‘This isn’t how my gap year was meant to be’: how Covid turned young people’s lives upside down

w ^hen Daisy Davis imagined her gap year, she pictured global adventure. Building schools as a volunteer in Tanzania or Ghana, 也许, Interrailing through Europe, or travelling in Thailand. 最后 18 and with a year of blissful freedom before university, Daisy presumed that the world was there to be explored.

At school near her home in East Sussex, where she lives with her teacher parents and 11-year-old brother, there was a lot of talk about gap years. “People would come back and describe the fun things they’d been doing. And you’d see it on social media. All these different cities. Elephants and white sand. Travelling to Asia.” The hope that she could do the same got her through her exams.

She narrowed down her plans: leave school; work until Christmas; travel to Australia or New Zealand; apply to university once she figured out what she wanted to study. But in the course of just a few weeks in March last year, the first lockdown began, exams were cancelled, her school closed. All certainty had suddenly disappeared.

She got a job in the kitchen at Nutley Hall, a local residential care community for people with learning disabilities. Then a friend who had worked as a chalet girl in Austria said, “Look! They’re hiring! We can do this!” The ski resort was advertising for childminders. It looked like restrictions were easing.

“I’d never been skiing before and was excited about learning,” says Daisy. Her friend flew to Austria at the beginning of December. But Daisy wanted to apply to university before she went – she’d settled on graphic design – and spend Christmas with her family, so she booked flights for 30 十二月. “Then we went into lockdown. And Brexit happened.”

突然, Daisy needed a visa to work in Austria, which cost £150 and took three weeks to be approved. She wasn’t even sure there would be a job when she got there, because Austria was in lockdown. (When I spoke to her friend in March, the ski resort was still closed; she was snowboarding.)

Daisy tried to book flights, and get a visa. “At the end of January, I stopped trying,“ 她说. She was jobless – “I’d stopped working in the kitchen because I thought I was going away” – and had lost £70 on flights. Now she is working in a local cafe, making piles of bacon baps. “It’s very different from how my gap year was meant to be.”

Ťhe school leavers of 2020 had no way of knowing, when they were writing essays and sitting tests at the beginning of the year, that their futures were about to be knocked sideways. For the young people hoping for an adventure, and those expecting to plunge straight into university life, the traditional trajectory was so familiar as to seem inevitable. 反而, they have found themselves in limbo.

Schools closed, A-level exams were cancelled, 接着 grades were calculated by a government algorithm 哪一个 downgraded almost 40% of students, with poorer students disproportionately hit. After a national outcry, grades were given according to teacher predictions, but for many it was too late; university places had been given away. Those who did become students last year found that university life barely resembled the experience they’d been promised at open days.

If the changes wreaked by the pandemic have been universal, few have had to face up to them at a more critical time in their lives. “Dramatic social and economic shifts have happened just as that age group – generation Z – are on the cusp of adult life,” says Louise Tyler, a counsellor and psychotherapist. “This is the time when people are working out who they are and where they fit in the world.”

Covid disrupted that natural development of independence and freedom. There was a loss of proper endings – exams, end-of-school celebrations – and of proper beginnings. “Not knowing about the future and what it will look like, and whether there is any point to it, has just added to the anxiety and low mood,” says Dr Rachel Andrew, a clinical psychologist who specialises in working with children and young adults. “Referrals have certainly increased in that age group. There is a sense of frustration and anger that they haven’t been listened to and that their feelings haven’t been validated.”

Even when the threat of Covid is lifted, the impact may endure. “They could always feel regretful that they missed out on this big chunk of something very important in their life,” says Tyler. “Maybe their midlife crisis will be about chasing the loss of that something they can never get back.”

大号ast February, Lara Baden, 21, was in the first year of her law degree at Kingston University, 什么时候, suddenly, the institution switched to virtual learning, libraries closed, her halls emptied, 和关于 90% of students disappeared home. “I am a care leaver and didn’t really have anywhere to go back to,” says Lara, who asked to use a pseudonym. “I was still going to my online lectures, still doing assignments, still studying for exams – all from my room, which I don’t really like doing. Maybe that’s because I grew up in the system and all I could smell at home was cannabis. It wasn’t really a learning environment.”

尽管如此, she was still expected to pay nearly £10,000 for an experience that was far below what she expected. “University is meant to be a way of having a community, a stepping stone before you get to the world of careers. My entire university experience was going to be a Zoom call of people saying, ‘I can’t hear you.’” She deferred her place, and is now living in supported accommodation while she works for Camden council.

Universities hoped they would be functioning again with a mix of online and face-to-face learning in time for the new academic year. 实际上, all but a very limited number of practical courses have been entirely online, and it was only recently announced that in-person lectures could resume on 17 可能 at the earliest – just before the end of term.

By late last summer, the argument for taking a gap year, either through choice or necessity, was compelling. The number of applicants accepted for deferred places increased by 5,400 从 2019 to reach its highest ever level in 2020, 在 35,725, 根据 data from Ucas. But what have these unexpected gap years been like when it’s almost impossible to achieve any of the things they are supposed to be about: 旅行, freedom, exploration, adventure?

