Gap Years

“Who am I? What do I want out of life? What is my purpose? How can I make a contribution and still doing the things I enjoy? What are my priorities? What do I want to do for the rest of my life? How can I be expected to choose what to study in varsity when I don’t even know who I AM?”

Does that sound like you? Well, before your existential crisis turns into a meltdown and you break into the ugly cry, maybe you should consider taking a gap year.

What is a gap year, exactly? It’s time taken out to do something other than study before continuing on to further education or employment. In the South African context, this usually occurs after Matric and before the first year of university/college, and will happen from December through to December, seeing as our school year starts in January.

Gap years can consist of many different activities. Some people volunteer, some people go backpacking, some people do work like waitering, teaching or au pairing, or some combination of these things. Being clear on your reasons for doing a gap year will help you decide what it is you want to spend your year doing. It will also help you check yourself and evaluate whether you’re getting what you want to get out of it or not, and if you find you aren’t, to change what you’re doing so that you are.

Some good reasons to take a gap year are:

  • You want to learn more about yourself and about the world.
  • You’re lost and don’t know where to go from high school.
  • You’re burnt out and need to recharge before taking on the next challenge.
  • You can’t afford university and need to work for a year to save up so you can support yourself through your studies.
  • You want to try out a career by volunteering or interning before committing to a career path.

Some bad reasons to take a gap year:

  • You really like to party and would like to spend a year doing that before studying.
  • You got rejected by your first choice university and see no point in going to your second choice.
  • You hate your parents and living at home and this is the closest you’re going to get to moving out.
  • Everyone else is doing it, or everyone you’ve spoken to said it’s a good idea.
  • It’ll look good on your cv/university application/anyone else you want to impress.
  • You want to save the poor children in Africa.
  • Because your boy/girlfriend broke your heart and you just need to get away from it all.
  • Running away from anything. Sort out your problem. A gap year is not the solution.

Learning about yourself

You’re young. You’ve just spent the last 5 years doing pretty much the same thing year in, year out (most likely wearing the same clothes and speaking to the same people). You haven’t really experienced the world, or pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone, so how could you possibly know who you are as a person?

Taking a gap year is a great way to do some deep reflection and get to know things about yourself. Suddenly, you’re entirely responsible for yourself, for the first time in your life. You have to feed yourself, wash your own clothes, sort out your own admin with banks and paying bills. There’s a lot of growing up that happens in a gap year. Chris, 29, took a minimum wage job in London in his gap year, and says,

“The best thing about the year was gaining a sense of who I could be in the world. By the end of the year I knew that with only my matric certificate I could survive in one of the busiest cities in the world for a whole year without any outside help, which was a huge ego boost!”

Sam, 27, who worked as a Junior Teacher in the UK, had a similar experience.

“Up until my gap year I had lived a very comfortable and “sheltered” life. I relied on my parents for most things and never really pushed myself out of my comfort zone. On my own in the UK, I learnt that I really was able to take care of myself. I opened bank and cell phone accounts, I shopped and budgeted, I travelled locally and abroad, and I managed it all entirely on my own!”

Don’t get derailed!

Nazeerah, 22, like many other gap year takers, didn’t know what she wanted to do after high school, except that she loved the outdoors and being in nature. She also had to earn some money to help her parents pay for her studies, and wanted to experience the world beyond her community. She started volunteering with Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, where she was referred by a family friend. She also was a waitress at nights in a restaurant.

She had to grow up quickly and learn to assert herself in order not to be exploited because she was young.

“I learned to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself and go for what I wanted,” she says. “If you’re not assertive, you’ll never be taken seriously.”

Nazeerah was offered a job at Kirstenbosch Gardens after her volunteering ended, and she is now an Environmental Educator there. Although she loves her job, and knows she would never have gotten it without her gap year spent volunteering, she also finds it really hard to give up earning and income in order to study.

“Every year since then is now my gap year,”

she says, and regrets the fact that she doesn’t have a qualification yet.

