‘Gap Year’ – two inoffensive and unremarkable words that, when put together, prove to be some of the most contentious in the English language. We all know the images that spring to mind on hearing them: an over-privileged student, swathed in the wool of a Peruvian alpaca , spending their parent’s money to travel the world and indulge in a journey of self-discovery brimming with enlightening ‘cultural experiences’. Almost all of us know someone who has taken a gap year. We’ve seen the avalanche of photographs they’ve posted of sunsets over mountain peaks or of themselves surrounded by beaming ‘locals’ (extra points the more messianic they appear). And I’m sure we’ve had the same reaction.
And why shouldn’t we? What was once deemed to be a genuine and spirited adventure has morphed into a bourgeois ritual, exploiting the poverty of others under the pretence of self-discovery. Who wants to admit to having taken a one, to open themselves up to endless mockery and ridicule, to be the butt of every tired and clichéd ‘gap yeah’ joke known to man?
Well, I have an admission to make. I am one of those people. I took a gap year. I volunteered in a developing country. I hiked over parched mountains. I washed in rivers and slept in huts. There were even times when I did ‘chunder everywhah’. And no, although I’m confident that many people would refute this, I am not a dickhead.
No one would deny that there are obnoxious teenagers everywhere stumbling through other people’s countries and returning home, starting every sentence with ‘That one time on my gap year…’ They irritate us. And full well they should.
But we shouldn’t overlook the people who take a year out of their lives because, not to claim bragging rights or take pictures looking bleary-eyed in some far and distant land, but because they genuinely want to travel. They want to do something worthwhile. Perhaps they just need a window of their lives to take a break before being hurtled into the pressures of university and (semi)adulthood.
I took a gap year for all of those reasons. And many people I know did. One friend spent a year in an Italian music conservatory. Another lived in Morocco, learning near-fluent Arabic. These people don’t spend their days boasting of their experiences, which, in all honesty, were extra-ordinary, in the truest sense of the word. Just like me, they almost seem timid to even talk about them, fearing being lumped together with the toxic ‘gap yah’ stereotype.
But why should we be forced into silence? While it is undeniably trying when someone launches into a speech about their cultural, spiritual, political journey, perhaps those experiences were genuinely interesting. Perhaps they helped inform their world view, teach them values and skills, teach them things which they want to share openly and honestly with those around them.
Running the risk of devolving into stereotype, my gap year was indeed ‘life changing’. For one thing, it allowed me to get into St Andrews, without which I’m not sure I’d be writing this article now. But the skills I gained and the experiences I had, I know will last a lifetime, as will, I’m sure, those experiences of others who took a year out of their lives to do something they would never again get the chance to do.
So next time someone mentions their gap year, please don’t chastise them. Yes, it is annoying, but not nearly as annoying as being forced to stifle yourself and withhold your experiences from your closest friends. Besides, you’ll probably graduate a year before them, so you can reserve a smugness all of your own.