An Interview with Milly Whitehead
Milly Whitehead is a founder of The Leap, a leading gap year company. We’re always interested in everything that’s going on in the world of gap years, so we spoke to Milly to find out what they’ve been up to and the opportunities they offer.
The Leap was established in 1999 along with Milly’s husband, Guy, and they now have a dedicated team to help plan, deliver and manage gap years. They offer volunteering opportunities, internships, summer gaps and equine placements across a range of locations that challenge both mind, muscle and wanderlust. We spoke to Milly to find out more about gap years and how volunteering and interning can help you in the future.
Can you tell us a little about The Leap and what you do?
We (my husband, Guy, and I) set The Leap up back in 1999 after a career of organizing school expeditions.
We set it up determined to provide the perfect gap year experience based on our own travelling adventures, highlights and obligatory disasters!
The result is what still keeps us unique: we provide the opportunity for Leapers to get stuck into a selection of contrasting volunteer projects, whilst travelling the length and breadth of their chosen country, all within the bosom of a leap team, providing an instant social life to share those torrid tales of long drops, cramped trains and full moon parties!
Congratulations on being voted the best gap year company by the Sunday Times in the ‘Tour Operator Challenge 2011’. What is it that makes you stand out above the other gap year companies that offer internships and volunteering opportunities?
I think it’s because the over riding feeling from us all at The Leap is that we actually care and deliver. I know that sounds corny as every gap year company claims they do but with us it’s very personal. Guy (and Alice) are on the “bat phone” 24/7 answering and sorting all the overseas operational issues – they know every Leaper, itinerary and project in full detail so their assessments and solutions to any problems are fast and effective.
In a nut shell we are proud of our projects, proud of our team and of course our leapers who ultimately make The Leap a success.
Which of your programs is the most popular and why?
It changes every year and we often have an office wager on which it will be.
At the moment it’s Venezuela and South Africa – both are so different but equally challenging. If I was to choose I think they would be my top choices. Who wouldn’t want to teach kids on a Caribbean island or experience living right in the middle of the African bush?
Our intern programme is zooming up the listings as they offer the chance to combine gaining sought after work experience in amazing locations with the chance to volunteer in conservation or community issues. They are fast becoming the top solution for many, including the discerning school career advisors, parents, and employers.
What advice would you give to someone who would like to take a gap year and also give him or herself something great to put on their CV?
If you’re to take a gap year then you have to make the most of it. It’s a privilege to take time out and to waste it would be criminal. Very relevant at this time though is the competition out there in the job market and getting into top universities. You have to find ways to stand out amongst the crowd – to make your CV positively quiver above your peers and I believe a well planned and executed gap is a good way to go and offers fantastic opportunities to demonstrate all those ‘soft skills’ employers are looking for like team work and self motivation.
Have you seen more people applying for your programs since the rise in university tuition fees?
Definitely. There was an initial pause in the proceedings as everyone came to terms with the change, but then ‘bang’, the leapers came back thick and fast. We think maybe more are taking a gap year to give themselves the breathing space after school to see if uni really is the right thing to do after all.
Can your internships be seen as an alternative to university or are they best combined with a degree?
If time permits the best of both, practical and theory would be the perfect combination. However if university is a no go area then I believe work experience in your chosen field shows commitment and, let’s be honest, it’s always so very handy employing someone who knows a little about the job.
If someone is looking to volunteer, how do they know they are working with a reputable company that is going to make a difference?
Word of mouth is the most powerful and reliable way to find a reputable company. And research all the way.
Can you tell us any brilliant success stories from The Leap?
Of course, lots of stories, but the one that springs to mind is of Michaela who works in our office. Before she came to us she hadn’t left the UK. So we challenged her to a spot of volunteering in Tanzania, which she embraced with every ounce of her being and it didn’t end there. On her return she started her own little charity and raised 1000s of pounds to buy beds, clothes, toys etc. for the orphans she had been working with.
How long would you recommend someone should volunteer for to really make a difference?
It’s not about time, it’s about expectations. What are you being asked to achieve in the time available and ultimately will the project actually make a difference? Is it needed? If the answer is yes then it doesn’t matter if you’re not part of the project completion. Being part of the development will feel just as good.
If you’re interested in volunteering on your gap year then make sure you read our article on choosing a volunteering placement – it’s got everything that you need to know!
Big question – what’s better, short term or long term volunteering? It’s cool, we’ve got it covered…