Not All Gap Years Are Made Equal

The following article is reproduced below with permission from the author, Shona Wells. It originally appeared on Medium.

The Wrong Argument

Between Eleanor Hawkins doing naked selfies in Borneo and senior HSBC lawyer, Sandie Okoro, announcing her disdain for employing those who have taken a year out, the gap year concept has had a great deal of public criticism recently. Even Janet Street Porter has waded in with her thoughts calling for a year of UK-based voluntary work to be compulsory for all school leavers instead of going abroad.

The backpackers in Borneo made an incredibly foolish mistake. They were disrespectful to their host country, its people and culture. Agreed. But instead of throwing out the concept of a gap year because of it, maybe we should look at how we can stop that happening in future.

Our young people need to have greater global awareness, not less. They need to spend time understanding and gaining knowledge of other cultures and people, not just turning up to tourist sites and acting like stereotypical Brits.

Instead, we should be encouraging them to immerse themselves in a new culture, to engage with communities in the developing world where they can learn about other people with lives very different to their own. Where people aren’t attached to an electronic device 24/7. Where they understand there is more to life than just collecting more ‘stuff’. Where recycling isn’t just about ‘doing the right thing’, it’s essential.

A Different Approach

So perhaps Janet Street Porter is right in part — we should encourage young people to spend time giving something back. But take them out of their comfort zone completely, and immerse them in another culture as that is where real opportunities for learning and building relationships lie, and which will help create the global citizens we need our young people to be. If you want people skills, don’t just work at a minimum wage job. Learn to communicate and connect with people whose upbringing is radically different to your own. Learn to empathise with different types of people and what makes them think and behave the way they do.

And if you want to spend time in these communities, recognise the lifelong benefits the experience will have for you. Making a genuine contribution to the community is the least you can do in return. Let’s also be realistic that voluntourists who spend three days at a turtle rescue center do not subsequently have the right to claim they are responsible for the safeguarding of a species.


Not all gap years are made equal

Experience life from a difference perspective.


That said, it also does not mean that young people can’t add genuine value to a community. But what they do needs to be very carefully considered in partnership with hosts and it can’t be a flight of fancy, dropping in and out as and when it suits them. They need to have a commitment to the organisations and people they are offering to work with. They are benefiting as much from the experience as those that they are ‘helping’ so let’s be honest about what that means.

According to Ms Okoro, “bosses will think you’re boring if you go on a gap year”. But we should do more to distinguish between those who just need a break from school and call it just that, a holiday. Don’t try to include it on your CV as if it were the same as someone who had committed a significant amount of time to immersing themselves in a culture and a country to learn more about the world and themselves — knowledge they can take with them to university and the working world. And more importantly, life.

Or, even better, do both — work and travel using the money you’ve earned. According to Andrew Mackenzie, the director of Africa & Asia Venture, an organisation specialising in immersive gap years, “the best people we have had come with us are the ones that have earned the money to do it. They have spent six months working in their home country, in the process learning the value of work, money and budgeting. And they are also more determined to make the most of the time abroad because they have worked extremely hard to get there.


The article was originally published on Medium.

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