If it's good enough for Prince William then it's good enough for young New Zealanders. A traditionally British institution, the "gap year" is becoming popular in God's Own, writes Julia Proverbs
At the of last summer, as their friends packed their bags for university, Mat Patrick and Lydia Bennett packed theirs for a mud hut in Kenya.
The former Otumoetai College students, both now 18, scrimped, saved and raised $9000 each, not for university fees but to volunteer to help overseas.
"I hadn't decided what I was going to do at uni, what course I wanted to do or where I wanted to go," Patrick says.
Bennett adds: "We could have gone straight to uni. We both kind of had an idea but I don't know how well we would have done ... and we could have ended up wasting a lot of time and money."
Instead, they started scouring the internet for organisations through which they could volunteer.
The concept of taking a gap year was not foreign to English-born Bennett, who moved to New Zealand with her family four years ago.
They organised a trip through British-based Team Kenya, which supports and works with communities in west Kenya.
In February, they travelled to the remote village of Ndhiwa where they lived in an eco-cottage at Karibuni; a sustainable tourism project.
"You had to walk down the path to the long drop and we had a bucket and a jug to wash with," Lydia says of their primitive accommodation.
Patrick came back to New Zealand in June and Bennett returned last week after going to Britain to spend time with family.
In Ndhiwa, they became an integral part of the community, helping with computer training, writing reports, working with school children, counselling and other projects.
Since returning, Patrick has decided he will study earth sciences in Wellington next year and Bennett plans to study English, anthropology and geography. In the meantime, they will work or, if they can't find work, volunteer locally.
Bennett and Patrick highly recommend that other school leavers should take a year out before deciding on their future.
"If you don't know what to do, don't jump into it straightaway," Bennett says in regard to tertiary education.
"I definitely feel like I can wait now that I've done a bit of travel," says Patrick, who plans to travel again once he has finished his studies.
Sharyn Hights, New Zealand programme manager for Lattitude Global Volunteering, has noticed an increase in young people wanting to volunteer to help overseas and there have been 200 applications this year, 50 more than last year. Although the organisation, which has been operating in New Zealand since the 1980s, caters for those aged 18 to 25, about 90 per cent are school leavers.
School leavers can be reluctant to pay costly university fees if they are not 100 per cent sure of what they want to do, Hights says. And the traditional OE has lost appeal in an economic climate where a job is not guaranteed once they reach their destination.
"Some of the universities prefer students who have had gap years," Hights says. "They are more mature because they have been away from home and they tend to study better." Organised gap years are also popular with parents, who want to know that their children will be safe and well looked after.
"Parents really like the fact that it is organised and that they are travelling in a group. They really like the structure, particularly that support."
Most of Lattitude's volunteers are placed in schools, from assisting teachers in British boarding establishments to having sole charge of classes in Vanuatu.
"We match them quite carefully. It depends on their skills and interests," says Hights.
The cost varies from a whole year in Europe for about $8000 to a six-month placement in Fiji or Vanuatu for $4500. This includes flights, accommodation, meals and a weekly allowance.
Hights says it used to be a "real rich kid thing to do" but that is changing. Lattitude has been getting the message to lower-decile schools, giving students a longer lead-in time to raise the money.
"The opportunity to go overseas and experience different cultures as well as gaining valuable work and life experience is beneficial for all people," Hights says.
Erin Courtenay, programme development manager for Wellington-based Global Volunteer Network, says: "The big New Zealand OE was popular. Now young people are encouraged to gain experience before settling on a career or university. It's a unique way to see the world because you get to see it from inside a community rather than staying in a hotel and just seeing the tourist attractions. You get to meet local people." And with the host countries benefiting from the volunteer work, it is "a real two-way street".
Former Te Puke High School student Georgia Oakley spent seven months as a volunteer, teaching at a school in Poland.
"I was fresh out of school and I didn't know what I really wanted to do," she says. "One of my sister's friends did it. I talked to her and it really appealed to me.
"I wanted to work out if teaching was the career I wanted ... also to do some travelling. I have always wanted to get out and travel.
"It's who I am. It was really good. I got to teach English to 5 to 17-year-olds. I absolutely loved it. It was really good to teach all the ages so I got a feel for what age I enjoyed the most."
Oakley, 20, who now lives in Reporoa, is an in-home childcare provider with Porse.
"I liked teaching the younger ones. Now I'm doing early childcare."
During her stay, Oakley travelled extensively through Poland and, after her teaching placement finished, joined her mother in Italy to do some more travelling before coming home.
"I realised when I came back that I was much more mature than my other friends because I had to live completely on my own. You learn how to live and depend on yourself."
Commercial lawyer and former Tauranga Girls' College student Anna Holland, 25, chose to volunteer to work in Cusco, Peru, after finishing five years of study.
"There's something about giving a purpose to a holiday," says Holland, who, since returning to New Zealand, has become involved in charity work.
She spent four weeks working at a childcare centre, followed by a week of "cultural immersion" with a family in the Andes mountains and a further week in the jungle planting trees.
She then joined three friends and they travelled throughout South America.
"I really felt like I got to know the people of Peru to another level. That made a big difference, it was a full experience.
"I think you learn a lot about how aid works.
"People often ask if I feel like I made a difference. My answer is that I made a small amount of difference to a small number of people at that time. I now sponsor a child through World Vision.
"As travellers, we really have to respect cultures.
"As citizens of the world, it's good to make a difference on an ongoing basis.
"You can't change the world in six weeks but you can make a difference."