Although it may seem like a good idea to stay in a job and gain experience (and cash!), there will come a time in your career when you can’t be promoted because you don’t have the necessary qualifications to progress in the company. Don’t be tempted to give up your study plans because you find you can earn a living without studying. It just doesn’t pan out long term. Have a solid plan and an end date for your gap year, or risk repeating it year after year.

Tips to make the most of it

Plan, plan, plan

Be aware of the resources at your disposal. How are you going to fund your gap year plans? If Mommy and Daddy are sponsoring you, how much are they willing to fund? Would you have to get a job? If you’re traveling, are there friends you can stay with? What are the requirements for getting the kind of visa you need? If you’re going to volunteer with an organisation, have you thoroughly researched them, and spoken to other people who have been with them? The more planning and research you do before hand, the less risk there is of landing in a sticky situation later down the line. You don’t want to get stuck in Lichtenstein without a euro to your name.

Claire W, 27, backpacked across Europe and eventually took a job as a chambermaid in the UK when she ran out of money. She advises being adventurous but organised,

“If you’re thinking of doing a gap, I’d really recommend not going for a really expensive tailored experience, unless you really know you can’t tolerate anything else. Strike out on your own and do something less planned and more spontaneous. It’s much more fun that way! Just make sure to do lots of cost, visa and accommodation research first. It’s definitely not something that you can go into without any prior planning but at the same time you don’t want to plan everything, so those 3 things are the major things I’d say to look into so that you’re ready. Save up lots of money and be prepared to live cheap.”

Don’t waste your time

Partying in Ibiza or Majorca may seem like a great way to unwind and relax before knuckling down to study next year. But sleeping all day and partying all night is not really a constructive use of your time. You have a whole year to improve yourself and learn new things. What have you always wanted to be able to do?

Claire B, 26, au paired in France and Sweden, took French classes, and did volunteer research at a university (which eventually led to the offer of a job). She advises doing something useful:

“I think that you need to be able to tie what you do in your gap year back to your “real” life – whether by learning a new language that makes you more marketable, or by figuring out answers to some of the questions that plague all of us youngsters.”

She’s right. What’s the point if you come back from your gap year the exact same person you were before you left?

Streeeeeetch yourself

It’s tempting to stick to what you know when you’re in a strange place. It’s completely natural to want to find some comfort in surrounding yourself with people and things that are familiar, and to resist venturing into the big scary (and so DIFFERENT!) world. But time and time again, those who have been on gap years have said that the best part of a gap year is experiencing different cultures, meeting people totally different to you and seeing places so different to your home town.

Chris went to London with his girlfriend, and said his biggest regret about his gap year was not exploring beyond his circle of safety.

“We used each other as a bit of a comfort zone. We didn’t go out and explore the sights and what London and Europe had to offer as much as we should have….we definitely didn’t take enough advantage of the cultural benefits of being there. We did do some travelling around Europe, most notably to France, but there was lot more we could have done, and we chose not to because it would have meant going outside of our comfort zones.”

Mandy, 27, did music management courses in Joburg and in London, and worked for a catering company. Her advice is about seeking people from different backgrounds to hang out with:

“Consider going somewhere where you won’t end up living with other South Africans. When I went to London, although I knew other South Africans that were there, I didn’t live with them or see them regularly. I did this on purpose because I wanted to meet new people and make new friends. Now I have friends of all nationalities.”

Now you know some of the pros and cons, go forth and do your research! Remember, the best advice comes from those who have been there, done that (and probably got a t-shirt or a cap or a snowglobe or little keyring of the Eiffel Tower or something to prove it). Speak to people you know who have done gap years to find out about further considerations that you may not have thought about yet. But when in doubt, go with what you think is right for you. It’s your own personal learning experience, and no one is more qualified to make it worth your while than you.

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Melissa Nefdt
Mel is a resident freelance writer and moderator at Yebo Students. She has a passion for helping young people realise their potential, and has several years experience running youth development programmes. She likes to write about, well, everything, and wants to travel, well, everywhere. She gets her kicks from meeting new people and having interesting conversations.

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