Taking a break between high school and university is becoming more popular in Australia. Known as a ‘gap year’, this time off study can provide young people with a wealth of experience and an opportunity to develop a range of different skills.
According to research published in 2012, around 20 per cent of Australian students who complete high school will take a gap year. The most common activities gap students undertake are work (40 per cent) followed by study or training (33 per cent). Only 3 per cent report travel as their main activity.
Benefits of a gap year
The above statistics show that gap years are not always about ‘letting your hair down’. Students who take gap years often use this time to refine their study or career goals and support the next stage of their life. Research from the University of Sydney shows that students who take a gap year are more successful at university than those who do not take time off, and mature age students.
The study, using data from 904 undergraduate students found that gap years can help students improve decision-making, develop their organisational skills and improve their confidence — all skills that will help them obtain better grades in university studies.
Combining work and travel
There are no hard and fast rules about what to do in your gap year, but you should try to make the time a valuable experience, rather than fritter the time away. While some elect to stay local and work during their gap year, many take the opportunity to travel.
Ms Hannah Hibbert, from Smaller Earth, a travel company specialising in gap-year experiences, says the most common option for gap students is to combine work and travel.
“Combining work and travel means that students can earn money while they are away which will help them fund their trip,” she says.
Gap years do not have to be all about working. For those looking for a more altruistic experience, there are opportunities for students to volunteer their time. Volunteer programs are usually shorter and are available throughout a number of different countries. However, Ms Hibbert says heading to Africa is a very favoured choice right now for those wanting to volunteer.
“Working with a volunteer program is great for those looking for a shorter-term option as part of their gap year,” she says.
Where to go and what to do
- A leading choice for gap students travelling to the US is working as a leader at a Summer Camp. Jobs last between 9 and 12 weeks and may involve leading in areas such as water sports, general sports, active outdoors, performance arts, horse riding or even animal care. Once the work requirement is completed, you are entitled to 30 days travel on the J1 VISA.
- Another option when visiting the US is to live with an American host family and work as an Au Pair.
- Taking a gap year in Canada can involve working in luxury resort properties. Typical roles include working in food and beverage, waiting staff, bartending, housekeeping, front desk/concierge, cooks/chefs, ski lift operators or even retail.
- If volunteering is your preference, then there are many opportunities to work at various outdoor youth camps run by the YMCA/YWCA. Working as an outdoor activities instructor means leading activities such as kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, orienteering, to life saving, first aid or even counselling.
Africa is becoming increasingly popular as a destination for gap students to offer their services in a volunteer capacity. The types of activities you can be involved in, include
- Working at wildlife and rehabilitation parks, in wildlife management and conservation
- Contributing to community development projects including building projects
- Assisting with orphanage projects
- Teaching children
- Coaching sport, including rugby, football, tennis, hockey or netball
- Working as a medical volunteer in various settings such as healthcare clinics and hospitals.
If North America or Africa are not on your ‘wish list’ of countries to visit, there are plenty of work/travel and volunteering opportunities across the globe including Europe, the UK, Asia, South America and Central America.
Gap year advice
Before you book ticket and pack your bags, Ms Hibbert recommends speaking to someone about your gap year, and the kinds of experiences that interest you.
She also recommends organising your experience and travel through a company that specialises in gap year travel.
“A guided program is an excellent choice for students, and liaising with a company whose team members have all done the programs means that students have access to first-hand experiences and advice,” she says
“Among other things, companies provide advice on issues that are usually not given much thought, such as setting up bank accounts and mobile phones, organising work visas and even providing advice on medical care available in the various countries.”
Ms Hibbert also recommends working with an agency that has local offices in the country you are travelling to, as these can offer ongoing support or advice when you need it.
There are a number of companies specialising in gap year travel. Some companies focus on experiences, others specialise in destinations, and others specialise in volunteering or student placement. The advice is to do your homework, ask plenty of questions and attend some of the information sessions to determine which experience is the right one for you.
Regardless of what type of gap year you choose, Ms Hibbert believes the experience is very beneficial.
“Travelling provides such an enormous opportunity for personal growth. No matter where you travel, it will change your life,” she says.