Student working on a gap year

Planning a gap year abroad

Gap years have become a rite of passage for many students. While the experience of travelling will expand your horizons, the time can also be put to more worthwhile use by undertaking voluntary work or participating in a project that will provide valuable experience for the future.

Stefan Wathan, ceo of Year Out Group, which includes 30 of the leading gap year organisations, operating in more than 80 countries, says the “structured” gap year has always been popular.

“By structured we mean that participants have considered and planned what they would like to achieve from their time out; a purpose beyond seeing the world itself and having some nice beach time, not that there is anything wrong with those things!” he says.

“Putting some structure into your year out provides you with some focus, helps you to commit to a project you feel is important and encourages you to identify some measures of success or positive outcomes from the experiences and the gap year itself.”

Embarking on such an experience demands forward planning and organisation but such effort is likely to be well spent. Considering how you can evidence the benefits of your gap year to universities and employers is a much higher priority for young people these, says Wathan, who adds: “Employers themselves tell us that young people who have demonstrated a passion, interest or have made a difference over the year stand out both on CVs and perhaps, more importantly, at interview.”

Check out what is available

The starting point is to find out what opportunities are available and it will probably come as a surprise to find out just how many websites are dedicated to hooking you up with volunteering and project-based opportunities abroad for a gap year. As Wathan points out, the advantage of using a specialist organisation is that they have a track record of working in the country and have strong local connections.

Engineers will find a range of construction and community development projects where they can acquire new skills and put some of their academic learning to practical use. They vary in duration and it maybe that a volunteering project only forms part of your gap year. Although your priority may be projects related to engineering, bear in mind that others will help you to develop a range of skills that will be helpful in your working life.

“Demonstrating that as an engineer you have technical, social skills and broader interests, which you can adapt to different situations or environments is important too,” says Wathan. “For example, working in a school or on a conservation project, taking photos for publicity or trekking through harsh environments

Applying for a programme

Planning ahead is key to ensuring you secure a position on your programme of choice. Adrienne West, marketing manager of Global Vision International (GVI), a social enterprise which runs volunteering and academic year abroad programmes as well as internships and training courses in more than 40 countries, reports that some of its projects fill up six months to a year in advance. Some projects will have a selection process so you need to think through why you want to get involved before talking to the relevant organisation.

“Understand your own motives, ask questions but try to answer them yourself first,” says Wathan. “If your first question is whether or not the project has a Wi-Fi connection or a McDonald’s nearby the person on the other end of the line is likely have some alarm bells going off in their ears.”

You should find that specialist organisations will provide help and support to make sure you choose the right programme. West explains that for GVI, you initially need to fill out a “non-committal” application form and have a phone interview with one of its experts for that region. She adds: “Our experts will talk them through the programme details, find out what it is they want to achieve from their time abroad and help them to choose a programme option that is best for them.”

Think about funding

You also need to plan how you will fund the project. Specialist websites typically provide the cost of programmes upfront and a scan through various opportunities reveals fees of a few hundred up to over £2,000 but it is possible to find the odd one where no cost is attached. While a fee upwards of £2,000 may be a deterrent, you have to balance it against the experience it will provide. Organisations will typically provide advice on how to raise funds.

West explains that GVI has a fundraising guide to help its volunteers raise the necessary money when they aren't able to pay for the whole programme themselves. It also has a partnership with the fundraising platform, GoFundMe. Many volunteers also set up their own fundraising campaign on the web and used social media networks to generate interest and spread the word.

What you’ll get back

The experience gained during this type of gap year will be invaluable on a number of levels and if all goes well it will not only enhance your CV but become a talking point when you go for interviews with future employers. Wathan says that one young woman said she took a photo album and diary of her experiences to the interview which proved to be a major focus for attention.

“The interviewer kept asking questions about what she had achieved and learnt from the experience. She was offered the job without ever feeling she’d had an interview,” he says, adding: “Employers tell us that people who have made good use of their time out are more confident about what they are looking for from a career and more able to turn the interview into a conversation. This makes it easier for both sides to determine if the role and the person match.”

West says GVI stays in touch with alumni and typically gets extremely positive feedback from returning volunteers.

“For many of them, their time volunteering or interning with us has made a major impact on their career direction and development,” she says. “It’s an ideal situation when our projects, partners and participants all benefit.”

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