Advice for the deferred generation – what to do with an unexpected grounded gap-year |05 August 2021
In the following interview, Phil Brown, teacher and deputy head of the secondary school at International School of Seychelles, shares with us his thoughts and feelings about the gap-year that many students are having to take between completing their A-Level studies and attending their first year of university.
He also shares his advice on how these students can ensure that they use their time wisely and productively during this gap-year.
ISS teacher and deputy head of secondary school Phil Brown (Photo source: Phil Brown)
Seychelles NATION: You’ve mentioned how excited and impatient you were when you yourself were waiting to leave your hometown for university. Tell us about this time.
Phil Brown: Somewhere along the English coast, there is a locked garage full of the things I left behind when I came to Seychelles. Amongst the books and DVDs and warm winter coats, there is a box of mementos from my childhood, including a faded newspaper clipping from 2005. A staged photograph of five teenagers in front of a school, clutching envelopes and jumping up into the air. The headline reads something like ‘Local School Sees Record A-Level Exam Success – University Beckons’.
In the summer of 2005 I was 18 years old, living in a suburban town which was once officially labelled by the UK government as ‘the most normal place in Britain’[i]. I spent the holiday working part-time at a supermarket and doing some site-maintenance work for my school. I was restless and counting down the days until those A-Level exam results would arrive and give me my ticket out of town.
Photo source: Jobboom
My classmates were the same – we were bored and tetchy and keen to get away from the place we had known our whole lives. This is a near-universal state of mind for high-school graduates. We get to an age where it is time to go and be around people who have not known us since we were in nappies, and to walk down streets we haven’t known our whole lives, and to wrestle with all of the vibrant chaos that finds us when we leave the protection of our childhood homes.
Children spend their whole childhood being prepared to leave home… from their first day of school, their first sleepover at a friend’s house, the endless stream of movies and books for young people which focus on orphans or children separated from their families, and thrust into strange new environments filled with giants, or sorcerers or monsters.
Years later, in my time as a head of sixth form, I would recognise this mindset in my students. Each cohort of seniors would find their school, their country and their lives had all become somehow too small for them as they spent their lunch-breaks looking at photographs of the cities and campuses they would soon venture into, or planning out their wardrobes for when they would leave the year-round heat of Seychelles for the cold winters of Europe or India or North America.
Seychelles NATION: As you’ve rightly pointed out, many of these students are currently unable to embark on this part of their journey. What are your thoughts and feelings about this?
Phil Brown: It is another sad chapter in the story of Covid to see so many students deferring their university enrolments at the point where they would have been leaving town and developing their independence. Universities around the world are reporting surges in the number of deferrals from first-year students.
Photo source: QS Top Universities
The reasons for this are all too understandable; economic trends are making the financial obstacles to higher education too great, questions hang over the health and safety of un-vaccinated young people in the microbial breeding-ground of the college campus, and young people are rightly hesitant to accrue decades’ worth of student debt for a university experience which is being largely whittled down to a distance-learning service you can do from home.
If I was 18 in the year 2021, I know that I would probably do what so many young people are doing this year, and deferring entry to university in the hope that next year, the world will be a little less broken and universities will have returned to being immersive, interpersonal experiences rather than anxiety-triggering streaming services with a R2 million subscription fee.
I also know that, if my impulsive, inexperienced and financially idiotic 18-year-old self was faced with the prospect of a gap-year with little chance of going travelling… I’d probably do a really bad job of using that year wisely.
Seychelles NATION: What is your advice to students who are facing the prospect of a gap-year?
Phil Brown: Some young people come fully formed into the world with the budgeting, time-management and self-motivation skills to see them through the most heinous of situations with maturity and poise. If that’s you, then well done. But if you are currently faced with the prospect of an unexpected gap-year and have no idea what to do with that time, or if you are currently supporting a friend or family member in this situation, then the advice below is for you.
Photo source: The Baylor Lariat
Get planning and researching now
If you are aware that you are going to spend the coming year taking a pre-uni break, then now is the time to make a plan, if you don’t have one already.
Jumping into a gap year without a structured plan is like trying to play a song on a musical instrument you’ve never seen before; it will only frustrate you and everyone around you, and rob you of the wonderful experience you could have had.
Luckily, the internet is full of websites directed specifically at how to make the most of a gap year – so take the next few weeks soaking up all the wisdom you can!
Give yourself structure
One of the most important things to remember about your time at school is that it is the most intensely structured time of your life. Every minute of your day has an allocated location, supervisor, set of activities and an over-arching end-of-year goal in the form of exams.
For many people, this structure begins to feel incredibly restrictive by the time you get to your final year of school, and the freedom of un-structured days begins to look incredibly attractive. But be careful with this one… we have seen throughout the last two years of remote-working and home-schooling how the breakdown of routines and structures can lead us into the quicksand of languishing and malaise.
So my advice would be… at least for the first few weeks… give yourself a really tight structure for what to do in each hour of every day. Even if your entire day is spent doing fun things, write down what those things are going to be in advance and stick to it.
The reason for this is that you are teaching yourself to move away from the prescribed structure of the school day as you move towards creating your own structures for how you best want to use your time. It will be great preparation for the relatively loose time-structure of university, where you will be entirely responsible for dividing your time between study, attending classes, socialising, housework and all the other things that will be pulling at your attention.
