Gap year gives time to find out where you're going

This column goes out to all those Nelsonians who have just left school and have no idea what they are going to do next.

Chances are there are hundreds of you in this position and some of you will be pretending otherwise. When you don't know what to do, it can be easier to go along with the crowd or your parents' plans.

Before big fees and student loans, this was pretty much a risk-free option but those days are history. The way Kiwis charge off to polytech and university straight from school has never made much sense to me. I mean, how many 18-year-olds have the faintest idea of what they want to be doing when they're 35, let alone 55?

Besides, unless you're loaded, chances are tertiary training is something you'll only get one shot at, so why blow it on a qualification that may have little or no relevance to your future?

Many of the happiest, most successful people I know didn't take the plunge into the world of degrees and diplomas until they'd had some fun, seen a bit of the country, had a look overseas and tried a few industries on for size. Some of them never went to polytech or university.

I could be wrong but I can't help thinking the pressure school leavers face to immediately get a qualification that will look good on their CV is symptomatic of our national inability to take much of a long-term view. For a society that likes to think of itself as laid-back, we are also pretty good at getting our knickers in a knot about the importance of having a plan and always being able to tell others what we're going to do next.

I know people who worked their arses off to get qualifications that seemed like a sensible idea when they were still in their teens only to announce upon graduating that they wanted to do something completely different with their lives. And while that must be frustrating, it's a better position to be in than those people who spend years in a job they do not enjoy because of the time, energy and money they invested in getting the paperwork to get started in that profession in the first place. I've met doctors like that.

The concept of having a gap year between school and tertiary study seems to be gaining popularity and I can't help thinking it makes a lot of sense - especially when you consider how many cool things you could do in such a year.

If I were having a gap year, I'd spend it working in a cafe, on a skifield and picking fruit. I'd see a bit of the country and if I came across a career that piqued my interest, I'd line up some unpaid work experience so that if I did decide to pursue studies in that field, I'd at least have a vague idea of what I might be getting into before I signed up for a loan.

One of the smartest young Nelsonians I know, Amber Dallas, took a year off before starting a BA in mass communications and politics at Canterbury University last year. Amber wasn't totally sure what she wanted to study but says her year working and travelling in Australia and Europe helped her clarify things; unlike some of her peers, who went straight to varsity and this year will be embarking on their third new course of study in three years. For Amber, those working holidays weren't just fun; they were educational.

"It teaches you a lot about how to manage your money and how not to manage your money," she says. Working 12-hour shifts at night in a factory in England making microwaveable meals for the minimum wage also made her think about her future. "It was horrific," she laughs.

Amber says that factory, and meeting people who had worked in it for 12 years, made her determined to study something she loved, which is what she is doing now - unlike people she knows who are "pissing around at university, drinking and getting Cs".

And what of the friendships she had with people who didn't take a year off?

"I'm still good friends with my friends from high school," she says.

"I think your true friends are your true friends, regardless."