Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

The Allure of the Gap Year Abroad

Why volunteering, working, and traveling abroad or at home is an increasingly popular historical alternative to an immediate move from high school to college. The gap experience is now an accepted way of learning for North American students.

Gap Year Abroad
A gap year is a great alternative more and more students are enjoying.

Once completely unknown in North America, the concept and even the term “gap year” is gathering momentum, with the benefits of the gap year becoming clear, accepted, and well-documented. As an illustration, Malia Obama took a gap year before entering Harvard, which "encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work, or spend time in another meaningful way" as part of its admissions advice. Princeton University has introduced a prestigious Bridge Year Program for a select group of students to spend a year volunteering in locations such as Bolivia, China, India, Indonesia and Senegal before starting university. The objective here is “to provide participants with an international perspective and intercultural skills, an opportunity for personal growth and reflection, and a deeper appreciation of service in both a local and international context”. These benefits—in addition to a much-needed release from academic pressure — are becoming accessible to far more than just Princeton and Harvard students.

Increasingly, college admissions officers acknowledge the benefits for some students (not all) who need time to mature, gain confidence and clarify their direction. Most academic institutions allow deferral. For example the stated policy at Johns Hopkins University is typical: “Students who have been accepted to the university may defer admission for up to two years with approval from the director of undergraduate admissions. The purpose of a deferral is to allow students to take time off in order to travel, work, or experience another culture. Deferrals are not granted for the purpose of studying at another institution.”

Canada has definitely seen an upsurge of interest in taking a year off before university. Work abroad programs are offered by called SWAP, where you can find out about their work and volunteer abroad programs in Britain, Ireland, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Thailand and China.

Why Take a Gap Year?

Young people approaching the end of school (or university) are uniquely privileged to be able to contemplate taking three, six or 12 months off before going on to the next phase of their lives. Some parents and other onlookers may still feel a knee-jerk resistance to the idea of ‘interrupting’ an education or a career to take a year out. But those doubting Thomases are beginning to look rather blinkered in an age that attaches great value to flexible learning and a healthy work-life balance.

Students with an eye to their marketability may want to consider options that will enhance their university applications or their CVs in later life. Au pairing in Berlin or Madrid for example is an obvious choice for linguists, joining a dig at a mediaeval abbey in France or a Roman temple in Israel a good introduction if planning to study history or archaeology, and working with a solidarity NGO in Latin America ideal for students interested in international relations. Students wishing to pursue environmental courses can choose from a vast array of conservation projects which welcome volunteers, mostly for short periods, for example to protect nesting turtles in Greece, carry out surveys of reef damage or construct nature trails in Scotland. At a very rough estimate expect to pay about $200 a week plus travel expenses for the chance to get some hands-on conservation experience.

Programs cover an astonishing range of opportunities. For example one organization accepts aspiring journalists on a scheme in La Paz to write for the English language newspaper Bolivian Express, while exotic destinations such as the Maldives offer possibilities for enthusiastic young people to help out in schools.

Most good gap years comprise a medley of activities which complement one another, work and play, earning and spending, challenge and self-indulgence, worthiness and fun. A dramatic increase in the number of programs and schemes providing structured gap years has accompanied the rise in market interest, particularly in the UK.

The Many Gap Year Options

The range of choices can be overwhelming — monitoring lemurs in Madagascar, teaching English to Burmese refugees, picking fruit in New Zealand to fund some adventure travel, surveying coral reefs in the Philippines, being a counselor at an English-language summer camp in France, learning Spanish in Guatemala, and so on. Most young people find that as they daydream in front of their computer or cappuccino, one or two ideas swilling around will eventually float to the top. Some placements are straightforward to arrange and require not much more than phoning a partner agency, filling out some forms and paying a fee. Ay, there’s the rub. Pre-arranged placements are seldom self-financing, with both companies and charities charging upfront fees of many thousands of dollars for, say, a 3-month attachment to a village school in Ghana.

Relying on footwork and local inquiries can be a different means to the same end and much cheaper than using the services of a mediating agency. The trouble is that not many 18-19 year olds have the confidence and maturity to arrive cold (or, rather, very hot) in Sri Lanka, Kenya or Mexico and locate a school or other project willing to provide housing in exchange for their help. Nor are their parents willing to let them try.

Directories for Gap Years

One good starting place—apart from TransitionsAbroad's section on gap years—to research organized programs is the website USA Gap Year Fairs, which has links to dozens of gap year providers. Two American gap year programs, Dynamy and Thinking Beyond Borders, co-sponsor a national circuit of 30 Gap Year Fairs across the U.S. Extensive resources for planning can be found on British sites such as Gap Year Travel, the largest gap year community in the UK dedicated to helping people plan and prepare for a gap year. Users can find travel companions, access a database with thousands of opportunities, and pose questions on the message boards.

A handful of specialist companies in North America maintain databases of gap year semester and volunteer programs. Consultancies like the Center for Interim Programs offer personalized consultations to fee-paying clients seeking to be matched to a suitable work, volunteer or study placement abroad.

Of course many Americans taking a gap year do not leave the shores of their country. Some who may be undecided about the next step may join the national service program AmeriCorps, which has been described as a domestic Peace Corps. In exchange for 1,700 hours of community service over a 10-month period, AmeriCorps volunteers aged 17–24 receive an education voucher, living allowance and invaluable life experience.

