Being given the space and time of a year off after matric is a great gift to the uncertain or undecided matriculant. It’s not the soft or privileged option, but often the right option for certain youngsters, writes Anne Schauffer.
If you – or your young adult – is either undecided about their career path or desperate to step away from the treadmill of the past decade or so, a gap year is a wonderful opportunity to explore, mature, make a positive impact on others and/or breathe in a safe space where big decisions can land gently rather than be forced. The opportunities both here in South Africa and abroad are endless. Clearly, passport issues may limit choices, and many of the gap year opportunities cost, but that still leaves so many possibilities.
The gap year concept has always been considered a mix of positives and negatives, but realistically, if your son or daughter needs that space and time, giving them that opportunity pays dividends.
A gap year doesn’t need to be a year. It’s a concept, the length of which is largely determined by enrolment in a course the following year. One of the perceived negatives was always the ‘missed’ year of education, the idea you’d be out of the studying groove and be left behind in the gallop for the career finish line. You might not even want to reintegrate into formal education. But that line of thinking is now far less prevalent. There’s a greater concern about mental health, ultimate happiness in a career, and recognition that a year can go a long way in clarifying decisions, cultivating life skills such a financial management and improved organisational skills, developing heightened sensitivity to cultural issues, and cultivating independence and increasing confidence. It’s also possible to learn a foreign language, and discover an entirely new career path.
A gap year is not an aimless ‘time out’ period – it’s planned mindfully.
For some youngsters, a structured year-long course works well. These can offer a combination of life skills, experiences and, sometimes, qualifications. For others, it’s more about experiencing life out there, travelling and even earning some money. Au pairing, working in international ski resorts or hotels in entertainment or hospitality, or working on yachts, are popular options, often involving the acquisition of short-course skills like first aid, and some, like sailing or perhaps au pairing, often morph into related careers.
Organisations specifically designed for gap year students usually have a curriculum covering a number of subjects designed to upskill or equip young people for life. The Academy for Environmental Leadership SA (AEL), based in Upington, is one such organisation. Their prospectus describes the AEL experience as: a combination of academic learning, outdoor adventure and personal development in one transformative year. They go on to say, The NQF Level 5 National Higher Certificate in Conservation Ecology academic programme is designed to serve as a bridging year between school and the next phase of life.
But studying Conservation Ecology doesn’t mean that’s your future career. Retired CEO now responsible for student liaison at AEL, Gys Botha says, “When they leave here to start their further tertiary studies, the majority do not pursue careers in nature conservation. Being in, and learning about, nature is the catalyst.” Botha added that the most telling aspect of the efficacy of their course is that nearly 100% of their alumni pass the first year of their chosen course of study, as opposed to the national average.”
He also pointed to the thoughts of Johannesburg-based career advisor Professor Zak Nel on a gap year. Nel has been providing career counselling for over 40 years and advises matriculants to think of their first year after school as a key building block to help establish their career path: “The gap between school and tertiary education is huge, causing thousands of students each year to fall by the wayside. Many first-year students experience problems adapting to the university workload and tempo,” he said. “As a result, one in every two first-year students fail their initial year, and half of all students reportedly leave the higher education sector after five years of study without a qualification.
“Durbanite Kayla Hinchliffe is an AEL 2020 alumni. “Towards the end of my matric year, I felt very unsettled as to what field of study I wanted to pursue.
“I knew I wanted to explore different options before ‘locking’ into a university degree. Naturally, the internet tracked my search history and an advert for AEL popped up on Facebook. One year later, and I can happily say that AEL offered me so much more than I had ever imagined.
“I arrived at AEL as the only student from Durban (and KZN). Looking back, this was the best thing to have happened as I have now made life-long friendships and memories that will never be forgotten.
“I knew very little about Upington. At AEL, I had the opportunity to visit the most incredible places that are ‘bucket-list experiences’ for most, from sleeping under the stars on a three-day Orange River paddling trip, to visiting the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and travelling to Namibia.
“The highlight of my experience was definitely the memories made as a small group, such as our braai evenings or watching the sun set over the Orange River that was right on our doorstep.
“The academic aspect of AEL allowed us the opportunity to gain knowledge from some of South Africa’s top academics in the field of environmental conservation. We had the opportunity to further engage in this knowledge doing practicals almost every day in the beautiful Kalahari surroundings.
“My year at AEL offered me the perfect balance of academic structure, outdoor adventures, friendship building and growth as an individual.” Kayla is now studying a Bachelor of Education in Foundation Phase teaching at Stellenbosch.
