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The Art of Taking a Gap Year

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Guest post: Stefan Wathan

If you’re taking a gap year, you may be travelling solo or with friends, volunteering, training or being paid to work, trekking through a jungle or gaining an instructor certificate – you may even end up doing all these things! This can lead to an impressive CV, new qualifications and experiences and a stand-out job or university application – all good reasons to justify the cost of taking some purposeful time out.

As important as these benefits are the lessons you learn about yourself, the friends you make and the positive impact you have on the communities, environment, program or organization you leave behind on your return.

However, you are only likely to achieve any of the above if you put some effort into thinking about why you’re taking a gap year, what you want to accomplish, and making sure you give it 100% when you arrive – whatever the obstacles.

Here are my top five tips to ensure your gap year experience is more than the sum of its parts.

1.  What you lack in experience, make up for in enthusiasm and perseverance. 

Don’t just opt to spend your gap year doing something you already know you can do, or at the same level you’ve already achieved. Employers and peers will value those who are prepared to go outside of their comfort zone, and will accept that some mistakes are going to be made; how you deal with these says a lot about your character. Look beyond the headline pages of any organization offering gap year experiences, and instead choose something that puts butterflies in your stomach.

2.  Remember your contribution will be most valued if you gain trust and respect. 

Popularity does not guarantee either of these things; nor does the fact that you have simply showed up and completed a job. Whether you are gregarious or a bit of a wallflower, trust and respect are attained bit by bit, every day, at work and at play. Do you turn up on time? Do you care about the quality of what you do? Do you demonstrate empathy with others? Do you voice your opinions and show you can understand another’s point of view? Don’t expect rewards or public acknowledgement; an appreciative nod and smile are worth just as much.

3.  Approach everything with an open mind and open heart.

The challenges above are easier to accomplish if you don’t presume too much about the place or people you will come into contact with while taking a gap year. You may think you know the best way to achieve something, that there is or isn’t a God, that you know what constitutes good manners or that what makes you happy will make someone else feel the same. Take time to listen and understand, share your feelings and beliefs and hopefully others will do the same in return.

4.  Assume nothing, expect anything, be ready to learn. 

When you are in new place you cannot assume things will run the same way as at home.  Toilets may not flush, cars may not stop for pedestrians, and as a foreigner you may be served first… or last. Keep your eyes and ears open from the moment you arrive, and pause for an extra second before acting in your usual way. When a realization dawns on you that your normal approach to things won’t work, don’t complain; adapt. Don’t give up; practice. Don’t ask questions to find holes in others’ ways of doing things; ask questions to learn and to integrate.

5.  Be prepared for challenges and frustration, but lots of fun and rewards.

Well, mostly! Your gap year experience will ultimately depend on your attitude and spirit. A smile and some gentle humor go a long way to helping you and those around you to enjoy the experience, even in the worst moments. The reward is that you will have a greater sense of who you are, why you are here and what the real purpose of your gap year turned out to be!

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Stefan Wathan is the chief executive of the Year Out Group, a not-for-profit association of leading gap year organizations who commit to follow set operating guidelines, ensuring the best possible experience for gap year participants and their hosts across the world. The Year Out Group promotes the concept and benefits of well-structured gap year experiences, and helps young people and their advisers to select suitable and worthwhile projects.

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