Ask the Expat
Exploring Gap Year Options Abroad
by Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Contributing Editor
Work abroad is just one of many options during a Gap Year.
I recently wrote about the challenges of moving abroad during difficult economic times. This month I would like to write from a different perspective and explore the possibilities and opportunities that await those who decide to go overseas during the current economic downturn. If you are experiencing an unexpected gap in employment or study here at home, why not think about a productive gap year abroad? The concept of a “gap year”—which refers to a year off between studies or between college graduation and work life—is slowly making its way across the big pond from the U.K. to the U.S. Although taking a year off after college is not as popular in the U.S. as it is in Europe, there are a growing number of college graduates and young professionals who are thinking about going overseas for a while.
With the U.S. economy exiting a recession,
job opportunities are still fairly scarce for recent
graduates, and the job market has also tightened for established
professionals. But if you are unable to find a good job does not
mean that you have to just sit around and wait for the economy
to pick up again. Since job opportunities are fewer interesting
and paying jobs here at home, going overseas is a great way to
gain valuable experience, while waiting for an economic resurgence
back home. Instead of working at a fast-food place or moving
back in with mom and dad to ride out the slower economic times,
it is much more productive and helpful for your future career,
employment, or studies, if you make use of this downtime by going
Many of President
Obama’s advisors have lived abroad, and that the number
of Americans studying and living overseas has drastically increased
over the past decade. This trend suggests that international experience
and knowledge of foreign cultures and languages are important
qualifications for a wide variety careers and not just for those
interested in international business, trade, and finance. I recently
watched a Bill
Moyers interview with Vartan Gregorian, the president of Carnegie
Corporation of New York (a philanthropic trust dedicated to higher
education), about the problems of higher education in America. At
one point Gregorian commented on our obligation as citizens: “We
need also to participate as citizens in the fate and future of
our country. So we cannot have a democracy without its foundation
being knowledge, in order to provide progress. And knowledge does
not mean only technical knowledge. But also you need to have knowledge
of our society, knowledge of the world. If we're a superpower,
world's greatest power, we should know about the rest of the world.” Gregorian’s
statement points out the importance of knowing about the world
beyond our borders, and the best way to learn about the world
is to travel abroad for more than just a vacation.
There are many things you can do overseas that will not only enhance your career potentials in the future but also help you gain a deeper understanding of foreign cultures and people. You can find an internship or volunteer position, study a foreign language, or teach English, all of which you can do without spending a fortune. Many internship positions pay a stipend, and some volunteer positions may also be able to offer a small stipend, reduced room and board, and sometimes even a small grant or scholarship to help pay for your expenses.
Going overseas during a time of relative
global economic slowdown is no doubt riskier than during a global
economic boom. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF),
the global economy is expected to grow at 3.5% in 2015, and the
growth in certain parts of the world has slowed. This does not
mean that there are less work opportunities abroad, but you should
do careful research before accepting an overseas job, to make
sure that you won’t
be laid off a few months after you arrive and have a back up plan.
If you are planning to study overseas, you need to make sure that
your student loan or grant is guaranteed before you leave home,
to avoid unpleasant surprises. If you plan to rely on credit cards
for some of your expenses, you should keep in mind that many credit
card companies are reducing credit lines and are looking for any
excuse to raise interest rates. Credit cards can come in handy
when living abroad, but they should not be your only means of
paying your way. At a time when credit is hard to come by, a certain
degree of financial independence is an important prerequisite
for going overseas, whether it is for work or study. You should
also prepare for your return and set aside some funds to help
you settle back in at home. I have studied and worked abroad in
a number of countries, and it always took me a few months and
a chunk of my savings to settle back in at home, get an apartment,
and find work.
For more information, check out the extensive Work Abroad and Study Abroad sections of Transitions Abroad, where you will find lots of articles and resources about meaningful ways to spend time overseas. You should also check out our Gap Year Jobs Abroad section, with additional resources for finding short-term employment.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.