Directed by Jim and Sheila Musto, Quest Africa is a well-respected gap year organisation based in the Eastern Cape and Zimbabwe. “It’s a life skills programme that will challenge you, test your limits and inspire you to become the person you are supposed to be,” they say. “Quest is all about growth through dealing with challenges – the daily physical routine is challenging, the skills learning is challenging, the discipline is challenging, the frequent physical ‘epics’ are challenging, but ultimately young people are re-wired to embrace challenge, and this seems to engender an excitement for life and confidence to take on the challenges that lie ahead. Ex-Questors frequently confess that although Quest was extremely challenging at times, it was also great fun, with life-long friendships being formed. Many also say that it was the best year of their lives.”
As far as possible, training is focused on experiential as opposed to academic learning. There is a balance between life-coaching, practical skills learning and a demanding physical training programme, that has an adventure sport component and is outdoors based. Quest Eastern Cape is located on an exceptionally beautiful coastal beef and game farm, which provides an ideal location for Quest activities. There are three course options: seven-month Core course, 10-month Core plus, and the three-month Spring programme.
The response from parents to the son who arrives home, compared to the one who left, is strikingly positive, peppered with words like matured, confident, responsible, motivated. Testimonials from the boys themselves are solid testament to their choice of Quest for their gap year: “My time at Quest showed me that anything is possible if you do it properly and put your mind to it; if you believe you can do it, and I mean truly believe, it will get done!” says Kevin Horwitz, Quest Core Course 2011.
Wildlife and conservation is a popular gap year choice, not only for those who feel they might pursue a career in that field, but also because it’s the ultimate escape combined with the feel-good aspect of volunteering. The word ‘escape’ is used guardedly, but the reality is that many young people choose a gap year to clear their heads, move away from the noise of social media, and live simply without any peer or other pressure.
Today, volunteering is used as a crucial fundraising initiative for conservation bodies, so you pay for the privilege of being part of the team making a difference. With reputable organisations like Wildlife ACT in KwaZulu-Natal and the Seychelles, the time spent there is invaluable on so many levels. Numerous game reserves within South Africa cannot afford to fund a dedicated monitoring team within their boundaries, so Wildlife ACT provides a free priority species monitoring service in order to ensure the safety of these endangered species. Volunteers live in simple quarters, work extremely hard, are part of an international team of all ages, and can submerge themselves in this wholly worthwhile experience.
Often, there’s a local community aspect to these, too, so there’s the advantage of learning first-hand how other South Africans live, cultural differences, and challenges they face. Inevitably, empathy grows. The Thula Thula Volunteers Academy on the KZN North Coast runs courses from one week to three weeks, programmes that are designed to not only cover the needs of the reserve, but those of the surrounding communities. The Academy provides a hands-on learning experience for the volunteers, and provides work experience in wildlife conservation, reserve management and environmental studies.
Giving back and contributing has so many built-in life lessons, not least of all building self-esteem and empathy.
Working on yachts has, over the years, been a very popular choice. It’s lucrative (foreign currency) and offers travel and a unique lifestyle. Kimberly Muller initially set off to do a nine-month season, but was still on a luxury yacht four years later. She says quite candidly that it was amazing, but very different from what she’d expected: “I had no idea. How difficult can cleaning be? Very. The captain would pick up a smudge that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. It’s hard, and it’s not for everyone. Living and working on board with 15 to 20 people, day and night, soon taught me how to let go of issues very quickly, you can’t hold on to them, and I learnt how to be patient.”
She laughs, “I can clean toilets and wash dishes superbly.” On the flipside, “The money earned was insane, the boat takes you to places you’d never see on your own, and you meet people who can remain friends for life.”
Don McKee is a partner of YOA, an international crew agency that specialises in placing crew on board the world’s premier yachts. He’s cautious when responding to the gap-year question: “There is an opportunity to do this as a ‘gap year’, but most often I find that the priorities of someone on a gap year aren’t always aligned with those of an employer looking for a reliable crew member whose work schedule will often involve 12-14 hour days, seven days a week for months on end without the option to go ashore. More often than not, there is a conflict if these two priorities aren’t aligned.
”A gap year can make a major difference to a young person’s life. Matured is the most commonly used word by parents describing their post-gap-year children. No, it’s definitely not the soft option. Some courses will cost, but other opportunities don’t – some will even allow you to earn – and many are on your doorstep.
FOR MORE INFO
- AEL: www.ael.co.za
- Quest Africa: www.quest-africa.co.za
- Wildlife ACT: www.wildlifeact.com
- Thula Thula Academy: www.volunteer.academy
- YOA: www.yoaagency.com