MIND THE GAP

As the school year draws to a close, thousands of year 12 students are heading off for a taste of the wide world. But how safe is it out there, and will they want to come back? Claire Halliday reports.

JESSICA DRESSLER, 17

Their worries were not so much about the dangers that might lurk on foreign shores but the tug of freedom and whether, if given the same choice to detour from their educational path, they would ever choose to get back on track.

Dressler, a year 12 student at Shelford Girls Grammar, has no such fears.

“University has always been a part of my plans,” she says. “I guess that, after a long break away, it might be hard to get back into study but I’ve got a plan for my career and I want to stick to it.”

Those plans include a professional future in the film industry, with a view to studying at the Victorian College of the Arts and, eventually, becoming a producer.

And if time spent away opens her eyes to a different future? “You’ve got to go with the flow,” she says.

What she is sure about is that, after so many years spent dealing with homework and exams, she could not face going straight to university.

That feeling, Dressler says, has been supported by her school and by her mother.

“The idea came from my mother, who is a careers teacher at a university. She suggested it to me because a lot of first-year uni students drop out and she thought it would be a needed break.”

When her mother suggested she consider a stint at Camp America — a US summer camp program provider that employs about 7500 Australians each year — Dressler applied, was accepted and will join the program as a camp counsellor next May.

In July, when her Camp America experience is over, Dressler will continue travelling in the US with a schoolfriend before heading to Greece to join her family for a holiday.

To pay for it all, she has been saving hard, working part-time in a restaurant for the past three years. With year 12 over, she hopes to increase her working hours and raise her savings target. “I’m hoping to take about $10,000 with me,” she says.

She is also taking with her the cautious worry of a mother about to watch her first-born child make her own way in the world. “To my parents’ concerns about my safety, there isn’t much I can say to ease their minds but I guess they have to trust that they have brought me up well enough to stand on my own two feet,” she says. “I feel it will give me an opportunity to mature and to become a more independent person.”

JAKOB KOESTENBAUER, 18

AT GEELONG Grammar School, about a third of the students take time out for a gap year. Jakob Koestenbauer is one of them.

With a stepfather who is a surgeon, Koestenbauer has plans to study medicine, and he says his family should not be concerned about his ditching that passion. “It’s what I really want to do,” he says of his future as a university medical student.

In the meantime, though, Koestenbauer has prepared himself an expansive itinerary.

His gap year activities include a trip to East Timor in early 2009, a stay in Papua New Guinea, where he plans to do voluntary work in hospitals, a visit to the Swiss Alps to work with dairy farmers and the dairy industry, a trip to South Africa spent working at a game park, a spot of cancer research in Frankfurt and some work with Greenpeace in his native Germany.

Koestenbauer says that his parents are very supportive.

“Because we come from overseas, they know what living in a different culture can bring to you,” he says of the move his family made to Australia when he was in year 4.

In the two years since first toying with the idea of taking a gap year, Koestenbauer has taken the time to consider his options carefully and explore various projects and organisations before making a decision.

To date, his plans include a mix of structured activities and free time. He will take advantage of international family friendships to secure accommodation and connections that will help him get involved in medically related work experience, in between a healthy dose of free-and-easy adventuring.

“I was proactive about it. I got email addresses and phone numbers and sourced information myself,” he says. “My parents helped out too. They see it as a good break.”

With summer stretching ahead, Koestenbauer has a couple of offers of part-time work and says he plans to save as much as he can.

A deal with his mother and stepfather may help.

“A bit depends on my exam results,” he says. “If I do really well, there’ll be a reward.”

Despite the challenge it may take to get there, Koestenbauer believes the experience will be worth it. Even with the recent Britt Lapthorne murder souring his belief in the pure freedoms of international travel, he is still keen.

“I’m sure my parents have some concerns about safety but, having travelled a lot with my family, and having lived in Papua New Guinea, I understand how to look after yourself in different cultures. There are some things you just have to do differently. There are some things you just wouldn’t do at all.”

Role: By Claire Halliday
Client: The Age
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