpacking is great for seeing several locations, but the true travelling experience is about more than sightseeing. Become part of another culture, meet new people, and do unbelievable things,” says Linden. “Two of our volunteers unexpectedly stood in for Prince Philip at his birthday celebrations in a village in Vanuatu, where he is worshipped as a god, making a speech on his behalf to over 300 people!” Through their volunteering work overseas, volunteers experience things that tourists don’t. With a new understanding of the culture and language there is always the option to go backpacking after the placement finishes.
Some non-essentials may be essential
The list of travel essentials for the gap year volunteer can be quite different to equipment needed for backpacking, with many less obvious items becoming vital when you get there. “Volunteers in teaching roles in less developed countries, in Ecuador or Vietnam for example, should take gold stars and stickers to reward good work. The kids love it!” says Elena Tiffert Vaughan, Head of Programmes for Lattitude Global Volunteering. For host families, a small gift that is traditionally associated with the volunteer’s home town will also be appreciated.
Swot up on culture and customs
Learn about the laws, cultural etiquette and customs of the country you are visiting. “Understanding local culture will make it easier to adjust to new surroundings and it could save some embarrassment,” says Elena. “Understanding the culture and being willing to get involved also helps volunteers to become accepted within their communities.”
Learn the language
“Communication helps to overcome cultural barriers so volunteers should attempt to speak the local language. The locals will appreciate your efforts – for amusement value if nothing else!” adds Julia Sander, Lattitude Global Volunteering’s Programme Manager for Ghana. In non-English speaking countries, nobody will expect fluent conversation from a visiting volunteer but the ability to exchange pleasantries will help dissolve language barriers and build relationships.
Be prepared to go back to basics
“When choosing a placement, consider how far out of your comfort zone you are prepared to go,” says Julia. Staying in a small, undeveloped village may mean living without running water or electricity, but presents the opportunity to integrate in a small community and really make a difference. “Stories of bucket showers and unexpected wildlife encounters are great ice-breakers,” adds Julia. Try more diverse placement locations such as Ecuador, Japan, India, Ghana, Tanzania and Vietnam.
Embrace a second family
“Our volunteers are welcomed with open arms into their host families and often make lifelong friends, returning to visit their ‘second families’ many times over the years, keeping the connection alive,” says Elena.
Whether living in a family home or a shared dorm, developing relationships with local people and integrating into the local community enhances the experience and enables the volunteer to make a positive difference.
Stay in touch
It’s good to be able to stay in touch with friends and family at home, to put their minds at ease and share the experience. Modern technology is making that easier all the time. “Take a mobile phone and get a local SIM card, or take a laptop and dongle to connect to the cell phone network. It’s slow, but you’ll be able to get emails and you’ll be surprised by how comprehensive mobile phone coverage is,” says Julia.
Have support available
“Organising a gap year through a reputable provider doesn’t make the experience less character-building or take away independence. On the contrary, it allows you greater freedom to express your talents and develop your skills as you make a difference to a community who wants and needs your help and it means support is always available to you if you need it,” says Linden. Reputable organisations offer structure and the opportunity to live among local communities with the backup of an organisation with its own network of in-country staff if you should need them.