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By Helen Green
This time last year, few people could have imagined the impact COVD-19 would have on our lives and studies. Year 12 students have had their final year of school disrupted from a learning and social perspective.
Many students taking a gap year have lost their jobs or had to return home early in their overseas travel/volunteering and now face decisions about ‘what to do’ for the remainder of the year.
Some students will commence tertiary study semester two if they can, work if they are lucky enough to secure a job or take advantage of some of the many short courses available to help people secure work or develop life skills, leadership skills and employ-ability skills.
It is certainly the year of resilience, though as restrictions ease, opportunities to work, volunteer, pursue a hobby or travel around Australia will increase substantially – especially in the volunteer space.
If you’re contemplating a gap year in 2021, keep in mind there are likely to be continued restrictions on travel to some countries and some gap year travel/volunteering programs will be adjusted accordingly. However, if you are prepared to be flexible, then do not feel you need to abandon your plans.
What you can do in a gap year in 2021
Have time out from study
Year 12 is stressful, particularly during a pandemic. Juggling a heavy study load, taking classes remotely and for many students, missing participation in extra-curricular activities such as sport, hobbies and/or part-time work is hard.
With households under pressure this year for a myriad of reasons, having some time out after year 12 makes sense. Many Year 12 students have struggled in isolation and missed the planned social activities that are part and parcel of the last year of school. Add the pressure of ATAR scores and the unhelpful and largely unrealistic idea that you should know what you want to do for the rest of your working life, and the idea of taking a year’s break is appealing.
Finding paid work is hard in a very tight job market, but the effort is worth it as it can help set you up for future success by providing you with valuable experience and some financial independence – quite apart from its value on your CV.
Whether you land an interesting job linked to your intended career path, or realistically not – any work matters and gives you a head start.
Voluntary work, which I discuss in more detail below, is also a smart move and arguably more accessible to young people at present. Whether you work full time, part time or in a voluntary capacity, always make the most of any training or professional development opportunities offered to you.
Travel (but do so safely)
Taking a gap year does not necessarily mean a year away travelling — with COVID-19, there may be ongoing restrictions around destinations and access to popular tourists’ sites. If you are keen to travel and it is safe to do so, then pack your bags.
You might consider an organised tour aimed at school leavers or go with a friend. Smart Traveller is an important resource, as your health and safety is paramount and during a pandemic.
If you’re lucky enough to travel around Australia or overseas during your gap year, make the most of it: work, do an internship or volunteer on one of the many important projects needing support.
The skills and perspective gained will be invaluable and for some of you, life-changing. At the very least, your travels might be an excellent talking point at future job interviews.
Keep a journal so you can record what you have experienced, skills learned and the people you met along the way.
Obviously, not everyone has the opportunity, interest, money, health, or maturity to travel overseas for their gap year for various reasons. Understandably, the COVID-19 pandemic will impact many decisions.
You might consider travelling during your degree instead, going on student exchange or travelling post-study. There is plenty you can keep busy with on a gap year at home.
Volunteering is almost guaranteed to pay dividends when it comes to your future work opportunities. Think broadly about the skills you possess and consider where you might put them to best use. If you know the career path you wish to pursue, you might like to volunteer in this area.
Before commencing a software development degree, a client of mine who took a gap year added to his skills considerably by working for a charity needing IT assistance for several months.
Whatever you do, volunteering helps build your confidence, life experience and contacts. You never know who you might meet and career specialisations you might be exposed to. I know several students who have changed their career direction/course because of undertaking voluntary work during a gap year.
Upskill and get fit
Use the time wisely. Get your driving license if you can, learn First Aid, brush up on your language skills (especially if travelling) or take a short, online course. You can also use this time to get as fit as you can in readiness for the coming year. The possibilities are endless.
Get connected with your university
If you have decided to defer and are happy with your university and course, immerse yourself in all it has to offer.
Universities are keen to engage with students who have deferred. Consider attending the occasional campus function, webinar or public lecture.
These can be excellent opportunities to meet staff, students, and alumni. Connect on social media groups and ask questions.
I’ve accepted an offer — should I start right away or take a gap year?
Do your research
This is where the gap year really comes into its own. Having left school, you probably have a bit more time to yourself and no study pressure.
Compare courses online, re-visit Open Days (even if they are online), check out new courses and speak to current students, alumni, and course directors.
Ask lots of questions, such as what support services are available to students, what the career outcomes of the course/graduate employment data, fees, professional accreditations, work-integrated learning options, specialised student support services like careers, disability services, etc.
Speak to others
If you have a few areas of interest, people are your best resource. Speak to as many people as possible who work or study in or have had recent exposure to occupations or sectors you are curious about.
In the best cases, a phone chat, virtual catch up or cup of coffee can lead to a ‘work shadowing experience’. Think of everyone you know in your social network and don’t be afraid to ask them for help. Seek a professional’s guidance with your career if you think it may be of benefit to you.
I know of students on their gap year this year who have used this time to do more career research and self-analysis than they otherwise would have. The pandemic will change the way we work long term, and with all its challenges, some sectors will emerge stronger.
Helen is a qualified careers practitioner and director of Career Confident in Melbourne. Previously, Helen worked in senior education and career program management roles, primarily at the University of Melbourne. This article was republished with permission — you can read the original version here.