“Taking time out after high school can involve so much more than paddle boarding in Thailand”
Everybody knows somebody who has an instagram full of flashback Fridays and throwback Thursdays of that time they were hanging out in a Cambodian beach bar, or dancing at Carnival in Rio, or doing whatever other incredibly exciting activity in a far-off exotic country during their one year traveling abroad after high school.
In Britain, having a gap year seems to be associated with letting go of responsibilities for a year. Just going away and not caring about what is left behind or lying ahead; a year of making incredible experiences that are worth telling stories about. But this romantic experience oftentimes does not come for free. A gap year, so the common association, is something children of rich parents can afford while the young people from lower income families are left behind, working part-time at Tesco to be able to afford going to university.
And taking that kind of a gap year is not only a matter of finances. Traveling the world has the potential to be dangerous for women, people of colour, disabled people, or people who are openly LGBTQ+. Add financial difficulties, and the idea of taking a year out quickly changes from a dream to an unachievable luxury, something that is reserved for the people who are already handed opportunities on a silver platter.
That is, if one associates the idea of a gap year with the glamorous idea of traveling the world and being an adventurer. There is a huge amount of romanticism behind that idea and everybody wants to be able to tell stories of their crazy adventures abroad. But a gap year does not necessarily need to be that.
Usually, the instagram-travelers talk gloatingly about how much they changed and learned about themselves during their year of soul-searching and, as pretentious as that may sound, that is what a gap year should really be about.
In Germany, for example, taking a year out between high school and university is incredibly common. That is because from a young age, students are told that employers have no interest in hiring people that went directly from school to further education to their first job with no further knowledge about how to get along in the ‘real’ world. That means any kind of well-spent gap year is encouraged, ranging from doing a year of voluntary social work, ecological work, maybe living in another country as a language assistant or, if the personal situation allows it, a year of traveling the world. The idea behind it is not that only people who are lucky enough to come from a privileged background get the opportunity to make experiences before having to go back to “serious life”, but that young people spend a year doing something else outside of the traditional curriculum to make sure they really know what they want to spend their life with doing.
Without a doubt, it is unfair that some people have it easier to glamorously travel the world. But in the end, there is no point in being bitter about other people’s privilege and missing out on one’s own opportunities because of that. The idea of gap year privilege is part of a much bigger conversation about social injustices that needs to be held on a global scale. But those are huge problems that will take much more time to solve than an 18-year old has after high school. In the meantime, we should begin encouraging gap years as what they are really good for – years to help young people have experiences that will benefit them in their later life, be they big and exciting experiences like traveling the world, or doing voluntary work and giving back to the community. Being born into a low-income family, being a girl, LGBTQ+, of color or disabled may make it harder to enjoy the same benefits others might have, but it does not take away the right to self-realization, and that can come in all kinds of different shapes.