Published on January 22, 2014 | by Catherine Van De Stouwe

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Volunteering to add value to your gap year

LCC student Jessica Murray feeds an elephant during her trip to Africa

Jessica Murray always knew she wanted to volunteer with animals [Jessica Murray]

Today, it’s common for students to put off starting another year of studying by jetting off in search of sunnier climates.

However, in a time where it is no longer just about where you have studied, but the experience gained along the way, it’s easy to see why taking a year out merely to sightsee is becoming less appealing to students.

But this does not mean that students should avoid taking a year out, as time away can be used to an advantage.

Taking a volunteering vacation means that, with a side of hard work, you will get to see the world; experiencing the sights and sounds from the local’s perspective that the average tourist would not normally see.

Caitlin Cronin, who is taking a year out between finishing her undergraduate degree and starting her MA in Translation at Durham University this October, is currently on a five-week placement at an orphanage in Tanzania: “I don’t think you can ever really see a place unless you’re interacting with locals and learning about it through their eyes.

“I recently spent time at a women’s shelter which looks after and educates local women and girls who have been abused by family and employers. I saw a side to Tanzania I would not have otherwise been exposed to.”

Lauren Bridgeman working at an african orphanage whilst on her gap year

Lauren Bridgeman said the hardest thing about her trip was the extreme poverty [Lauren Bridgeman]

Most volunteering trips are limited in time and travel, but longer getaway trips can be extended to other countries, allowing you to volunteer and experience a number of different projects.

With careful planning, Cronin has managed to create a volunteering world trip: “I previously spent two weeks in a school in Vietnam. From March onwards I’ll be travelling again, either volunteering at a homeless shelter in the States or doing more backpacking, and volunteering as I go. That will likely be back in Africa – Uganda and Rwanda.”

Around the world

After volunteering in Ethiopia, Mongolia and Thailand, Beth Straw, a second year BA Textile Design student from CSM, decided the only way she was going to see the real India was through a volunteering placement at an orphanage in Madurai.

“You learn more about a country by working with its people. Its hard seeing how little the girls have,” Straw said. “It’s a much simpler life but it’s rewarding working with them and making friendships. [It] puts things into perspective when you get back.”

“Hygiene & cleanliness was also a huge challenge for me; our shower was a bucket of rain water a day.” – Lauren Bridgeman, volunteer

With a variety of projects set up across the world, volunteering does not necessarily have to be based in orphanages and classrooms.

Jake Woodier, a third year Marine Biology student at University of Essex, spent two months on Boa Vista in the Cape Verde islands with The Turtle Foundation.

“Through education I have learnt a lot about environmental destruction and how conservation efforts need to be dramatically improved,” he told Arts London News. “The work that we were doing was patrolling beaches to stop poachers from killing Loggerhead Turtles.”

Jess Murray, a third year Journalism student at London College of Communication, also did her volunteering in the animal kingdom.

“I researched a lot of different places but always knew that I wanted to volunteer with animals,” Murray said. “I chose South Africa because it’s a great place for the particular animals that I wanted to work with and this particular reserve [the Kwantu Game Reserve] offered a range of activities.”

Broaden horizons

Volunteers working at a food bank

Volunteering does not have to be based in orphanages and classrooms. [wikimedia:US Navy]

While a normal back-packing gap year will broaden the traveller’s horizons, volunteering will give them something other than hundreds of photos to sift through once they return home.

Those who choose to volunteer, enjoy being able to give something back to the community. “I really enjoy the thought of providing some form of help and support to those who need it,” said Cronin.

She added: “When working with children I feel it’s hugely beneficial for them to experience interaction like that … from an early age.”

Having been interested in the environment from a young age, Woodier will never forget his time with The Turtle Foundation: “Seeing them in reality, making their nests and laying eggs and then returning to the ocean safely was one of the most beautiful and incredible things I have ever seen in my life.”

That being said, volunteering is not for the faint hearted.

Lauren Bridgeman, a third year Journalism student at London College of Communication, spent four weeks teaching in Africa: “Ghana, culturally, looked the most ‘far away’ from the life I live. The hardest thing was the extreme poverty. Hygiene & cleanliness was also a huge challenge for me; our shower was a bucket of rain water a day.”

Building friendships

Woman volunteering with children of poverty

When volunteering, building friendships can make it hard to leave. [flickr:Dylan Walters]

Once accustomed to the cultural differences, building friendships with those you are working with can make it hard to leave.

Cronin explains: “When working with children, [leaving] is a hundred times harder. Crying children begging you not to go is heart breaking.”

If you are looking for an easy holiday, volunteering will not be for you. However, it would seem that once a volunteer, always a volunteer.

Cronin has been volunteering since she was 14: “I don’t plan on ever stopping. [Volunteering] provides me with a lot more insight and helps me see the world differently.”

Bridgeman said: “It’s such a beautiful, happy and simple way of life out there. Family, food and health is what they live for. I think I’m going to go back when I graduate, and would recommend it to anyone.”

Whether staying local or flying out to the ends of the Earth, there are many ways in which you can volunteer and help make a difference to communities in need.

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