Ask the Expat
Exploring Gap Year Options Abroad
by Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Editor
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 in a recession, job opportunities are especially scarce for recent graduates, and the job market has also tightened for established professionals. But being 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 few and far between here at home, going overseas is a great way to gain valuable experience, while waiting for an economic recovery back home. Instead of working at a burger joint or moving back in with mom and dad to ride out the recession, it is much more productive and helpful for your future career, employment, or studies, if you make use of this downtime by going abroad.
A Newsweek article in January of 2009 reported that 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 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 only 0.5% in 2009—the slowest growth rate since World War II. This does not mean that there are no 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.
Author's note: This column has an interactive format, and readers are encouraged to submit questions, suggestions, and commentaries, some of which will be addressed in the upcoming issues of the Transitions Abroad Webzine. If you have questions about living abroad that you would like have addressed, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Volker Poelzl is a frequent contributor to Transitions Abroad. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.