Luke volunteered with Project Trust in Thailand in 1997/98. Having recently gone back to visit his project he reflected on how his gap year has influenced what he’s done over the last 18 years of his life.
Luke back in Thailand 18 years after his gap year
I decided to volunteer on a gap year with Project Trust because I had a sense that it was a greater risk to go to university without understanding what I wanted from life than it was to take a “year out.” I also had a subtle sense that I didn’t quite belong in the herd anyway and I had an intuition that becoming a Project Trust volunteer would teach me to understand and go beyond that feeling.
I find it interesting that, 18 years later, I was faced with a similar choice and it was one that led me right back to the project I was sent to by Project Trust in Bangkok in 1997.
Following an exciting and varied 12-year career in housing and adult social care, I was given the choice to take voluntary redundancy. Just like when I became a Project Trust Volunteer, the question became not “what if I do?” but “what if I don’t?” What destiny am I creating if I stay? What opportunities could I create or discover if I leave?
Sure enough, I chose to take redundancy and, rather than immediately start looking for another job, took leave. After time in the USA and Australia I headed to Bangkok, having earlier made arrangements to visit the school I had taught at as a Volunteer.
Heading to the school we pulled off the highway and drove down the long market road that led to the building. I remembered being that 18-year-old driving down the same road years before thinking “Oh crickey, what have I gotten myself into?” I marvelled at that boy. Here I was, aged 36, and I almost couldn’t believe that a person so young could do such a thing.
We arranged to meet AdjarnPhaka, one of the teachers I had worked with, outside the school. She is now retired but she organised our visit. It was so good to see her and reconnect after so many years. She had been instrumental in making our year in Thailand as special as it was, helping us with lesson planning, getting involved in running extracurricular activities, integrating with the school and the local community and taking us on trips across Bangkok and beyond. She gave us an enormous amount of energy and support and I am truly and forever grateful to her.
Walking round the school brought back a flood of memories and again I marvelled at how much I encountered and overcame while I was there. I remembered that the first couple of weeks had been a baptism of fire. The plan was to be introduced to all of our classes by the class teacher. This meant we didn’t have to do any lesson planning and the next few days was a gentle introduction. On my third or fourth day I was led to a classroom by one of the teachers. In the classroom were around fifty rowdy 15-year-olds playing, shouting, throwing paper aeroplanes and waiting for the teacher to arrive. The teacher stood at the door to the classroom and said to me: “There you are. Teach them something.” She then turned on her heels and walked off. I was shocked but walked into the classroom as confidently as I could. My entrance was met with whoops and cheers and general all-round excitement. I launched into a class by getting students to ask me questions in English and then turning my replies into little lessons. After that experience, I had no fear about teaching or running out of activities and the teachers left me to my own devices from that point on. That moment has had a lasting impact on my whole life. Having survived that, I know that I can respond to pretty much anything in a work or social environment.
I had a chance to catch up with some old friends while I was back in Bangkok, mainly other school teachers but some students too. The intention of my visit, more than anything, was to give thanks. Thanks to all the people who helped me directly and thanks to the culture, people and land that welcomed me and gave me a second home. I managed a few small gestures and a few words to some of the people I had crossed paths with but I’m not sure any of them could truly feel the depth of my gratitude. What I found most remarkable was the warmth of people’s reception of and memory of me. The impression I had was of a real and honest connection that had lasted all this time. That was incredibly special to feel.
Going back to Bangkok gave me a chance to reflect on what I had learned from that “year out”. I saw it was the place I learned to help others and be helped by others; to belong without having to change anything about myself except by being loving and respectful. I gained a great sense of self acceptance and tolerance in that process.
It was much more than an adventure or an experience in time. It was not a “year out” of anything. It was a time rich in growth and learning that helped me to become someone who adds value to community life. It gave me much more than memories of a good time – it gave me a strong sense of self and a way to make it through the demands of life.
A year or eight months can pass by very quickly without anything much happening. Or it can leave a huge impression: It just depends what you do with the time. So, if you are a young person reading this considering the risks that come with one or another choice, I recommend that you also ask yourself the question – “What if I don’t take a gap year?”