Planning the perfect gap year
After a brain-frying degree program many years ago, I put some serious distance between myself and the books with an ESL teaching job in Tokyo. Graduating was great, but in those 12 ramen-slurping months I learned more about the world – and myself – than countless essays could ever cover.
Gap years – “life sabbaticals” to travel, work or volunteer before the shackles of careers and mortgages take hold – can be the ideal introduction to independent adulthood. But with more options to consider than a wide-eyed backpacker with a Eurail pass, significant pre-trip homework is required.
Your enlightened future self – and the bank of mom and dad – will forever thank you for it.
First up: the grand plan. While some are lured by the idea of extended couch residencies, gap years are only meaningful if there’s a valid reason – typically something that’ll shine on your resume. Want to save African elephants or work in a Sydney hotel? Sell your parents on why – treat it like a business presentation – and enlist their help.
For many, horizon-expanding travel is the sole reason for a year out. Begin by diving into tip-packed websites like www.startbackpacking.com, www.nomadicmatt.com and www.bemusedbackpacker.com for the lowdown on first-time solo tripping. Pay particular attention to their practicality pointers and budget-stretching advice.
With funding a major concern, draft a rough financial plan long before you even think of packing: transport, accommodation and food and living expenses will be your main line items. And if that pricey Europe dream suddenly seems out of the question, remember your dosh will spread much further in backpacker hotspots like Vietnam and Thailand.
Since your savings – and your parents’ pockets – will likely take a hit, many gapppers also add paid employment to their adventure, either for the full year or as a means to further travel. But rather than blindly hoping to stumble on jobs in transit, pre-arranging employment is recommended – especially if you’re craving some sparkling resume highlights.
ESL teaching remains popular. But it’s also more competitive than ever, with pay and conditions varying greatly and some posts requiring teaching certifications – see www.eslcafe.com for an overview and a representative array of job listings. Also, drop into your school or university careers office for more postings and further employment ideas.
Although I worked at a private school in Japan, the country’s JET Program (www.jetprogramme.ca) remains the gold standard of gap year ESL jobs. Not requiring certifications, the government-funded scheme annually recruits thousands of young foreigners as high school teaching assistants, arranging visas, flights and accommodation as well as providing a decent salary.
But it’s not all ESL. Agencies from InterExchange (www.interexchange.org) to WYSE Work & Volunteer Abroad (www.wyseworkabroad.org) charge fees to organize gap year placements, removing the headaches of arranging your own visas, travel and accommodation. Keep in mind that the jobs – from au pairs to summer camp counselors – are often poorly paid.
If you’d rather find your own more lucrative posting and sort the paperwork yourself, start with the federal government: click the International Experience Canada tab at www.international.gc.ca/education for details on the 32 countries offering young Canadians one-year working visas. Alternatively, stay here: Parks Canada offers cool temporary jobs via its Student Employment section at www.pc.gc.ca.
But if experience is more important than money, consider volunteering for a worthy project. Like many gap year job providers, there are often fees attached to arranging these volunteer postings. You also need to ask yourself if the projects are really helping in the areas where they operate.
Popular placement providers include Go Overseas (www.gooverseas.com) and Intrax Global Internships (www.globalinternships.com), while Grassroots Volunteering (www.grassrootsvolunteering.org) specializes in opportunities that don’t charge user fees – which means logistical details like travel and accommodation are down to you.
Whatever shape your epic gap year takes, the practicalities will need to be organized as soon as possible. Check on required vaccinations and don’t leave without travel insurance that covers all the places and activities you’ll be diving into. A handy on-the-road rule to remember: don’t try anything unsafe that you wouldn’t normally do at home.
Which brings up the issue that worries parents the most. They may grouse about paying your way, but they’re far more anxious about safety. Make sure you have a meaningful conversation with them that shows you understand the relevant issues. Consider doing you homework before the big talk by reading Michael Huxley’s e-book Gap Year Safety, available via Amazon.
A major safety issue, of course, is money – and especially not walking around like a sack of cash ripe for mugging. One credit card and some US cash is recommended, while withdrawing local currency from ATMs en route is preferred – check with your bank that yours is a fee-free card and tell them you’ll be travelling so they don’t cut you off after a few beach bar cocktails.
As for that “other bank:” ensure your parents can top up your account from home and keep in touch with them so they know you’re safe – don’t forget to tell them you love when requesting your latest funding infusion.
Social media is great for connecting with everyone, of course, but don’t spend all your time on the road blinking at screens. A successful gap year changes your entire perspective on life but only if you experience it fully. When you’re at that dreary desk job in years to come, these sun-dappled memories will keep you going – and have you planning a career break second sabbatical as soon as possible.