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Gap Years: Living the Stereotype?

By Blanche Delany

Last updated: 27th June 2012

At last check, the infamous ‘Gap Yah’ video on YouTube has had over 4.4million hits. The majority of people will know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t, this sketch depicts the upper-middle-class character of Orlando on the phone to his fellow private-school friend ‘Tarquin,’ raving how everything “rahly reminds me of this time on my gap yah…” While offering high comedic value (“I’m literally in Burma… on this sort of spiritual, cultural, political exchange”) the worrying thing is how many people acknowledge knowing at least one person just like Orlando.

Evidently, Orlando depicts a widely accepted cliché that is frequently attached to students who decide to take a year out between school and university. This gets me to thinking. Is the gap yah stereotype a realistic one?

As many people (or at least those who didn’t choose to take a gap year themselves) question, why do so many students take this year out, only to come back to declare they ‘found themselves’ on the beaches of Thailand or at the summit of Machu Piccu? Do students who, let’s be honest, have had a fairly easy time of it up to the age of 18, really need to spend thousands of pounds travelling around the globe only to get drunk and party on far-flung beaches surrounded by friends from home, all conveniently funded by ‘the rentals’?

For those who did take gap years, I’m sure you’re less than happy with the sweeping generalisations I’m making here, and don’t worry, I agree. Having made the direct transition between school and university I have, as of yet, never experienced travelling for a prolonged length of time, so I have no personal experience to draw on in this area. This, I suspect, is the case with most gap year cynics. That, and a smattering of jealousy.

Furthermore, most of these generalisations are misguided, but like the ‘Gap Yah’ video highlights, it’s easy to stereotype the teenage traveller. This in itself emphasises a key point; the stereotype of gap year travel is something that has been caricatured and embellished in recent years, but is it an accurate portrayal of the gap year experience? Probably not, but everyone loves a cliché.

When researching around gap years, the same images of travelling teens come up time after time; covered head to toe in fluorescent body paint at a Full Moon Party, playing with perspective on the salt flats of Bolivia, and posing as Jesus above Rio are three of the most common I have stumbled upon. Seeing these images crop up time and again on our social news feeds, sure, we roll our eyes and sigh at the predictability of it, but given the chance would we really turn down the opportunity to visit these places too?  As the saying goes, ‘life’s a beach’- don’t we all want to be on one?

Many of my friends opted to have gap years before University, so I am aware that most people spend at least some portion of their year working to fund their travels; taking a gap year doesn’t always encompass 12 months of travelling, but often 6 months of working to save up for the foreign exploration. This, I think everyone would agree, is fair enough.

Furthermore, people are increasingly opting to volunteer, teach, or work abroad as part of their gap year.

By taking a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course you will have the opportunity to teach across the globe, experiencing a completely different cultural lifestyle while doing some worthwhile and valuable work. Other paid roles could arise through ski/snowboard instructing, Au Pairing, or professional internships. An increasingly popular option with students is to apply for a Working Holiday Visa and secure a job in Australia or New Zealand for the duration of the year.

In terms of volunteering, this can encompass a range of work places, varying from orphanages, wildlife conservation sanctuaries and medical placements, offering a hugely rewarding experience from time spent abroad.

The key point to get across is that gap years can be productive and beneficial experiences, broadening your horizons and, if nothing else, providing you with a great collection of stories (just make sure you avoid relating every conversation back to “this one time, on my gap yah..”) And let’s be honest, how often do people really return from their travels declaring to have ‘found themselves?’ Thankfully, I have yet to endure that conversation.

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