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Gap Years: an expensive waste?

With the gap year proving increasingly popular, we ponder the nature of this extremely lucrative business

05·20·2012

Gap Years: an expensive waste?

With the gap year proving increasingly popular, we ponder the nature of this extremely lucrative business

05·20·2012

Imagine the scene. You’re between education, maybe you’ve just finished high school, maybe you’ve just finished university, but either way you’re ready to take a break from essays and experience the wider world. You yearn to venture forth into unfamiliar cultures. You feel a deep-seated desire to give something back to those less fortunate than yourself. Or perhaps you just want an extended holiday.

Such is the situation facing many young adults nowadays. In recent years, and especially in Britain, the “gap year” has soared in popularity, offering the adventurous an opportunity to escape the monotony of normal life and discover new frontiers. (Indeed, even in China, the concept of backpacking has really taken off.)

Unsurprisingly, numerous organizations have sprung up to cater to such desires. They offer dozens of placements across the world, varying in content from charity work, to unpaid internships, to paid positions teaching English, all for a price.

And what a price!

A six-month teaching position in China will drain your bank account of just over £2,000, with the traveler earning between £180 and £200 a month. (That’s about £6.50 a day. How much did you earn doing that paper route?) A mere two-week voluntary placement caring for children with disabilities and special needs in Vietnam will cost £1,295. And an eight week unpaid medical internship in Namibia will set you back just under £3,500. It should also be noted that these prices do not include flights and, with the exception of the Chinese teaching position, do not include visa costs either.

Now just mull those figures over for a minute. It’s a complete rip-off, right? Who in their right mind would pay thousands of pounds to work for, at most, a pittance? Well, about 200,000 youngsters a year, according to thisismoney.co.uk.

But why not just make some inquiries, find a worthy cause and be on your way for a fraction of the cost?

The answer: security. Many would-be travelers (and especially their parents) are understandably nervous about the prospect of entering a country with its own culture and language. I can recall vividly my first impressions of China as I stepped off the plane and made my way into Beijing. I was absolutely overwhelmed. Without my local gap year contact, I would have been utterly lost. Gap year companies therefore act as the knowledgeable middleman, arranging the more daunting prospects of in-country travel, establishing communication with the placement and ensuring the traveler’s safety. The fee is still outrageous, certainly, but who can put a price on peace of mind?

But then there is the question of just how trustworthy the gap year companies actually are. Very, very few are cons, but how forthcoming with the truth are the reputable ones being?

Accompanying the information for the Chinese teaching position are a number of pictures, the majority of which feature young, smiling children. According to ethicalvolunteering.org, that’s a red flag right there. Actual international development agencies are very careful when using images of children, but tourism companies frequently use such pictures to put a friendly face on the underprivileged. Are such images really representative of the reality that will confront a traveler once they leave the airport and enter the unknown?

Another warning sign is the language that gap year companies employ in describing their placements. How much is truth and how much is hyperbole? The Vietnam placement claims the traveler’s role to be of the utmost importance, helping to raise the children’s self-esteem and boost their future prospects. But from personal experience, I know that getting through to kids with Autism or Down’s syndrome can be a long, arduous process. Travelers going in expecting to make a real difference in the few weeks or months could easily be left feeling like they’ve made no significant contribution whatsoever.

There’s also the underlying issue of how much good sending volunteers to such places achieves. Often, cheap labor is not in short supply. More desperately needed is money to buy equipment. How much of the traveler’s vast payment goes towards helping their chosen community?

It’s not all bad, however. Some organizations are far more forthcoming with the stark realities of the gap year. Vso.org.uk is one such group. Technically they aren’t even a gap year company – they’re a charity. In 2007, VSO spoke out against gap year providers, drawing attention to their habit of raising unrealistic expectations. This opposition to the established concept of the gap year shows in the way VSO advertise their own placements. They are candid with the fact that volunteering is demanding, that only certain people are right for the job and that they recruit volunteers based on what the target community has requested.

And yet the popularity of the gap year endures (I should know, as I write this I’m currently on one) and is showing no sign of decreasing. Even with the current economic climate, the gap year remains a sought-after activity, with many hoping that the experience will benefit them when the time comes to seek out employment. Indeed, a recent survey by YouGov found that 63% of human resources professionals agreed that a constructive gap year spent volunteering or gaining work experience made a job application more attractive.

So, expensive as it can be, there is at least one tangible benefit to be gained from traveling.

Still, somewhere out there, the person who invented the gap year is laughing all the way to the bank.

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Editor’s note: Having had some expeirence of working with them, The World of Chinese can point readers looking for internship opportunities in China to www.getin2china.com/.  The operatives here had the courtesy of practically forcing us to interview prospective candidates on Skype. This can only be a good thing for all concerned as it enables both parties to determine if they desire each other’s services. The same can not be said for other internship companies or similar ilk, which will happily fire CVs at potential employers with little or no concern for whether their skills are compatible.