The lucky ones: graduated just on time?

After one hour of waiting at Schiphol Airport, three cups of Starbucks cappuccino and seven orchestrated screams of excitement – followed by seven brief moments of disappointment when they turned out to be false alarm – Sasha’s tanned cheeks and sun-highlighted hair finally peeked across the corner. More screams were followed by hugs, tears, and a lot of curiosity to the brand new tattoo on her arm. The typical return from gap year travels.

Sasha Sydney

‘I’m really glad I got the opportunity to travel’, says Sasha (19), currently a first year student at Leiden University College (LUC) The Hague. This chance, unfortunately, is not for everyone.

As of September 2015, everyone who starts university in the Netherlands will most likely have to pay back the basic grant they get to support their studies. After a period of uncertainty surrounding the when and how of this measure, the Tweede Kamer has approved the bill on the 11th of November. Although it still has to be approved by the Eerste Kamer, the chances of it being rejected are really small, according to the Landelijke Studenten Vakbond (LSVb). In all likelihood, the current student financing system will be transformed into a social loan system by the next academic year, amounting to an average additional debt of over €15.000 per student. While this sum undoubtedly has its consequences for future students, they are not the only ones who are disadvantaged by this measure. Some current first-year students who do not get this additional debt feel disadvantaged by the announced transformation too, by having been discouraged to take a gap year between high school and university.

Indeed, Education First, self-proclaimed world leader in international education and organizer of international language courses, noticed a vast decline in applications for their arrangements, which are primarily targeted at youngsters taking a gap year. While one of their press releases in 2013 announced a wave of interest in their courses after the measure was delayed, their spokesperson tells me that such interest has not occurred this year. ‘Students just didn’t dare to take the risk this time.’

A shame, because taking a gap year has many benefits. Sasha elaborates on her experience: ‘I took a gap year because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school, and I’ve always wanted to travel. My dream was to see more of the world, meet new people, and experience different cultures.’ So she started working and finally flew out to Australia, where she visited Sydney and Melbourne, travelled up the East Coast, and did a road trip. ‘I came across nice little towns and amazing views, tanned on the beautiful beaches and met so many nice people.’ Besides the amazing experience and the many stories she has to tell, she notices that her English has improved and that she has grown as a person. ‘I feel like I know better what I want to do. Travelling has made me independent and confident, in meeting new people but also in general. And after my gap year, I also felt really motivated to start something new, something I liked and actually wanted to do.’ If something is certain, it is that Sasha will travel again, and the compass tattoo on her arm reminds her of that. ‘Sometimes people forget how beautiful this world is, how tiny we are and how little it all matters. I think travelling opens up your mind and frees you from the daily routine.’

‘Traveling opens up your mind and frees you from the daily routine.’

Ron van Dooren, teacher at Fontys Hogeschool Journalistiek, couldn’t agree more. ‘Some of my students have chosen to wait before starting their studies, to travel or to work. Generally, my impression is that these students are a lot stronger and more confident than their peers when they start studying.’ He believes that these students benefit from the additional time they get to decide what they want to study. ‘Students who take a year off after high school are often more conscious in their choice for further education. It’s hard to have to make these choices at such a young age – many youngsters have no idea what they want with their lives. And the final year of high school is busy enough; the last thing you want at that time is to have to make life choices. I have encountered many students who have made a wrong choice because they are forced to choose something. When they discover that their choice wasn’t the right one, that’s harmful to themselves and a waste of money.’ Additionally, he argues that when youngsters choose to spend their time travelling, working or volunteering, a gap year can contribute greatly to personal growth and independence.

‘Students are stronger and more confident after taking a gap year.’

Sterre (18), however, is one of the “unlucky ones” who graduated in 2014. After six long years of high school, she was ready for something new. Her interest in foreign cultures, combined with the influence of a family of travel enthusiasts, sparked her interest in gap year travels, and this interest was encouraged by her struggle to discover what she wanted to do with her life. ‘Whenever I finally decided which study I was going to follow, I changed my mind again. Nothing really got me excited for a long time. Even when I was already following classes at LUC, I was doubting my choice. Maybe I was simply not ready yet to go to university, and just needed to explore more of the world and myself first.’ Due to the prospected abolition of the basic grant, however, she couldn’t take a year off. ‘LUC is an expensive university. Without this money, I would create a huge debt.’ Although she now thinks she has chosen rightly, she tells me that she regrets the fact that she couldn’t use the opportunity of a gap year to get to know herself better and eventually increase her focus in her studies.

‘I just needed to explore more of the world and myself before going to university.’

These experiences show that the abolition of the basic grant has disadvantaged Sterre and others who might have wanted to exploit the many benefits a gap year provides. Let this be a lesson for future students for whom a gap year is once again relatively cheap. Studying will be expensive enough without wrong study choices and unnecessary delay; invest in a gap year to make up your mind about what you want to do and to learn about yourself and the world. It’s worth it.

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