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The gap year

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Over the past 10 years, gap years have become so popular that entire industries have sprung up in their footsteps. From boot camps to hiking trails to customised gap year programmes and non-profit associations, there’s a gap for everyone. For many, a gap year has become synonymous with wild parties, travelling the globe and wearing hippy clothing while trying to “find yourself”. The truth is that a gap year can actually be an excellent stepping stone for kids who haven’t quite figured out their career plans. It can be an opportunity to explore skills, try out different careers and uncover passions. 

Throughout school, students are expected to stick to rigorous schedules and tightly managed extracurricular activities. They rarely get to explore beyond those activities and often have a limited view of the different careers and choices that face them when they leave school. For some, matric heralds the start of studies that they’ve wanted to do since they were young. They’re the lucky ones. They know exactly what they want to do for a living and their university, college and technikon plans are all ready to be set into motion.

But what about those who don’t know what they want to do for a living just yet? They’re expected to choose a degree or course that will define their lives before they even know what they like, or what they want to spend the next 20 years doing. This is further complicated by the fact that technology is rapidly changing the face of education and job designation. Already there are jobs on the market that nobody has ever heard of before, and there will be even more of these new and unexpected jobs by the end of 2020. A few years ago, the arrival of the chief social listening officer role was considered strange and startling; today, the job is considered quite normal. 

There are even stranger jobs being advertised now. Research by Griffith University and Deakin University found some particularly unusual ones. How about 100-year counsellor, a person who guides people to make the most of their increasingly long lives? Or an Artificial Intelligence property negotiator? These jobs are so new that education institutions haven’t even released courses for them yet. 

Now consider how overwhelming this seething market of opportunity and variety can be to an 18-year-old who’s just finished school. It’s easy to see why some students make the wrong university choices and end up dropping out — losing their confidence and university funds in the process. According to the Press Association, higher education institutions have seen an increase of 67% in student dropouts in the United Kingdom, with this trend is mimicked across the globe. While lack of money is a driving factor in these statistics, the research also points to poor choices made by students under pressure to perform.

Which is where the gap year comes in. If students approach a gap year with the intention of using it to explore their skills, their passions and their future, then it can be immensely beneficial. It’s also an excellent way for students who didn’t necessarily excel academically to attend camps and gap year clinics that are developed specifically to grow them as people and enable them to learn more about themselves. 

The Gap Year Experience, based in Johannesburg and Cape Town, offers students the opportunity to explore several different courses that are designed to help them expand their skills and explore different careers. The courses run from four to six months and students can experience up to 60 different careers that they select from a list of 150. Once they’ve had a taster, they then get to pick a few favourites so they can get an even deeper and more realistic experience. The goal is to help them refine their career choices before they move onto their studies. What stands out about this course is that it gives kids the opportunity to study more practical, hands-on and physical jobs as well as the business and creative ones. In a market that’s desperate for nurses, carpenters, plumbers and builders, among other professions, this is a superb way to make students more aware of the variety of jobs available today.

Another gap year company, Beyond Adventure, takes a slightly different approach. They provide students with leadership, entrepreneurship and personal development skills while keeping them physically fit and active. From scuba diving to abseiling and sky diving, students are challenged to learn more about their limitations, their leadership abilities and their goals throughout the course. 

“Beyond Adventure gives students the opportunity to enter into a new environment where the boundaries are stretched and they can face their fears, going into different situations that expand their comfort zone,” says Erin Brits, admin manager, Beyond Adventure. “It helps them realise that they can do anything. Often, they realise that what they were going to do for a living isn’t right for them after all. We allow for them to make choices with consequences within a safe environment.”

The students get to explore their personal boundaries, make mistakes, and build confidence in ways that allow them to really develop as individuals. Another gap year company that shares this ethos is IALA — the International Academy for Leadership Through Adventure. The company offers 32 weeks of leadership training and adventure with a strong Christian thread woven throughout.  

The type of gap year experience will vary dependent on the institution selected, the goals of the student, and the plans made by the parents. However, if the goal is to really get the benefit of a year’s break from studying while exploring career ideas and skills development, it’s essential that students choose a gap year that will actually tick these boxes. While slackpacking across Europe and volunteering at a wildlife reserve are fun and could, possibly, lead to personal revelations about career and future, they are not as targeted as courses that immerse youths in different career spaces and environments. 

These wild years of fun are one of the main reasons why gap years have earned such a bad reputation. Parents fear that if their children are allowed to wander off for a year, they’ll never come back and end up working in menial jobs that don’t allow them to explore their true potential. Fortunately, the statistics prove otherwise. According to the Gap Year Association, around 90% of students who take that year off tend to come back and enrol at university. In fact, the same research found that students who took a gap year were “more likely to graduate with a higher grade point average than observationally identical individuals who went straight to college”. 

The benefits of a gap year ultimately depend on the student, the type of gap year they take and the goals they wish to achieve. For many, it can be the lifeline they need to get their ideas in order before they embark on four or more years of study — and it may help them to choose a career that inspires and motivates them for the rest of their life. 

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