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A Life-Changing Experience

A Life-Changing Experience PDF Print E-mail

Thinking of taking a gap year? Well-travelled gappers explain the impact their year out had on their lives…



After working hard at school, Kathryn Campbell felt that she really needed a gap year before she began the five years of study required before she could qualify as a doctor. Worried that she might burn out if she didn’t take a break, Kathryn took action and went on a gap year that would be relevant to her future. She opted to work as a nurse in Japan with Gap Activity Projects in the year between leaving school and starting her medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. “It gave me a break which was good, and it was education in a different way,” she says of the six months she spent at a Red Cross hospital in northern Japan.

As one of only three western volunteers there, Kathryn worked as an auxiliary nurse, carrying out personal care duties, changing dressings and bathing patients. Although the work was basic, it gave her a good idea of what area she wanted to specialise in when she qualified. “The ward that I was on was internal medicine,” she explains, “and there were quite a lot of patients with cancer. I realised that I’d be interested in doing that sort of thing in the future.” But although she helped many people while in Japan, Kathryn is quick to dismiss the idea that her gap year was all about making a difference to other people’s lives: “If you’re brutally honest about any gap year, you are the one who gains more than anyone else,” she admits.

When Kathryn began employment as a fully qualified junior doctor at a hospital in Livingstone this August, she was reminded of a specific gap year memory. “I was feeling quite nervous about my first day in my new job,” she admits. “I suddenly recalled watching one of the doctors in the hospital talking to patients. I remember thinking then, that’s why I want to do medicine.”


Iain Soutter didn’t know what he wanted to do when he finished school at 17, but a gap year spent working on community projects at a sugar plantation in Tanzania changed all that. Iain, who is originally from Arran, admits that his gap year opened up a whole new world of opportunity: “When you live somewhere like Arran the world is a very small place. Once you go away you’re in such a different environment and you’re the odd one out. There are so many places I want to go and things I want to do now.”

During his time away, Iain volunteered with Gap Activity Projects, helping to develop sustainable enterprises on a sugar plantation by planting trees, working with local farmers and teaching school children. Since returning home, life has changed a lot. Iain admits that when he was at school he was one of the quietest members of the class but says: “I came back a completely different person. I’m a lot more outgoing and proactive – that’s the reason I ended up going to university. I’m determined that I want to get back out there and get involved in fair trade schemes and sustainable businesses.” Now in the fourth year of a business studies degree at the University of Glasgow, Iain wants to use his knowledge and experience to make a difference in countries like Tanzania. “Volunteering during my gap year benefited me a lot,” he says, “and hopefully the work I was doing benefited other people as well.”


Graeme Acheson had been planning on leaving his home town of Edinburgh to go to university at the age of 17, but when the English university he’d applied for turned him down because he wasn’t old enough to stay in their halls of residence, the decision to take a year out had effectively been made for him. Being an active type, Graeme chose to travel to Canada with the organisation GAP SPORTS. Apart from enjoying the excellent opportunities on the ski slopes, Graeme met some friends for life, went paragliding, ice fishing, go-karting and golfing, as well as picking up a ski instructor’s qualification along the way.

Now that he’s old enough to stay in halls there, Graeme is on his way to Bristol University to undertake a degree in biology and maths. So will he use the skills he’s gained through his year out? Learning to live independently will come in handy for university life, but his gap year has benefited him in other ways as well, as Graeme explains: “It’s almost definitely provided a career as a ski instructor for me. There’s a very real possibility I’ll go into that because it’s something I love. Doing admin work over the summer has made me realise that I don’t want to work in an office. Doing something you love makes such a difference.”


Aberdonian Ashleigh Diez had always wanted to be a teacher but was surprised when she wasn’t offered a place after applying for a teaching degree, despite getting the grades she needed at the end of fifth year. Not feeling sure if she was ready to go to university anyway, Ashleigh decided to take a year out to gain some teaching experience. When she began researching her options she never imagined she’d end up teaching chemistry and English to a class of 130 kids in Malawi.

Soon after arriving at her school placement, Ashleigh faced a shock. Thinking she would be a teaching assistant, she was a little put out when she was handed a piece of chalk 10 minutes before the lesson began and told to teach because the usual teacher couldn’t make it. “I was like ‘what?’ I hadn’t even seen a curriculum or anything!” She quickly overcame that surprise, however, and felt immense pride at having students – who at first barely spoke a word of English – knocking on her door for help with their homework. As she always enjoyed acting, Ashleigh decided that setting up an after-school drama class would be a great way to help improve the students’ English skills and make a difference to their lives. It gave the young people the chance to interact on the same level as their teacher and share their opinions. “They would never talk about Aids or marriage over there. It just wasn’t done, but with the drama group they could act and sing about it. I think they enjoyed that because it made them feel more aware.”

Spending time in Malawi with Gap Activity Projects was a real eye-opener for Ashleigh, who was just 17 when she went on her placement. Although she saw a lot of poverty, she’ll never forget the people she met in Africa and when asked if she’d ever return, she says: “Hell yeah, I would go there in a shot! Just to be with all those friendly people. They have so little but they want to share it with you, and they’re so happy.” The experience has certainly made her more grateful for what she has: “If I’d gone straight to uni after school I don’t think I’d have applied myself,” she admits. “Because I’ve had this year out I’ve realised how bad some people have got it so I’m more determined to become a teacher. A lot of people don’t have the chance to go to university so I’m going to take that opportunity.” Thanks to the experience she gained on her gap year Ashleigh was accepted onto a teaching course at the University of Aberdeen after re-applying. She starts her degree this September.

Find out more

Gap Activity Projects
0118 959 4914

0870 837 9797