Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Gap Years Matter

Another Sunday Telegraph article which raised my ire this morning was the one about some University bod advising 18 year olds not to go on gap years. Instead, she said that they should concentrate on getting work experience and extra training. Balls.

Going on a gap year was the best decision I have ever made - apart from hitching myself to Mr Simmons, of course. Oh, and getting Gio from Battersea, but I digress.

I spent my gap year in Germany, mainly because the following September I would start my German degree course at UEA. It seemed a good idea to gain a greater degree of fluency in the language before I started. By the time I came back I was virtually fluent and had a far better grasp of the language, which meant that I was able to sail through the first year.

But there was something more important than that. I grew up during that year. I became an adult. I no longer had my parents and family to rely on. I was on my own. Independent. I well remember the day my parents took me to Harwich to get the ferry to the Hook of Holland. I remember going up the escalator and losing sight of my mother, who was in floods of tears. To be honest so was I. She told me a few years ago that she at that moment she thought she genuinely wouldn't see me again.

I duly arrived in Bad Wildungen, a small spa town in Hessen, close to the Edersee of Dambusters fame (pic above), to which I had been twice before on school exchanges. It took me several weeks to find a job.

I had only gone out there with about £100 (it was 1980, after all!) and was about to run out. But the Werner Wicker Klinik came to the rescue and I got a job as a nursing assistant in the swimming pool area. I had no lifeguard qualifications and certainly knew nothing about nursing. But it was a job. And it paid. DM1650 a month - a huge amount to me.

The next thing to do was to get my own room. Up to that point I had been staying with my penfriend's family. It was the first time I would live on my own. And I didn't like it at all. Although I had made quite a few friends, it was always soul destroying to spend an evening in a solitary room watching an old black and white TV. And believe me, German TV was dreadful. Dubbed episodes of Dallas proved to be the highlight of the week. "Sue Ellen, bist di schon wieder besoffen?" "JR, ich hasse dich". It wasn't quite the same, somehow.

But I lived above a bar in the Brunnenallee, so life was never particularly quiet. And the work was incredibly rewarding. I ended up doing a lot of physiotherapy and hyrotherapy on the patients, again with no training. Most had suffered spinal injuries in motorcycle accidents, or had spinal conditions associted with skoliosis. I spent the first few days wandering around in a bit of a daze, just feeling sorry for everyone. I can't remember who, but someone said the secret of being able to work in a hospital like that was to take the emotion out of it and never feel sorry for the patients. Once I had got my brain around that, it was fine.

It was in that year that I became a man. Now, that sounds an odd thing to say, but I would not have missed it for the world. And if 18 year olds are now being discouraged by some bureaucrat from UCAS from having the same life enhancing experience as I did, then things have reached a pretty pass.

So if you are a teenager reading this, ignore the woman from UCAS. Follow your instincts. If you think a gap year is what you need, move heaven and earth to make it happen. I've never regretted it for a minute.


AGilinsky said...

I decided to skip a gap year.

Mostly because I would have this giant weight of university bearing down on me all year.

I'm now going into my 3rd year of my degree and I feel as if I did all my growing up during 1st year.

Looking back, I really am a different person, it's truly strange to see.

Anyway, my main reason for the decision was my father. He said, take a gap year after university. You've got your degree, you can celebrate before being pushed into the world of work.

Although, saying that, I come from Scotland where we go to university at 17 quite regularly.

norman said...

Those days of strong German Mark, the pay I guess was very generous. But I have seen many students taking a gap year to work in South America, some places there are quite dangerous. These days when non-EU students are bussed in thousands, thanks to Labour, but still continued by Willets and Cable the stupid duo, the advice given to get work experience seems sound.

Demetrius said...

'Ang on a bit, squire, your year looks to me like some very useful work experience where you also learn a foreign lanquage. This is very different from just wandering around with a pack of other Brit's from bar to bar. Depends what, where and how. I suspect too many don't do much that is any good or helps to bridge the university entry business.

Half The Story said...

100% agree with Iain.

Worst decision I never did.

I now encourage everyone who asks me to do it. I generally talk about it in careers terms, as I work in HR.

In fact 18 is to oyoung for uni in many cases and that extra year gives you much more help.

trevorsden said...

You could have 'grown up' at home.

People who do not go to university and have to take a job sweeping the streets do not have the luxury of a gap year; and thats what they are - a luxury.

Its a fashion - like prom nights and going there in stetech limmos. Follow fashion if you can afford it.

But it is a pointless senseless self serving aggrandisement of no use and meaning.

newly qualified doctors BTW are sent abroad to practice their inadequate skills on foreigners and soak up a bit of sun at the same time. Now there is a point to that.

Thorpe said...

I entirely agree. I took a Gap Year (and a half). Worked in a fruit cannery to buy the cheapest possible round the world ticket on Sabena. Out to Oz via Egypt and Singapore. Got a job working on a sheep station, then fruit picking, ski instructing for a while and being a barman in a Barrier Reef resort hotel. Got wise to the ways of women and thieves. Hitched from Brisbane to Perth (took 4 weeks). Hitched a ride on a container ship to Adelaide. Back to the UK via Singapore and the Maldives, where again I worked in a hotel bar. Learned to play poker passably well.

Returned taller, stronger, immeasurably more self-confident. I'd grown up. I also had about £700 "profit" in my wallet.

I don't miss that time at all. I learned a lot about myself and the wider world. When my children are that age, I shall encourage them to do the same.

Tim Worstall said...

I took three gap years (long story but essentially I had a 2.5 year Green Card for the US) and best damn decision I've ever made. Coming back to uni at 21 meant I was there because I wanted to study, not because I wanted booze and women (well, sure, of course, but 3 years as a bartender gets you over wanting only them).

harry benn's pig said...

I have a son who was 18 two weeks ago, he's waiting for his A level results in 5 days, he's at the youngest end of his year group.
He wants to do Spanish, French and Portuguese, in a 4 year degree course.
Personally I'm slightly ambivalent about the gap year, but you've offered some good insights, I've printed you off and passed it to him to read.
Given the state of university applications, which is clearly what the lady from Ucas is thinking of, the conclusion is obvious, first get your place and then defer if you want. It's only going to get harder to get places.

David Anthony said...

One thing I've never understood. Why did you choose German for your degree?

DiscoveredJoys said...

When I was young, many years ago, gap years were not common, and my family was poor anyway. But I did 'go away' 150 miles to University and that was how I did my 'growing up'. In those days 150 miles on single carriageway A roads in a Morris Traveller was not an easy journey.

If you can't manage a gap year, at least go to a university beyond easy travelling distance.

Iain Dale said...

David, simple, because I had intended to be a German teacher and German was the only thing I was ever any good at at school!

Mirtha Tidville said...

Vorsprung Durck Technik then

no longer anonymous said...

The only problem with gap years is the tendency of people who go on them to never shut up about them!

Steve C said...

Iain, Demetrius has it right. It depends what you do with your gap year, where you do it etc
Your gap year in Germany was for a clear purpose and you achieved something useful toward your (then) goal.
Just wandering around the world doing as little as possible apart from drinking and screwing is a very different kettle of fish.

Unsworth said...

Yes. There's absolutely nothing to beat real life as a preparation for real life.

Victor, NW Kent said...

A middle class indulgence. It is alright for someone whose Mummy or Daddy is waiting to send funds or bail them out.

Jonathan explains it all said...

You over-react again Iain. In fact what you did is exactly what is being suggested. You went to Germany to prepare for a German degree.