Break up the year
I recently found myself listening to ‘The Gap Year Podcast’ when helping one of my students to plan out his year ahead. The host of that show had a really interesting piece of advice, which is to break the year up into four three-month chunks. This has a range of advantages, the biggest one being that it encourages you to get some diversity and variety in your year; three months is the perfect time to step out of your comfort zone, learn new skills, get comfortable and find your next discomfort zone. It is also a good way to make sure your year has the right balance of fun, learning, challenges and hopefully a bit of money-earning too!
Don’t stop learning
If there is one skill that everyone should maintain throughout their life, it is learning. It is also sadly one of the easiest skills to lose if you don’t nurture it.
If you are taking a year out of formal education before going to university, it is important to make sure that your ability to learn new things doesn’t dwindle this year. We can easily help to maintain our capacity to learn through the books we read, the movies we watch, the conversations we have and the people we choose to spend time with.
But I would also recommend that, if you are preparing yourself for undergraduate study in 2022, then try to do a couple of MOOCs this year. If you are new to the world of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), then you are about to discover an amazing world of pre-university learning available to everyone (with many of them being free).
Head over to a directory such as MOOC-List.com and choose from all the courses offered by the world’s best colleges and help get yourself prepared for the sort of subject-content you are going to be facing next year.
Acquire life skills and healthy habits
Ask most people about their first year of university and there is a fairly strong chance it will involve gaining significant amounts of weight (Americans it the “Freshman 15”) blowing the entire month’s budget by the fifth day of the month and not having enough left over to pay the utility bills.
So maybe this year is the perfect opportunity to learn how to make a few healthy dishes from scratch, make spreadsheets for balancing a monthly budget and cultivating all the life habits needed to keep your electricity and water consumption down to a minimum. I promise you – the people you’re living with will be grateful for seeing you do all of these!
The ideal situation would obviously be for you to find a job for this year which is directly linked to your chosen career-path, pays you lots of money and is happy to hire you with zero previous work experience.
Given how unlikely that is to happen however, it is important to remember the other important roles a job can have in making this year a success. If you can find any sort of paid employment to help get you through this year then, as long as it isn’t hazardous to your health, jump on the opportunity and enjoy the feeling of a pocket jangling with the fruits of your labour.
But if you aren’t lucky enough to find paid work, I would strongly recommend you try and get some sort of volunteer work, charity work or internship under your belt this year. Not only does it look good for future employers, but it is vital for building up your experience of being out in the world, interacting with a range of people and solving the sort of real-world problems which you need to be able to deal with every day when you leave home.
For any of these, you will need to make sure you have a well-written CV, so if you haven’t already done this then head onto the ‘How to Write a CV’ page on prospects.ac.ukand get putting together a document that will show potential employers what you have to offer.
For any business-owners reading this – please do your bit by making internship and entry-level opportunities possible available to the many young people needing to make this year productive.
Be a good housemate
If you are spending another year at home, then there is a good chance it means an unexpected extra year of living in your family home. Try to remember that this is potentially just as stressful for your family as it is for you – with an extra mouth to continue feeding and navigating their changing relationship with you while you are trapped in the limbo between adulthood and being a dependant.
So, if you are looking at the prospect of another year in the family home, try to take the opportunity to have the best last year in the family home possible. And if you can bear to hear the answer… ask your family if you have any annoying living habits that they want you to work on. It’s never an easy conversation to have but it could potentially save you a whole lot of un-necessary tension next year when you enter the world of roommates, dorm-buddies and communal kitchens!
And finally… always have a plan B
The regrettable, constantly repeated lesson of this past year is that nobody has any idea how things are going to turn out. In this unrecognisable world of mask-wearing, hand-sanitising, nose-swabbing, world-closing dystopia, it would be foolish to assume that we know anything about how next year will pan out. Sadly, this includes things which seemed so easy to take for granted in the past such as good high-school grades taking us to whatever universities we choose.
So the final thing to prepare for is what to do if the university-access you were counting on doesn’t happen. Whether that is through worsening of the pandemic, withdrawal of scholarship opportunities or your top-choice university collapsing under the economic pressure of this year, in a year like 2021, none of these eventualities are off the table.
So stay informed on all of these things and keep examining your options. Whether it involves a change of country, a change of specialism or an entire change of life-trajectory, make sure you are prepared. It will have taken you huge amounts of thought and effort to choose the path you are currently heading on, and these things are never easy to give up on. But if the landscape changes and you need to change your course, remember that it it’s better to see what’s in front of you and make the best of what you have available than to do nothing and simply get what you’re given.
It is my absolute hope that, in a year’s time, the world will be un-paused and you will all be packing your bags for your dream universities having spent this year getting a little older and wiser, and more capable of facing the world. No matter what happens however, remember to keep learning and growing and building towards the life you deserve.
I would like to sincerely thank former International School head girl and university deferral-veteran, Estelle Bonnelame for discussing her experiences with me and helping me put together the advice above. Congratulations on getting through your first year of Biomedical Science at Manchester University, Estelle!