Global responsibility on a gap year

Stella Gray

A rite of passage for young people the world over, the gap year shows no sign of decreasing in popularity in Australia, according to universities and industry.

The tradition of taking a year off to explore the world and develop life skills is a sacred tradition for many Australian university students. Nowadays, students are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing their gap year adventure.

Will Pashley, Australian manager of Projects Abroad, an organisation that facilitates overseas volunteering programs, says there has been an increase of students signing up for overseas volunteering.

“There are a number of reasons for this: volunteering overseas is becoming a more accepted way of travelling the world, more high school students are looking for an alternative to schoolies.”

Pashley, whose company organises over 1,000 unique volunteering projects across 29 developing countries, ranging from disaster relief in the Philippines, to journalism internships in Mongolia, also says that more universities are appreciating the value of international exchange and that “more schools are encouraging students to join volunteer projects overseas”.

Kathryn O’Connor, officer of leadership and community connections at
UTS International, works with the university’s BUiLD program, which organises overseas volunteering programs for students.

“The BUiLD program was established in 2010 and during its first year sent around 100 students overseas. Four years later, more than 500 students apply to BUiLD per year for the opportunity to travel overseas in their semester breaks.”

“The increase has been highly organic due to many factors, with the most powerful being word of mouth from returned students, ” O’Connor says.

Which destinations are the most popular for Australian students who are keen on volunteering abroad?

Will Pashley says Asia is high on the list for applicants to Projects Abroad.

“For younger Australians, they tend to look at countries a little closer to home, such as Fiji, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Nepal and projects like care, teaching and conservation are popular.”

O’Connor says India and Vietnam are highly sought after destinations.

“Microfinance and social enterprise projects continue to attract BUiLDers. Our students have supported projects in India, Vietnam and as far as Africa.”

Lily Gruenewald, a 22 year-old UTS student from Mosman, worked in a law and human rights office in Cape Town for two months as a legal intern during her 2012 gap year.

She says the highlight of her trip was working at a women’s shelter called Saint Anne’s.

“It was a protected centre where we ran workshops about sexual health and AIDS awareness. We also just hung out with the women and girls there – they had been through unimaginable things but they were so open and hilarious. We formed a great relationship with them.”

Aside from fun and adventure, there are benefits in participating in an overseas volunteering trip. O’Connor says such programs allow students to fully understand the scope of their study and how it works in a global context.

“More often than not it is this practical, overseas experience that captures the attention of future employers as it offers the indication of whether the applicant is suitable for the job,” she says.

Pashley says that living without some luxuries for a while shows you how little you actually need and makes you appreciate things you’ve always taken for granted.

“Volunteers return with a camera full of pictures, a mind full of memories, a new found awareness of global responsibility and a couch to sleep on in every continent.”