gap year

Beyond the Oxford bubble

Throughout my time at Oxford, I have seen that there are many opportunities for students to spend some time volunteering abroad. Indeed, many students will already have done this during a gap-year, or as part of a school project. Yet one cannot help but ask, should this form of exchange only happen (or at least be most prominently advertised) as a one-directional phenomenon – is it right for us, the privileged, to use such opportunities for our own advantage, learning new things in a new environment without allowing for the exchange to occur the other way round? Perhaps the cost of a return flight from Kenya would be better spent having a member of the community that an individual may go out to volunteer for to come and spend some time in our privileged world, where we have the means and resources to really make a difference. This year’s Oxford Forum for International Development outreach programme aims to do just that.The Oxford Forum for International Development (OxFID), an annual conference which marks its 5th Anniversary this year, is the UK’s largest student-run conference of its type and is set to attract over 400 participants from across the UK and Europe who have an active interest in the field of development. The conference offers students the opportunity to engage with the issues surrounding international development, providing a unique forum for fruitful interaction and debate with leading experts. The conference, which takes place this month at the Said Business School, is celebrating their 5th Anniversary with the title ‘International Development – Where Next? Finding New Paths and Shaping New Visions’.With a focus on the future of development, it only makes sense to encourage global participation in this discussion, and as such OxFID have successfully started an outreach programme this year with the intention to bring UK students and young people in the developing world together to achieve real, worthwhile and effective dialogue on the most prominent issues surrounding development. Through the support of the Oxford-based Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE), the university International Development department (QEH) and New College JCR, the conference will be attended by a group of students from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Through New College’s existing partnership with Makerere University, four social science students and a lecturer at the university have gained the ability not only to attend the conference, but also spend some time at Oxford learning about the way in which the university works, spending time with students and visiting the libraries and museums.

The OxFID outreach programme has also provided the opportunity for two Cambodian students, currently studying at the University of Hradec Králové in Prague on a full scholarship, to also attend the conference this year. “It is my dream to improve the education system in Cambodia”, comments Monkol Sok, a third year Information and Management student. “The core of happiness is rooted in truth and knowledge, both being revealed by good educational principles put in practice”. When I asked Monkol about what he hopes to gain from his attendance of the conference, he again referred back to the importance of education. “I hope and believe that joining the conference, and obtaining the scholarship in the Czech Republic, will help me to achieve a higher level of education and increase the possibility of me pursuing my dream”. Thavry Thun, another Cambodian student who will also be visiting from Prague, adds that his interests lie in business, economics and technology, subjects which he hopes to learn more about in the context of development through his attendance at OxFID. It is not only for these reasons that Thavry was attracted to the conference, but also the opportunity to increase his knowledge on such issues in a new environment and get “a chance to step [foot on] one of the most famous [universities in the world]”.

Not only do initiatives such as the OxFID outreach programme and the New College partnership with Makerere University in Uganda allow for dual exchange, but also provide greater global access to the resources that we, as Oxford students, have at our disposal and often take for granted. It is important to continue this exchange in both directions, and efforts to do so by the initiatives mentioned above are certainly ones that we, as a student body, should aim to follow.

Tickets for OxFID 2012 are onsale now at

Gap Yah: A valuable life experience or…?

I never had a gap year; I guess doing a BA which included a year abroad meant that I didn’t feel like I needed to. I do, however, have a number of friends who took gap years for various reasons: due to illness; to repeat past exams; or purely to see the world for themselves. My own reasons for an ERASMUS year are a mixture of it being included in the degree, wanting to develop my language skills and to see what living in another country is like; the last two sentiments being shared with many of the Gap Yahs of the world. Sometimes I wonder whether I have lost something by not doing the traditional gap year thing, not that studying for a year at a foreign university makes for much of a rest from my degree back home.
Some people sell the idea of gap year as a valuable life experience, a chance to find yourself and discover who you really are. I’m not sure that I have achieved this quite yet, though perhaps the epiphany moment takes more time than coming back to your family for Christmas. I’ve certainly learnt more about self-sufficiency than the college system seems to have sprung on me so far. Living in a world without Scouts, Hall or a supermarket within walking distance came as a bit of a shock to the system at first, as well as having to use a bus to get around town. Unlike Oxford, my host university is right on the outskirts and most of the international students live in shared flats dotted across the town.
Others view the gap year as a time to relax and take some time out from the hardships of education. This I definitely have not done. While I accept that the workload is significantly less than is expected from my Oxford tutors (I was told in week one by my host university that “essays are rare here”) and I can hide in my so-called tutorials (which can be made up of around 25-35 people), the extra pressure is added by trying to understand the ideas and concepts in your second language. Having said that, I am getting quite used to having weekends again! Having been an international student since September, internationals surviving at Oxford are now an inspiration to me and demand the utmost respect in my books.
It is becoming increasingly more popular with employers to see evidence of a constructive gap year – whether in relevant work experience, learning languages or gaining cultural experience. The work experience has not happened; rather I have learnt how to survive at a different university instead of moving fully out of my comfort zone of academia, which I’ve been in since the tender age of four years old. Learning languages is a given – 24/7 language learning, especially when your housemates cannot or will not speak English. I have however embraced the idea of cultural experience and thrown myself fully into learning more about the local way of life. Even simple things are different here, such as not talking on the bus or not stepping aside for people coming at a direct line for you (I still feel the need to step aside on these occurrences, for fear of collisions), to the more frustrating events such as the shops not being open on a Sunday (the joys of living in a Catholic country) or trying to battle a stream of traffic on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything by choosing to do an ERASMUS year rather than a gap year. No, my extra year at university doesn’t have the moral appeal of volunteering in a developing country, and I certainly haven’t earned any money this year, which is another popular reason for gap year-ing, but for me I have enjoyed my ERASMUS year far more than I would have done fresh-faced from secondary school. At 18, I personally would have been too homesick to enjoy any extended period in another country, but at 21 I now embrace the opportunity and challenge of integrating into another culture, though I do miss the occasional proper cuppa.

