Preparing for Your Gap Year
This is it. You’re done with school. Now is the perfect opportunity to get the wild hairs out of your system before you get settled into a typical "adult" routine.
There are a lot of outlets for young people to gain real-world experience in non-traditional ways after college, like teaching abroad, becoming an au pair, or volunteering across the world.
I took the teach abroad route for my first post-grad adventure, and you don’t have to have any teaching experience to be accepted. You generally only need a four-year degree from an accredited university and speak English as your native language.
If you choose to become an au pair (a live-in nanny for a foreign family in their country), you typically have to be between 18-26 (age restrictions vary by country and program), not married, have no children of your own and need to go to a country where you have a basic (but not perfect) knowledge of the language. This is because, for visa purposes, you must be enrolled in a part-time language class in your host country.
Regardless of the program you choose, here are some important questions you should ask both before making a decision and preparing you for arrival:
(A little shout out to my other half, Colleen Healy, who was my roommate during my time abroad in China. She contributed her questions to this list as well.)
The Questions You Need to Ask**:
How old is this program? (Important)
Can you put me in touch with someone who has completed your program? (Very Important!)
What are the program fees?
What kind of insurance does my school/host family take out on my behalf?
What kind of language courses will be available to me?
How many hours will I be expected to work each week?
What is my guaranteed time off each week/month?
What support does your company give me once I arrive at my placement and throughout my stay?
What happens when I have a problem with my school/host family that I cannot resolve on my own?
Are my flights reimbursed? And how/when will that happen?
What is the full list of expenses the company/school/host family is required to pay on my behalf?
What other out-of-pocket expenses will I be expected to cover?
What happens if I have something come up to where I cannot complete the entire duration of the contract?
What would be my living situation? Who is responsible for finding me an apartment, a house? Who pays the rent?
Am I allowed to refuse/decline overtime work?
How many/what kind of after school functions will I be expected to attend/participate in?
What grades/ages will I be teaching?
Will I be provided a laptop/electronics for the classroom? (Make sure software is available in English!)
Will I be provided any supplies for activities?
Will I be given a curriculum to follow?
What are the school’s policies on music, movies and entertainment materials in the classroom?
Will a Wi-Fi connection be already installed upon my arrival in my living quarters? (Colleen was without an internet connection for the first two weeks, living by herself in a foreign country with no way to contact anyone.)
Will there be other foreign teachers at my school / Will there be other au pairs, volunteers, etc. in my area?
Will there be opportunities provided by you (the company) to meet others from my program or similar programs in my area?
Will I be responsible for all of my own meals, or will my host family/school provide some or all meals?
**Do not accept vague answers to any of these applicable questions. Reputable and experienced companies will have detailed answers for you.
Other Things to Consider:
When it comes to how much you're getting paid, do your own research to see if it’s a fair amount for that area and line of work. Just because the company says it’s a lot of money doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
Don’t be afraid to inquire or apply with numerous companies at once.
Just because a program has little to no program fees doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice. The little amount you pay with them, could reflect how little they delegate on your behalf.
You are not required to sign a contract with your school/host family/company until all parties are satisfied with the contents. If there is something in your contract you are unclear about or would like to negotiate, say something!
If you are signing multiple contracts, find out which one has the last word.
Look up the company on review boards like Glassdoor.com.
Check out customer reviews on the company’s social media accounts.
Get as much in writing as possible! It might not help when handling a dispute, but it goes a lot farther than “he said, she said.”
Make sure you will be provided your written address in both the foreign language and in English for mailing purposes. Always have a well written address to give cab drivers, etc.
Make sure you know what will be available to you as far as public transportation goes if you will not be given a vehicle to drive.
Regardless if you are going abroad to work or to visit, it is important to be aware of the visa regulations at your destination. As Americans, our passports allow us into many countries without additional paperwork. However, even passports have limitations after 3 to 6 months. This is also why your passport is required to be valid for a certain amount of days beyond the date of entry, even if you are only staying for a week or two. Do your research on visas because it’s better than being turned away at TSA.
The best way to find what you need is by looking up the visas through your destination country's embassy. From there, you'll find a list of Consulate Generals in the United States. The consulate should have a map or list of the United States that shows which regions belong to which consulate (most of the time there is one in Texas, California, New York, Chicago, Atlanta or Washington D.C.). Once you determine which consulate accompanies your state and which visa you need, you can begin researching travel agencies that can handle your application. Unless you schedule an in-person appointment with the consulate, they will not accept mail-in applications from applicants. They must be submitted through an accredited agency.
Facebook Messenger - Free messaging and calling.
WhatsApp - Free text messaging.
WeChat - Free text messaging and voice messages.
Viber - Free text messaging and calling.
Skype - Free IM messaging, calling, and video calling.
XE Currency Converter - Free real-time currency conversion app.
Google Translate - Free language translation app.
Duolingo - Free language learning app and desktop program.
WordLens – An app that allows you to translate street signs in foreign languages.
Flight Track – A free app to get alerts and see statuses of all flights with major airlines.
PackingPro – An app to help make sure you don’t miss anything that should be on your packing list.
Other Gap Year Options:
Comforts & Protection
Create a PayPal account - Although it’s hard to believe, not all countries accept major credit cards like Visa and American Express. It’s good to have a PayPal account as a backup option in case you don’t have any of the credit cards the website you are purchasing through accepts.
Invest in a VPN - A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is most handy in Communist countries where internet freedom is limited by the government. However, you can use VPNs anywhere and they allow your computer to be rerouted through a United States IP address so you can still see the American version of Netflix, get on Facebook, your email, and all the websites you can access at home. The best advice is to purchase and download it before you leave. I had StrongVPN (strongvpn.com) and it worked great!
Look into airline rewards programs - If you are flying all the way to the other side of the world, you might as well rack up airline mileage points for it.
Let your bank know when/where you are going and for how long - The last thing you want to deal with is having your card declined in a foreign country.
Register with the US Embassy for their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program - This way, you will be alerted of any dangers that could affect you as an American, and this also gives the embassy a way to keep tabs on where Americans are if a dire state of emergency takes place (step.state.gov).
It may seem overwhelming, but even the process of living abroad brings many valuable life lessons. You are better off doing your research beforehand rather than trying to deal with it when you are thousands of miles away with limited resources at your disposal.
It’s also completely natural when embarking on an adventure like this to feel you are leaving everything behind, your friends will move on without you, you’re going to miss out on so much, etc. But in reality, as much as you are going to evolve and change over the time you are abroad, you will come back home and quickly realize that everything and everyone is pretty much exactly the same as when you left.