Gap years are not for everyone, and I certainly didn’t think they were for me. However, taking a gap year was one of the best decisions I could have ever made. It doesn’t matter whether it’s before or after university that you decide to have one: the year out experience is invaluable either way.
I remember making the decision to take a gap year as if it were only yesterday: sitting at my desk, staring at my laptop screen, and feeling torn between the idea of going or not going to university in 2016. Now, there hasn’t been a moment this past year when I have regretted making the decision that would enable me to gain more independence and to travel the world.
Back when I was in high school, I was convinced that gap years were an excuse for lazy people who couldn’t be bothered to continue their education, and that it was just a way for them to have a holiday and to not get on with real life. But gap years are so much more than that.
“I wanted to experience life outside of my comfort zone”
For people who take one before they start university, it helps them to find independence, and if you are travelling, like I did, become more comfortable with the idea of living away from home. To take one after uni will also have many benefits: what you learn from your experiences, no matter what they are, may even change your mind about what you want to do in your future.
What I wanted to get out of my gap year was to experience life outside of my comfort zone. I decided to travel to Phuket in Thailand to work alongside local Thais in my godmother’s hotel, and to explore the island, doing everything from snorkelling off DiCaprio’s ‘Beach’ and kayaking in the Andaman Ocean, to learning how to cook in Pattaya and partying on Bangla Road.
Never in my life had I arranged anything for myself, let alone booking tour buses and boats that I would travel on solo. The message is that any experience helps you to realise what you are capable of.
“you can get more out of your gap year if you travel by yourself”
Joining a volunteering programme is usually what springs to mind when one thinks about taking a gap year. I joined Raleigh International, which offered a range of experiences. On this five, seven or 10-week programme, volunteers ranging from the ages 17-24 are given the chance to work with local communities to help maintain and improve their quality of life. It is an experience not to be missed, especially if your aim is to meet new people and make a difference.
I applied for the seven-week experience, volunteering in Costa Rica & Nicaragua’s most underprivileged areas. My only regret is that I did not apply for the 10-week programme, which would have allowed me to experience everything that the programme has to offer. There are two volunteering phases: community and environmental. I was allocated the environmental phase and my assignment was to help maintain Rincon de la Vieja National Park.
The last phase is the three week long trek across one of the country’s mountain ranges, in a team of around 15 people. The challenge is designed to test your leadership, communication and teamwork skills, as well as your physical and mental strength.
“I would encourage anyone, before or after university, to take a gap year”
The trek was my personal favourite part of the programme, trekking 300km across the Nicaraguan volcanic range. I lived and worked with people from across the world and made great friends and fantastic memories that I will treasure forever. All areas of my strengths were tested, and I relished in the satisfying feeling of achievement when we reached the end. The feeling was uniquely indescribable. Joining Raleigh taught me that you can get more out of your gap year if you travel by yourself, rather than with your friends.
Taking a gap year is an opportunity that will help you to learn skills that will last a lifetime. I’m not sure my gap year was long enough and I would encourage anyone, before or after university, to experience one.
All images courtesy of Olivia Morel.