Miércoles 7 de Septiembre de 2005, Ip nº 125

Tsunami effect lifts gap teens
Por Martin Bentham

As thousands of British students wait for their A-level results and plan global jaunts, many are swapping hedonism for altruism.

Devastating images of the Asian tsunami have put paid to the traditional gap year: instead of going on a drink-fuelled tour of the world's bars and beaches, an increasing number of young Britons are putting off university to work in developing countries.

Gap year organisations say the sight of aid workers pouring into Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the other places affected by the Boxing Day tragedy has led to a 'tsunami effect'.

Among the placements which have seen a surge in demand are those involving building hospitals and schools, and teaching or caring for street children in Africa, Asia and South America. Placements on environmental schemes are also reported to be growing in popularity. The new trend emerged as figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that more than 35,000 prospective undergraduates have so far applied to defer their studies by a year - a 10 per cent rise on the figure for the same time this year.
The increase comes despite the growing burden of debt faced by students, which the National Union of Students estimates to be more than £1,000 by the time the typical undergraduate completes their studies. This will be added to in 2006 with the introduction of top-up fees of up to £3,000 per year, although those who agreed their gap year with their chosen university before 1 August will not have to pay the extra charge when they start their studies.

Louise Clark, a spokeswoman for STA, the student travel service which organises trips for 500,000 British students each year, said that despite the increasing debt, there was a significant jump both in the number of teenagers wanting to take a gap year and of those who wanted to use their time off to benefit others.

She said: 'The majority of students we are dealing with are now doing constructive gap years, building schools or working on some other project in the developing world. We think it's the tsunami effect - students saw all the relief work that went on there and now want to do something themselves. There is real scope to do something constructive, whether it be building a hospital in Honduras, working with street kids in Brazil or coaching rugby in Fiji, and we are seeing an awful lot more people choosing to do something like that.'

Tom Griffiths, founder of ,A HREF="http://www.Gapyear.com">Gapyear.com, one of the largest gap year organisations, agreed, saying that while many students were still opting for a conventional beach-dominated backpacker itinerary, there was also an increase in the numbers organising placements in developing countries.

'Post-tsunami everyone is becoming more altruistic,' he said. 'It's not really possible to work on dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami itself because that's still at the disaster relief stage, but there are lots of other options for gap year placements doing something worthwhile. Projects helping street children around the world are popular and there are also many opportunities to work on helping other young people in developing countries through community projects or building schools everywhere from South American to Africa and Asia.'

Among those taking a gap year is Ceara East, 18, from Peasenhall, Suffolk, who intends to take a degree in acting next year but is first going to spend three months teaching English at a village school in India followed by two months working at a children's sports camp in South Africa. Some of the money she is paying for her South African placement will fund a place from a child from a deprived background to attend the camp.

'I wanted to take a gap year and experience different cultures, and I thought it would be much better if, rather than just take as a tourist, I could do something that could help people and put something back. A lot of my friends are doing similar things - teaching English, working in conservation and things like that - and I think there's a lot of awareness now about what needs to be done in the world and what we can do to contribute.'

Claire Tustin, 17, from Cheltenham, who has been offered a place to study English and Education Studies at Cambridge next year, expressed similar sentiments. She will travel to Ghana next month to teach English for five-and-a-half months and is relishing the prospect.

'I want to be a teacher, and I wanted to go to a Third World country to experience different children and different ways of life so this is an ideal way of combining the two,' she said.

'I'm looking forward to seeing how the children progress with their English, and we're also going to organise some after-school activities - things like rounders and football - so that we can help them socially as well as academically. There are not going to be a lot of resources there but I'm looking forward to it.'

Nancy Steward, an 18-year-old student in Norwich, who is planning to study maths and management at Edinburgh University next year, will travel to work in a shanty town in Sri Lanka on Saturday for eight weeks. She said that although she had been planning the trip since last year, the tsunami had inspired her and her friends to do something constructive with their year off.

'I think there has been a change. My cousin is going to South America to work with children, my boyfriend is in Ghana now coaching basketball and I am going to work with kids in Colombo because we all wanted to do something positive,' she said.

Jo Ash, the marketing officer for Gap Activity Projects, which places 2,000 volunteers worldwide each year, said that as well as the impact of publicity about the tsunami, the Live8 concert had also stimulated demand for volunteering work. As a result, her organisation had seen a 10 per cent increase in applications from gap year students for placements in Africa, doing tasks ranging from path-clearing to work in schools.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, said he was pleased by the new trend, which he predicted would benefit students as well as those they were helping.

'I have always been convinced of the benefits of a gap year, and if people are doing constructive placements then that is even better. Gap years add to students' maturity and also add to their saleability in the jobs market when they leave university.'

From Somerset to Zimbabwe via Mexico

Philippa Rowney, an 18-year-old from Taunton in Somerset, is typical of the new breed of gap year travellers.

She is intending to study sociology next year at Birmingham University - this week's A-level results permitting - but is taking a year off first, which she will begin by travelling to Mexico where she will spend six weeks teaching English. After that, she plans to go to Zimbabwe to work in a lion-breeding conservation project near Bulawayo.

Like many teenagers, she admits that she was 'tempted' simply to follow the traditional backpacker beach itinerary, but is now pleased to be 'doing a bit of good for once'.

'I've had a privileged education so I wanted to give something back,' she said. 'They don't have many teachers out there so I want to go and help the children and learn some Spanish at the same time.

'Then, depending on the security situation, I'm going to go to Zimbabwe to do some conservation work.'

Philippa says that student debt and the looming prospect of top-up fees has deterred some of her classmates from taking a year out, but cites a friend who is going to Ghana 'to help in a village' as another example of the trend for students to take constructive gap-year jobs.

She, meanwhile, can hardly wait to start her travels. 'I'm quite nervous about it, but it should be good,' she said.

  14/08/2005. The Guardian.