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Advice for Gap Year Parents

Date added: Tuesday 1st September 2009

In the best of years the autumn is an anxious period for the parents of those taking a gap year. But this year their number will be swelled significantly by those students taking a gap year unexpectedly. Some years ago, when faced with a similar situation, the following thoughts came to mind: What can he do? Where? What about the finance? If he goes abroad how will we keep in touch? Is it safe and what are the benefits?

Research and Planning.

The secret to a successful gap year is to research and plan in as much detail as possible even when starting the process late. There is a whole year to fill and it is important that this time is not wasted. A gap year should be a “year out” not a “year off”! It is best not to rush the selection of a suitable and worthwhile project and it takes time to raise the necessary finance. So the first few months, say between now and the New Year can be used to retake exams, reapply for university, plan the program for next year and earn or raise the necessary funds.

What activities are available and where?

The range of activities available is considerable. The main groups are courses, i.e. learning a new skill or improving an existing one, adventurous activities and expeditions, voluntary work and work experience. Some of these activities can be done in UK but most gap year students are keen to go abroad. Having an element of structure in the program is important. It shows planning and commitment that is acknowledged by universities and helps develop the soft skills that impress employers.

A gap year program is unique to the individual participant so it is important that they should lead on the research. It is best to shop around and take time to talk to gap year organisations, family and friends, use the internet and networking sites in order to get a real feel for the organizations and the placements they offer. However the final decision should be an informed decision shared with parents and this means that parents should take an active, albeit discreet interest in this research offering support and asking pertinent questions when appropriate. For their part gap year organisations welcome contact with parents as they appreciate their importance in the decision making process.

Money

Costs. The cost of gap year programs varies considerably, hence the need to shop around before drawing up a comparative list that takes account of all costs associated with a number of placements. Finally work out the cost per week. Some of the longer placements then look significantly more attractive. Once you are there, living overseas is often so much cheaper than UK.

Fundraising. Raising the money to fund a gap year program is considered an important part of the challenge. It requires planning, budgeting, entrepreneurial, and negotiating skills combined with initiative, determination and perseverance (all skills much sought after by employers). While gap year organizations will provide advice, parents may still think this beyond their offspring but hundreds of thousands have been shown it can be done. Give them support and encouragement and let them surprise you. The more money they raise, the greater their confidence and their commitment to the project.

Overseas. When researching finance do consider how best to safeguard cash while overseas. Most people now seem to travel with both debit and credit cards and have access to an online account so that they can move money around as required. Travel cards are useful but can be expensive. Inevitably some cards will be lost and arrange a replacement can be difficult. Parents need to be able to help and this is best done by the child authorising their parents to access their accounts on their behalf while overseas. This will save time, money (moneygrams and money transfers are expensive) and a great deal of anguish and frustration.

Communication

A gap year offers each individual an opportunity to start making the step from dependence to independence with a program and at a pace of their own choosing. It is a time when parents must begin to come to terms with allowing these young adults to make their own decisions and live by the consequences. However there is still a key supporting role to play. As far as communication goes, parents should come to an agreement that they will rely on the gap year traveler to keep in touch. The main form of routine communication is likely to be via e-mail, though it may be through blogs or postings on networking sites. A mobile phone is more or less essential nowadays but costly. The main use for this phone will be to keep in touch with fellow gappers they meet on their travels, so the early purchase of a local SIM card will keep costs down. It may also mean a change in number allowing the gapper to decide who he really wants to hear from while overseas. Homesickness may be an issue for those that are away from home for the first time. Parents need to be reassuring, supportive but strong. It will pass and within a few days they will have found their feet, made friends and be fully engaged in their projects.

Safety

Gap Year Organisations. One of the major advantages of starting a gap year abroad with a reputable gap year organization is that it will have conducted a full risk assessment when planning a particular project, expedition or placement. Safety is taken very seriously but no gap year placement can be entirely risk free. On the rare occasions when things do go wrong a reputable gap year organizations will be there to provide the necessary support.

Independent travel. However nearly all gap year placements involve a period of down time when participants are free to leave their projects and explore. Many will also go on to travel independently on completion of their placement. The basic research for these opportunities is best done before in the planning phase. The gap year organization will provide useful information on the country but this should be supplemented by studying the excellent up to date information provided by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and studying at least one of the major travel guides. The more the traveler is aware of the potential risks the more likely they are to recognize a situation as it develops and act appropriately.

Insurance and Health. For peace of mind do make sure that you take the travel insurance policy covers all the activities that might present themselves.  Allow plenty of time before departure for any innoculations to become effective and make sure that the traveler is dentally fit.

Benefits

Risk needs to be balanced by considering the benefits of taking a structured gap year. Students who have taken a gap year arrive at university refreshed, focussed and are more likely to complete their chosen subject. Some may take time to get back into academic mindset but being more socially mature the quickly adapt to the wider benefits of university life. Employers find that those that have taken a structured gap year are able to demonstrate that they have the skills they seek. In a recent paper on Higher Education, Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson plc, stated she was looking for people with communication skills, the courage to challenge and take risks including project experience and overcoming failure, the ability to follow through from ideas to plans and onto implementation and finally having languages and being at home in diverse cultures. All these attributes can be acquired and developed on a gap year.

Those returning from a structured gap year are invariably more appreciative of home life, more globally aware and worldly wise, more independent and full of justified self-confidence.  They will certainly be better prepared to tackle university and future employment.  Some may find it a life-changing experience, which will present parents with a new and hopefully exciting challenge.

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