Practical Tips For Your Gap Year or Semester
  • Plan early
  • Look at the advice concerning personal safety given by the Department of State which publishes country-by-country travel warnings and alerts at, highlighting any potential dangers to American travelers such as coups, terrorist activity, natural disasters, epidemics, etc.
  • Be aware of the laws, customs and dress code for the country. Online and conventional guidebooks should provide all this information.
  • Online banking is a great way to manage your finances while you are away. But many internet cafés are slow and access may not always be easy so don’t leave important transactions until the last minute.
  • Calculate how much money you will need for your trip and make sure you have some extra. Find out if you can use a credit or debit card to withdraw emergency funds at your destination and think about what you would do if your card is lost or damaged.
  • Research health requirements online and visit your doctor for advice on inoculations and malaria prevention if relevant.
  • Contact the relevant embassy or consulate of your chosen country for visa information. Be aware that you will not be able to obtain a visa that authorizes work without the full support of an employer abroad, which is very difficult to obtain. For tourist visa requirements, search on the site of a commercial visa agency.
  • Shop around for travel insurance and make sure you are covered for everything you intend to do such as scuba diving or bungee-jumping.
  • Make sure your family or friends at home are aware of your travel itinerary.
  • If you are participating through an organization, ask for the contact details of a couple of recent volunteers to request first-hand feedback.
  • Consider getting a cheap local mobile phone on arrival or a local SIM card for your cell phone.
  • Send scanned images of important documents (passport, insurance info, plane tickets) to your email account for ready access.
  • Most importantly have a ball. Pay attention to your instincts and aim to achieve that perfect balance between traveling safely and enjoying yourself. If you are over-cautious you might miss out on something amazing, but at the same time you want to avoid unnecessary risks.

Gap Year Programs and Organizations

Of the thousands of organizations large and small throughout North America which are involved with student exchanges and assisting young people to undertake worthwhile volunteer projects or internships abroad, here is a small selection.

Abroader View Volunteers. 245 affordable volunteer projects in 27 countries.

Adelante. Gap year, internships, volunteer placements, teaching abroad and semester/summer study opportunities from 1–12 months in Spain, Mexico, Chile and Uruguay, as well as China and Scotland.

ARCC Gap Years and Semesters. ARCC Gap Year programs offer an educational and cultural bridge between high school and college. Students are immersed into the culture through homestays, service work, teaching, and exchange. Offers semesters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS). Gap Year programs in Latin America. AMIGOS operates summer and Gap programs in nine countries throughout the Americas — in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panamá, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. With AMIGOS, you'll be immersed in another culture, collaborate with your host community on a development project, and work side by side with local youth meanwhile building your own leadership skills. AMIGOS Gap programs are located in Nicaragua and Colombia, range from 4-8 months and are open to high school graduates up to 25 with basic Spanish proficiency.

BUNAC. Administers a number of programs for US students and young people including an Internship in Britain, Work in Ireland, Work Australia, and Work New Zealand.

CIEE: Gap Year Abroad. Offers college-bound high school graduates an opportunity to acquire a broader global perspective, foster independence, and gain self-knowledge in six countries. Programs accelerate language growth through classes and immersion into a foreign community, the opportunity to live with a host family, and experience abroad participating in organized volunteer work in the local community.

Global Routes Gap. Experiential-based, international programming for high school and gap year students. Programs abroad are directed by service, deepened through immersion, broadened with adventure and contextualized by leadership. Through this combination, participants may gain profound perspectives of another country, cultures, the world, and themselves. Examples of destinations include Nepal, Bolivia, Ghana, Haiti, and South India.

Global Visions International: Gap Year. Large range of expeditions and volunteer projects worldwide for pre-college teens, college students, and graduates.

InterExchange: Working Abroad. Homestay tutors in Spain; au pair placements in France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand; short-term work in Australia and New Zealand; volunteer opportunities in South Africa, Tanzania, India, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Argentina and Australia.

Projects Abroad Gap Year Programs. Volunteering overseas, for those who have completed high school, in large range of countries and work experience placements in medicine, media and other fields in selected destinations.

SWAP (Student Work Abroad Program). Program of the Canadian Federation of Students that co-ordinates a working holiday program for Canadian students and non-students in the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and South Africa.

United Planet: Gap Year Volunteering Programs, In Person and Virtual. Gap programs in 30+ countries. United Planet provides a variety of programs, even in more than one country, for a virtual experience of another culture.

Youth International. Fall and Spring semester experiential learning programs, with college credit via Western Colorado University, in South America and Asia for 18-25 year olds, that combine international travel, inter-cultural exchange, adventure, volunteer community service work, and homestays.

Where There Be Dragons. Gap year semester programs (3 months starting February or September) in Asia, Africa and Latin America (aimed at 17–22 years olds).

Susan Griffith specializes in books for travelers exploring ways to work and volunteer abroad. She has written a number of acknowledged classics including Your Gap Year and Work Your Way Around the World, as well as Teaching English Abroad and Gap Years for Grown-ups, all revised and published in new editions.

Editor's note: Please see Susan's bio page to find out more about her and to conveniently order any of her books, including Your Gap Year.

Related Topics
Teen Study and Volunteering Abroad
Gap Year Programs Abroad

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