Gap Year: Why Volunteering Is The Best Teacher
As best friends from New Zealand we took a chance on a gap year and spent it volunteering for six months in Livingstone, Zambia. We might only be 18 years old, but it turned out to be the best six months of our lives. If you are a teenager - take a gap year! If you’re a parent, or if you just know a teenager - tell them to consider taking a year to travel and do good. It will change them forever! Trust us, we know!
If you’re in your last year of high school you are probably facing that impending question of: ‘What are you doing next year?’ For me it became all too real and I was really getting forced to make a decision, but I knew for sure that going straight into university wasn’t for me. A lot of people asked: “Why have a gap year?” For me, a gap year was the best option to give me a break from studying, let me explore and to give me a bit more time to think about exactly what it was that I wanted to study.
There is no doubt it’s a big decision to make, but it just could be the best decision you ever make. Here are our thoughts on taking a gap year, as teenagers who have been there and done it…
What my gap year taught me…
Lara: I have learnt that there is so much more in the world than you think, so there is no reason for a young person to take a common or easy path in life when it’s so much more worthwhile to explore where your passion truly lies, wherever that may be. I have found out so much more about myself because each day I am being challenged by new things and I think that volunteering has certainly helped my ability to adapt to the unknown and be less fearful of opportunity and of failure. My experience has a colossal impact on my worldview and my perspective of myself within the world. I became so independent and made friends with so many different people in the community who inspired me; the 14 year old boys living in the same neighborhood as the volunteer house, the mothers in the area, teenagers from a local church, my students at school, the kids at soccer club and running club, the elderly people in aged care. I learnt to relate to people of all different walks of life. There is no end to the things I learnt.
Lisa: One of the main ways my experience has impacted me is it has made me make up my mind about what I am going to study and where I see myself in my life. Through what I have seen volunteering as well as the people I have met I have been able to confidently decide that I want to study something around the realm of International Relations and pursue a job in which I am able to make an impact in developing and vulnerable countries. Not only did it change my perspective on life in a sense of career, but also in my drive to travel. Through this trip I have realized just how different of an experience volunteering provides compared to traveling or backpacking. Through volunteering I have learnt so much about Zambian culture and really become part of life here as well as making countless local friends and connections, and see things someone just passing through and traveling would never get to experience.
Why volunteer on your gap year?
Lara: I knew on my gap year that I wanted to travel but I also knew I wanted to do something worthwhile with my time. I’ve always been passionate about helping others and I think a big part of growing up and finding a place in the world is stepping out of your comfort zone and doing new things that challenge you. I can’t think of a better way to learn about the world and about yourself than by volunteering. Another reason I decided to volunteer during my gap year is because I am very interested in a career in international aid, working for an NGO or the UN for example, and by experiencing the work and lifestyle that I want to pursue in the future I know I now have more determination and purpose when it comes to University Study and working toward my goals..
Top tip for taking a gap year…
Lara: I would say to go with an open mind, say yes to things that seem scary, try new things, and listen to the stories of everyone you meet. Don’t be afraid to stay in one place for a long amount of time. I went to Zambia for six months and I have never found more joy in everyday life. I have found a home and a family here. Don’t be afraid to go solo, to travel alone, the best discoveries and best friends are made this way. Don’t be afraid to take the road less travelled, you don’t have to go to University or enter the workforce right out of high school, and you won’t be left behind. Its called a gap year but it is not a gap in anything, it is an addition, an experience, an adventure. There is no way you will ever regret taking time to travel and help out.
What to expect while volunteering on your gap year…
We were both quite nervous about spending the whole six months in one program but in the end it was so worthwhile. We made friends whose Gap Years consisted of three or four IVHQ programs who saw a range of different cultures for shorter amounts of times and they loved experiencing that too. But for us, staying in one place meant we became such a part of the local community. We volunteered at Banvel Academy, a preschool in Maramba, Livingstone. We had around 50-60 kids each day in a school, which was also the headteacher’s house and backyard. We taught all age groups and subjects and had so much fun learning the ropes of teaching. We got to see our students grow both intellectually and physically. Their eagerness for learning and zest for life brought us happiness every single day without fail.
But volunteering did not end with the project we had picked. Volunteers ran weekly running and soccer clubs with the neighborhood kids. We spent time helping out at an art club and a community feeding program. We helped build a nearby school. We visited Elderly homes with tea parties and dancing. Some volunteers helped out at art galleries. We ran a neighborhood carnival-day. There are so many fun, fulfilling, ways to volunteer!
And of course Livingstone is extremely beautiful and full of wonder. We spent many afternoons at the Victoria Falls, a natural wonder of the world. A popular weekend trip is a camping safari in Botswana or seeing the falls from Zimbabwe. There are bungee jumps, animal encounters and so many more awesome activities. And because we were living in one place for so long we got to travel around during that time, going to Lusaka for a short trip and spending a few weeks in Namibia.
Living in a volunteer house was absolutely perfect for us. It was just like staying in a very tight-knit, small university hall. We bonded with other volunteers so quickly and felt at home. The lounge was full every night, people playing cards, watching the olympics, reading, preparing schoolwork and telling stories. We even ran our very own olympic games and presidential elections! The house had amazing staff who we became close with too. The life in Livingstone Town was awesome, there were cafes we went to regularly for good wifi, supermarkets for all the snacks you could want, markets to find awesome gifts and so many different restaurants to try. By staying in the volunteer house for so long we met so many amazing people who became family. There were a large number of young people on a gap year or university holidays in Zambia so it was cool to see people our age doing cool things, but we made friends with all different kinds of people and now we have friends from all over the world from Mexico, Colombia and USA to Netherlands, India and Australia. Friendships of a lifetime.