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.