One morning a few summers ago my housemate and I were lying on the sofas in our university house, still drunk from the night before, and with good reason: we’d received our degree results the previous afternoon and had thankfully both done very well.
I can’t remember who first suggested it – I can’t remember much about that morning – but we soon found ourselves in the student travel shop on campus. Before we knew what was happening we’d booked round the world flights and committed to a seven-month adventure.
Following a predetermined path
Until that point my whole adult life had been determined by choices I made as a 14 year old school boy. I chose my GCSEs, which heavily influenced the subjects I picked for my A-Levels, which in turn heavily influenced the subject I picked for my degree. Each stage limited the next, and before I knew it I’d graduated with a BA in Biochemistry and absolutely no idea what to do with my life.
Apart from fulfilling my educational obligations I’d never actually done anything. I’d never been anywhere on my own for more than a few days. I’d never worked anywhere other than a garden centre as a general dogsbody. And I’d never done anything that had inspired me to follow a particular career path.
Gap years can benefit those with a plan and without
Part of the reason I went on a gap year was because I just didn’t know what else to do. But don’t make the mistake of thinking travelling is only for people who are unsure of their path. Even if you know exactly what you want to do as a career, whether it’s a horse whisperer, astronaut or dolphin trainer, it’s still worth taking some time out before university. The longer you settle on the hamster wheel of your chosen path the harder it is to go on a gap year, because you won’t want to risk getting left behind when things start getting serious.
Another reason I went on a gap year was to delay the real world but what I didn’t foresee was that travelling would actually prepare me for the real world – more so than my education had ever done. Even just giving yourself some time to save up for your big adventure might give you the opportunity to begin formulating a life plan. You never know – the job you take to help save money might actually inspire you to follow a particular career path. In my case, I ended up working for a scientific recruitment company which led on to several future job opportunities and gave me a very useful taste of the world in which adults exist.
How you should approach your gap year
The question still yet to be answered is what you should actually do with your gap year. Fortunately there is no right or wrong answer to this, but based on my personal experience I can draw these conclusions.
Begin your travels by conforming to some of the stereotypes. Spend time working and travelling in Australia or New Zealand and get your first taste of Asia by travelling around places like Thailand and Cambodia with everyone else. You’ll become comfortable with new experiences, new people and new challenges, all within the confines of a well-trodden path and with lots of other backpackers in the same situation as you.
Once you’ve experienced the well-trodden path you can begin pushing yourself a bit more: go trekking in Nepal, volunteer in Peru, Couchsurf around India. Take on these new challenges and you’ll be rewarded with extraordinary experiences and a real sense of achievement which not all backpackers have.
What travelling can do for you as a person
During your gap year you’ll grow as a person and prepare yourself for the challenges of the real world. Maybe you’ll even realise what you want to do with your life.
For me, a gap year didn’t solve any of life’s great mysteries or even give me a life plan to follow. But it did open my eyes to the world and, five years later, travelling, for me, is the ‘real world’. At the moment I manage a travel shop in a beautiful town in Australia, have visited over 50 countries and have met incredible people all over the world.
My only regret is that I took my first gap year after university and not before!