It’s easy to develop a ‘go for it’ attitude and listen to all the Spotify ads telling you to take a leap/skip/jump into the unknown, but taking a gap year is something you need to consider – carefully.
Somewhere in the stodgy mixture of clichés and buzzwords is an important message: taking a year out can be astonishingly fun and good for you, too.
If it is something you’re considering, then allow Richard Jones to share his story and (hopefully) send you packing with some solid, proper advice.
I spent my second year of university abroad in the US. More specifically I went to Columbia, Missouri (or CoMo if you’re one of the cool kids), in America’s Midwest.
Firstly, it’s probably important I share with you some nostalgic thoughts I have about bonnie Scotland.
About four weeks before Christmas I found myself feeling a way I had not remotely expected.
As I was speaking about Britain, Scotland and more specifically Glasgow, I realised quite how great our little island is.
Our bunch of pale explorers have been all over the world and influenced almost everything in the western world.
Not only that, when I remembered how wonderfully grey Glasgow is I swelled with pride.
Now that doesn’t mean that since I’ve returned I’ve started wearing a kilt and began every morning with a tone deaf rendition of ‘Flower of Scotland’, but I do see things differently.
And this, my friends, is exactly why you should start eating nothing but tinned food and sell everything you own to afford an adventure.
You’re world view inevitably changes. Before going away, I was neither thankful for what we do have in old Britannia, nor did I know quite how great the world really is beyond our borders.
On a serious note, there are real challenges involved. It can’t all be emotional voyages and finding yourself, but if you’re prepared and dedicated it doesn’t need to be a minefield.
My parents helped me financially a part of the way. My family is far from rich; however my parents were able to pay for my accommodation while I was there.
To afford it, I spent most of first year indoors solely shopping in off-brand supermarkets.
It was a sacrifice, but one I was willing to make. I realised quite some time ago that material possessions just don’t do it for me.
Sure, I’d love an iPad and more than four t-shirts, but no amount of shiny new Apple products will ever equate to getting to see the world.
As one of my flatmates put it to me recently “travel is the only thing we buy that makes us richer”. Now, that being as soppy and clichéd as it is, and even though I spent the next 10 minutes trying to prove him wrong, I couldn’t agree with him more.
Also, interest-free student overdrafts help. A lot. I wouldn’t advise anyone to go about willy-nilly taking out bank loans from the cash-4-gold people, although if you’re careful, and have a plan to pay it all back, then it’s a great system.
In my case, I maxed out my HBOS account to -£999.93 to pay for the flights and left it there for a year.
When I got back, I immediately got a job and worked full time during summer to pay it all back.
When I went back to Edinburgh in September I had paid it all off and was back in the positive end of the scale.
As a disclaimer, it is worth saying that you have to be very careful with overdrafts and such.
That doesn’t mean you should be terrified of ATMs for the rest of your life, just make sure you plan everything out to the penny. If you do, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.
We should also talk about visas. A visa is basically what you need to have permission to stay in a foreign country for a certain amount of time under certain conditions.
For example, my J-1 Visa allowed me to be in the US or Canada from the beginning on my studies until three months after they finished.
It had to be signed by my uni here and the one in America. As a side note, they have nothing to do with the credit card company, something I found out in the American embassy in London to my embarrassment.
If you’re planning a big trip, the best way to find out about visas is either by phoning the country’s embassy in Britain (America’s is in London) and straight up ask them.
They’re very helpful and talk you through the whole process. Alternatively, go into a travel agent and ask them – a lot of their agents have been on gap years themselves and should know the ins and outs.
It’s not easy, I know, but some other advice I’d give is have some form of budget for unexpected costs.
I say that from experience because I didn’t really have one. I planned everything out perfectly, and therefore assumed that everything would be fine, which of course it wasn’t.
The American healthcare system is very different from ours.
Basically, everything costs money and you can have insurance – as I did – but that doesn’t cover everything.
How a modern country can be like that I’ll never know, however I do know that X-rays in Missouri cost $175. Yeah!
I also know that crutches cost $40 per week and that the health centres shut at 9pm and if you injure yourself after that time then you have to wait until the morning.
Not only did I have to pay for all that when I sustained ankle ligament damage playing football, but I also had to spring for neck scans and an MRI when I fell off a building.
So budget for these silly things that you’ll probably do when abroad. My flatmate almost died in Asia trying to swim after whale sharks in a tropical storm, and I’ve got another friend who realised he had nowhere to stay after arriving in Hong Kong for New Year.
I think he may have slept rough. But we’re young, aren’t we? It won’t be until you get out there and make these untimely decisions that you’ll learn not to make them in the first place.
Once you’re out there, in the wild, away from your family and friends, you’ll learn exactly who you really are, and you’ll probably be in love with the person you return as. I managed to get an extraordinarily good education out of it, too. Americans have to pay thousands for an education, (not that I did, cheers SAAS) so many US universities are spectacular.
There are 40 of us in my year at Napier. In Missouri, there’s over 2,000. I got to get some hands on work experience and use state-of-the-art facilities.
You may not be planning to go to uni in a different country, however you will probably find something bigger, better, or at the very least different whatever your gap year plans.
You will miss your friends and family. Or maybe you won’t, I don’t know your friends and family. Either way, you’ll probably still miss them.
I did, but that’s what Skype, Snapchat, Viber, Whatsapp, GroupMe, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are for.
If you’re planning to go somewhere that’s not renowned for high speed internet or the law prohibits social media, you’ll find a way around it.
My mate spent a year in Uganda and routinely travelled to an internet café in Kampala to speak to his friends for a few hours.
One of my best friends has been in China for the past few years and he’s learnt a great deal about internet proxies that bypass Chinese web restrictions. It is difficult to pass go and start planning a big trip like the one I went on. I can’t lie and say it was easy to plan. It took a lot of spreadsheets, to-do lists and jars filled with coppers.
I cannot imagine the person I would be if I hadn’t gone. But maybe that’s not quite the right description, because I don’t want to give you the wrong impression and have you panicking about coming back with a personality transplant.
It’s not that I felt like a different person when I came back, it’s more that I felt like a better version of myself. Richard 2.0.
Chiefly, I suspect all this personal growth was down to the people I met and became friends with while away.
You’ll do the same, for sure, because that’s what it’s all about. Whether you’re backpacking, hostelling (pretty sure that’s a word) or staying in the same place, you meet people. I guarantee you’ll meet interesting, surprising, different, exciting people from all over the world. I made a handful of lifelong friends in Missouri, but I also met people from a variety of countries, cultures and backgrounds. You’ll have conversations and learn things you’ll never forget.
It’s because of this us gap year-ers (made that one up) will come back with a 100 hilarious stories to tell.
I’ll never get tired of telling my flatmates about the Spring Break I spent in Florida or the 10-hour trip it took to get there, however tired they have gotten hearing them.
I’ll also never tire of talking about my time abroad because when I’m talking about it, I’m thinking about it. And thinking about it makes me remember quite how great it was.
In short, go. Just go. Pick your destination(s) wisely, though. Do some research, speak to embassies and find out what suits you best.
If you hate humidity, for example, then Cambodia probably isn’t for you. Make sure you consider what you want to do, as well.
I know people who have built houses for people in poverty, and others who have taught English or been live-in child minders. Or maybe you want to study abroad.
Whatever you decide, lunge at it with everything you have. It’s not the kind of thing you can do half-heartedly. But that’s exactly the point.