Tag Archives: exploring cultures

Are gap years (gap yahs) simply an excuse to get pissed and ‘find yourself’?

22 Dec

Gap years have become synonymous with tousled hair, ‘ethnic’ beaded bracelets and late-night beach parties.  Attitudes towards gap years have changed – when I was younger, gap years were almost encouraged as a way of gathering more ‘life’ experience, a way of exploring the world and doing things outside the rigid school curriculum.

In the last few years, though, the ‘student on a gap year’ seems to conjure up images of frightfully posh eighteen year olds, with wads of money from the Bank of Mummy and Daddy who think that getting pissed in a different country means expanding one’s mind and perspective.   There’s a plethora of stuff out there that mocks the average gap yah student for example, this sketch which is pretty spot-on in some respects – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKFjWR7X5dU – and does anyone remember the furore about good old Max Gogarty and his ‘ironic’ journal detailing his travels in the Guardian? http://www.theguardian.com/travel/blog/2008/feb/14/skinsblog

I think it’s a real shame that these caricatures have come to pervade our associations with gap years, and as a person who had a gap year myself, I can safely say that its not all ridiculously posh, rich, vacuous students (debatable…!) looking to sleep around.  My gap year was non-voluntary and came suddenly when I was forced to leave university after a term due to depression and anxiety.  It was entirely unplanned, and initially I found the idea awful.  I saw it more as another year delaying the inevitable while comparing myself with my friends who all seemed to be having so much fun at uni, and there were times when I became very introverted, frustrated and generally disillusioned.  However, for me, it helped to begin the healing process and I managed to get into some sort of structure which is vitally important when you’re down.

Firstly, I needed money.  I ended up working full-time in retail which taught me a lot of things, namely that I didn’t want to work in retail.  I also learnt to curb my expectations.  I think it’s good, no vital, to have dreams and ambitions but many of my dreams were illusions – unobtainable goals.  These only served to make me feel like a failure as I could never achieve the impossible, but working in a monotonous and at times, incredibly boring, job gave me a little perspective about what I should expect for my life.  In a way, by doing something I knew I didn’t want to do, I felt more determined to find something that I did want to do.  Something that would open more opportunities to me and I started looking into courses and universities that I would be better suited to.

Later on in the year, having saved my money for a while, I decided I wanted to travel and engage in the more ‘typical’ gap year experience. Strangely, my good friend was in a very similar position to me and we both decided to do something a bit different.  We booked ourselves onto a volunteering program in Cambodia for a couple of months, where we worked in a school for poor children and an orphanage as English teachers.  At the time, I desperately wanted to escape the tedium of my life, and the malignant thoughts that followed me everywhere.  Yes, I was incredibly self-indulgent but the beauty of my gap year experience was its ability to change my perspective.  I met some of the nicest people I have ever met, and probably will ever meet, who were incredibly strong, kind and genuine despite the fact that they had very little in material terms.  It was refreshing to escape my narrow world of being trapped in my head and I even felt ashamed that I should be so focused on myself.  The picture below shows Indu and I teaching English to a class of the cutest Cambodian children.  Their energy and enthusiasm was incredibly infectious.

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So, even though the notion of ‘finding yourself’ is beyond cheesy, my entire gap year experience (at home and abroad) was vital in making me who I am today.  It also gave me the travelling bug, and since then I’ve done internships and volunteered in a number of countries as it’s addictive to lose yourself in another culture.  It also taught me the value of hard work, the kindness in other people (which I had pretty much given up believing in at that point) and that sometimes you need to realise that it is all in your head.  And the world is far bigger than your head.

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