When I was 18 I was completely determined to get out of the town that I’d lived in all my life. This is a suburban town right on the south west corner of London. It has a glorious past – the first King of England, Athelston, was crowned here back in the early 10th century – but has faded into a faintly boring commuter town replete with suburban nightclubs and far too many dubious gastro pubs.
I wanted to get away. This was before I had become interested in global development or, for that matter, anything that might be associated with a job. When I was 6 I had decided that I wanted to be a novelist but even then I realised that this wasn’t a very likely career. I knew that, before the inevitable world tours, chat show appearances and Nobel prize, I’d probably have to do a real job first. What real job I might do was a line of thought I steadfastly ignored, despite my parents’ desire for me to go into corporate law and make some money. (Do not, even in passing, tell your parents you might, you guess, be interested in law, sort of – you’ll never hear the end of it.)
A gap year seemed sensible. I’d been in school for a long time and was liable to go back into it for another few years, taking a pause in the pursuit of academic excellence (no sniggering at the back) was a useful breather. At first I thought I might go down to the alps and work as a chalet rep, trading long work hours at minimum wage for an exciting, boozy lifestyle – perfect preparation for student life. However, it was a friend who suggested we go volunteer with a charity our school supported out in Uganda. It sounded like an adventure and, you never know, we might do some good while we’re at it. We went for six months but I stayed for a year.
Predictably, we almost certainly didn’t do much to help – untrained volunteers often don’t – but we did stick at it. We met the daily grind of frustration and problems without throwing in the towel which is almost certainly the most useful thing I’ve learned my very short career. We met hundreds of interesting, intelligent, committed people who wanted to try and help people for the rest of their lives. That was a revelation: I’d never thought of ‘charity’ work as an actual job before, just something people did on the side. This wasn’t because I thought it wasn’t important, quite the contrary, but because, probably, the most attention I’d ever paid to the third sector previously had been during Comic Relief – that certainly seemed part time and kind of dumb. Suddenly there was a whole new industry open to me, one that let its workers travel and learn and challenge themselves; it demanded creativity and commitment; and, maybe most importantly of all, it had a soul. I was hooked.
I switched courses and universities four months into that year out. I didn’t want to sleepwalk my way through an English Literature degree anymore, I wanted to learn how I actually might go about helping people now that I’d realised a) I could do that and b) I didn’t actually know how to do that. I’m halfway through that degree – Social Sciences at the University of Bath – and impatient for more. I’ve written a couple of posts on Masters degrees for development before, which have garnered some fascinating responses, although I am still undecided on what I’ll do after I finish my undergrad.
I am a member of the Aidsource beta, a social network for aid/development workers to share and learn with like-minded people, which is run (at least in part) by J. Formerly of Tales From The Hood. Even though it’s in its early days I find myself going back there more and more as a hub for useful information and links to some very interesting development bloggers and thinkers. With such a lot of expertise I thought I could post my masters queries there to get some good feedback. I thank all those who have replied, particularly those who have told me to wait,
I think its perfectly possible to get a few years of experience under your belt, either through volunteering or working, until you need to go to grad school.
I will pop in and say if I’d actually entered the grad programs I got into right out of undergrad, I’d be miserable. Public Health hadn’t even crossed my mind yet – I was all poli sci and Middle East studies. Turns out health is my passion. I only waited a few years, but I am glad I did.
…it’s good to take that break and get that clarity. I’d strongly recommend it. But manage it – make sure you do come back and complete that MA.
So now I find myself contemplating another gap. My instant thought is that I want to get my degrees out of the way as soon as possible so I can sink my teeth into a job, really get to grips with it. But perhaps tempering that rush is a good thing, even if it means heading back to that little suburb in the bottom left corner of London for a little while longer.