Not ANOTHER Voluntourist…?

It has essentially become a rite of passage, in our generation, for young people to spend some time volunteering abroad. Whether it is over a long summer or during a gap year, there has been a significant increase in the number of people who incorporate volunteer work with travel.

Long gone are the days of the culturally enriching ‘Grand Tour’. Nowadays you’re more likely to find ‘gappers’ staggering across Haad Rin beach in the early hours after a Full Moon Party. The standard hedonistic tour across the well beaten track has now been merged with what is supposedly meant to be the life changing and eye-opening experience of immersing oneself in a local community. Such a change has led to much criticism surrounding this ‘voluntourism’ phenomena. The gap year staple of a couple of days or weeks volunteering, incorporated into the standard banana pancake trail through South East Asia, has come under the fire, facing many different charges.

Quickly becoming just another thing to tick off the holiday to-do list, it is hard to see what the motivation really is. It seems as though more often then not, the volunteer opportunities are designed more to benefit the volunteer than the community that they are hoping to help. Can a young person with no experience, no particular language skills and no practical training in performing the tasks that they are doing, really make any tangible difference or is it purely a self -indulgent phenomenon? Surely, the critics argue, there is somebody from the community themselves who would be better placed to do the job that the volunteers are doing. Don’t waste the money, they say. Rather, it would make more sense to donate money to the value of the price of the airfare.

Yet would-be volunteers are prepared to pay out hundreds of pounds to teach children from a nearby favela in Rio de Janeiro or spend a few weeks on a pacific reef, but would they be better off simply backpacking rather than taking up volunteer work that is both damaging and costly? The increase in ‘voluntourism’ has given rise to a number of schemes run by badly organised companies, charging extortionate amounts to young people to organise their time volunteering abroad. You can find yourself paying an average fee of somewhere between £500 to £2000, maybe even more, if you make use of a commercial gap year firm who often do little in the way of providing you with the training or preparation that you may need once you’re out there.

Given the short-term nature of most volunteer work, the projects assigned to foreign volunteers can do more harm than good. Not only do wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer, but hard-pressed charities and organisations are forced to waste time and money looking after these volunteers and upgrading their facilities to attract volunteers. Throughout this process, both parties are dragged into the exploitative schemes of the commercial gap year planners who are the only ones who gain from this process.

But of course, the case for volunteering abroad is not completely one sided. Having spent over a month of my summer volunteering in Cambodia, I too have indulged in ‘voluntourism’ to find that it need not always be a case of exploitative methods and dishing out a lot of money that then in fact helps nobody. To avoid many of the harmful side-effects of ‘voluntourism’, it is essential to do some research and work through a credible organisation. I volunteered in Siem Reap through the student run TravelAid organisation, paying only a small amount to receive basic teacher training and first aid, and thus having the ability to raise a large amount for the charity itself.

During my time in Cambodia, it was clear that the presence of foreign volunteers was appreciated. Volunteer work is not necessarily purely centred around some sort of project work and should not be judged on the success of that project alone. It gives both the volunteer and the communities that they are working in a chance to engage with one another, bringing together stories from completely different backgrounds, cultures and sharing personal experiences. Having a positive impact takes more than purely teaching a lesson or building a school. It is this that makes ‘voluntourism’, when done carefully, completely worth it.

The desire to engage with the world is commendable and the desire to volunteer is one branch of that; but, we must tread more carefully. The rapid growth of ‘voluntourism’ in some way resembles the rapid growth of the aid industry: a way to ease our own consciences without fully realising the consequences that this leads to for the communities we hope to help. Nonetheless, if one manages to avoid the scams and poorly organised schemes, ‘voluntourism’ can and does have a positive effect on both the volunteers and the communities it engages with. The big question remains how do we maximise these positive effects, and minimise the inevitable negative ones.

[Photo: Visions Service Adventures]