Hannah Hardy (Class of 2022) talks to the Canberra Times about taking a gap year

Posted 07 Feb, 2024

Hannah Hardy's gap year was filled with adventure, hard work, new friends, risk and reward. And she wouldn't change a second of it.

Hannah Hardy’s gap year was filled with adventure, hard work, new friends, risk and reward. And she wouldn’t change a second of it.

After finishing year 12 at Radford College in 2022, Hannah was keen to spend a year working and travelling before starting a bachelor of pre-medicine at the University of Wollongong.

“I wanted to travel, I wanted to learn how to be independent. I just felt like it was a really nice opportunity at this age and kind of time in my life,” she said.

Taking a break between finishing school and starting higher education is a common choice, but research doesn’t necessarily support the perceived benefits of a gap year.

‘Not the best option’

Australian Catholic University Pro Vice-Chancellor Research Professor Phil Parker researched the effects of gap years on Australian and Finnish school-leavers.

His study found there were no significant benefits experienced by those who took a gap year, compared with those who did not, in areas including life satisfaction, career prospects, and personal growth.

“Concerningly, the research did find a difference when it came to university completion, with those who took a gap year more likely to drop out of their course compared with those who went straight to university,” he said.

Professor Parker said a longitudinal UK study also showed those who took a gap year had significantly lower hourly wages and weekly earnings later in life.

“Taking a gap year means they are starting their careers later, which reduces their lifetime earnings. When you add this to the greater likelihood of not completing their university course, taking a gap year is not the best option for most school leavers,” he said.

However, Professor Parker said the reason behind a gap year was significant, with some students needing to do so for their wellbeing and mental health.

“Taking individual circumstances and goals into account is important in determining why a student wants or needs a gap year, rather than just believing the hype that it is going to be an amazing, life-changing experience. The evidence does not support that often glamorised view,” he said.

Seeing the world

Hannah was inspired and encouraged by her mother, Kirstie Hardy, to take a year off study between school and university.

“She worked really hard in year 11 and 12. And I think there’s just an enormous amount of pressure on students these days to get the grades and get the right ATAR,” Mrs Hardy said.

Mrs Hardy took a gap year herself and found it changed her mindset after finishing school.

“It sets you up with a completely different mindset and has given yourself a bit of a break after those two years of just working really hard.”

Hannah’s gap year wasn’t always easy. She spent the first six months working at a cafe and as a nanny to save money. After living to a school timetable for 13 years, setting her own schedule of when to eat, work, socialise and exercise took some adjustment.

She started her travels with a family holiday in Europe in June and then set off backpacking around the continent with her friend until November. The final three weeks she spent travelling solo.

She ticked off Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, central and eastern Europe. She learned a lot about meeting new people and how to get herself from place to place.

She even had a heart-stopping moment where she had to hitchhike with two Belgian men in a remote part of Albania – something her mother was glad to discover after the event.

Hannah can understand why people who take gap years would be more likely to drop their university course.

“I kind of know what it’s like to choose what I want to do and just know that there’s another option or if I don’t want to do something I can do something else. So it makes sense.”

The uni gap year

Australian National University deputy vice-chancellor academic Grady Venville said many students start university and then take a gap year one or two years into their degree.

“It’s quite a shifting phenomenon where at 17 or 18 they might not be quite ready to take a gap year and the parents might not be ready to let them do it, but once they hit 19 or 20 or 21 then sometimes some of them are taking gap years then,” Professor Venville said.

“There’s so much value for young people to take time out and just learn about themselves and just develop the whole person, who you are and understand that and pursue your interests.”

She said many university students chose to spend a semester on exchange and then took an extra semester off studying to travel afterwards.

“We really notice that when students do an overseas program or or an internship, they come back with just such a wealth of experience and knowledge, that they they bring a lot more rich, useful experience to the classroom when they’re engaged in discussions and debates and things like that.

“Those kinds of experiences really enhance their education.”

‘I wouldn’t change a thing’

Hannah and her parents never doubted that she would return to study in 2024.

“I feel like it’s a very common concern that people go, ‘Oh, I’ve now taken a break. I’ve stopped the momentum of studying and now I don’t ever want to go back. I don’t want to start that again.’ But for me … I’m keen to actually feel productive again,” Hannah said.

Despite what the research suggests, she would encourage any school leaver to take a gap year to travel.

“It’s just been really fun and I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, learned a lot and I would absolutely never change a thing that I did this year. So I can absolutely recommend it.”

Content credit: Canberra Times, 22 January 2024 by Sarah Lansdown 

Photo credit: Sitthixay Ditthavong

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