For Calum Leitch, the past year has given him a taste of working life that has changed his plans altogether. “It sounds really bad, but I’m almost glad Covid happened in that it’s given me experiences I would have never had.” The 19-year-old from Inverurie, near Aberdeen, had a place to read medicine at the University of Nottingham in September 2019. But his life was thrown off course a few months earlier when he witnessed a terrible car crash.

He was on his way to a 50-mile cycle race as a first-aid volunteer for the Red Cross. He didn’t actually see the crash, but arrived seconds afterwards. Two people were trapped in the car: one person was dead; the other was unconscious and bleeding heavily. “There were five of us, but I was the most experienced at the time and had to take charge of that scene. We had no first-aid equipment whatsoever, because it was all at the event. I felt completely helpless. It was always at the back of my mind that I could have done more.”

He decided to defer his university place. “I just needed a year or two to get myself into the right frame of mind.” In May 2020, he became an ambulance volunteer for the Red Cross, working 12-hour shifts transporting patients to and from hospital. Covid emergencies escalated, and he had an epiphany: he wanted to be a paramedic.

“When you’re in the back of the ambulance, it’s just you and the patient. You’re seeing them at this raw moment of crisis,” Calum says. “By the time a doctor sees them, they’ve already had several people interacting with them. There is something about being in the community that I really like.” He’s applied to five universities to study paramedicine. So far he’s received unconditional offers from Glasgow Caledonian, Queen Margaret, Edinburgh and Stirling. “This time last year, I was so unsure about what I wanted to do, but now I’ve made up my mind: being a paramedic is right for me.” He says his parents were “deep down probably a bit disappointed” he isn’t going to medical school, “but they know I wouldn’t have been happy as a doctor”.

Matthew Doyle, 19, never intended to take a year off. “I might have been able to afford to go with my mates for a week in Spain or something, but I was never going to be able to afford one of those big trips,“ 他说.

Last February, Matthew, who lives in Manchester, was offered a place at Cambridge to read human, social and political sciences. No one in his family had been to university. His dad works in IT and, having had a series of strokes, needs care, which Matthew and his mum provide.

“It was a great feeling,” says Matthew. “我想, now all I have to do is meet the grades.” He needed two A*s and an A (in addition to the A he’d already got in his maths A-level). But on results day he discovered he’d got one A* and two As. Having joined his grammar school for sixth form, he wondered whether he was given his grade by a teacher who had never taught him and didn’t know his background.

He appealed, and won. With the government and higher education sector agreeing that all students who achieved the required grades would be offered their first-choice university, Cambridge offered Matthew a place – deferred to next year, “due to accommodation being filled up”.

“I was ecstatic to get the confirmation, to actually know I’d got the place,” says Matthew. “But then you think, I’ve got a whole year I hadn’t planned to take out. I’m going to have to try to do something.”

His enforced gap year would have been “a lot worse if I wasn’t into reading as much as I am”, 他说. He’s stockpiled “fancy books” from Oxfam by writers like Gabriel García Márquez and Ernest Hemingway in preparation for Cambridge. “When I went for my interview I met someone whose dad, grandad and uncle had all gone to Cambridge, so I need to feel worthy. 是的, I can talk about politics, but I also want to know about other areas, like music, literature and film.”

一世n a year of lockdowns, options were limited; traditional gap year companies were hit by travel restrictions. Last March, Raleigh International, 例如, had to bring home 500 volunteers from Tanzania, Costa Rica and Nepal. But online tutoring is booming. Yipiyap, a company that employs a network of high-achieving gap year students across the UK to support school and college pupils, says it hired 105 school leavers this year, an increase of 110% 上 2019-20 . They support 30,000 learners a week.

Despite experiencing her own anxieties about her disrupted education, Maya Williams-Hamm, 18, who lives in Sheffield, has enjoyed working as an online maths tutor for both YipiyapTutorfair Foundation, a volunteer tutoring service for schools and charities. “It’s sad to see the impact of the pandemic,“ 她说. “I’ve got a year 12 student who moved to a new sixth form just before the pandemic hit, who had only had a couple of in-person maths classes and doesn’t know anybody from their school. But it’s really good when you actually help someone to make a breakthrough.”

Maya lives at home with her dad, who works for children’s services, and her mum, a youth worker. She had expected to go straight to university, but even before she got her results realised she was going to have to take a gap year because she and her mother are clinically extremely vulnerable. “Covid was a risk to me, but it was more of a risk to my mum. If I’d gone to university, I wouldn’t have wanted to come back for holidays and put my mum at extra risk. So I would have had to stay the whole year, which didn’t seem like a good idea.”

Maya got into her first-choice university, St Andrews, to study physics and maths. But the stress of getting to this point has, 有时, felt overwhelming. “I had such an abrupt end to year 13, I didn’t feel I was done with school or education.” She was downgraded by the algorithm in three out of four of her subjects, and then upgraded again.

“It was a horrible moment realising that however much work you do, due to circumstances out of your control other things can decide what happens to you,“ 她说. Seeking something more solid, she decided to focus on work experience. “Once you’ve had a job, you actually have experience of doing things, which is more useful than all the information you’ve learned from school subjects.”

When we spoke, Maya hadn’t met up with anyone for three months. “Obviously I would have preferred to travel,“ 她说. “But it’s OK, I have a great group of friends I speak to on Skype or Zoom.” Some are on gap years, some at university. Few are where they expected to be.

“A lot of them ended up at places they hadn’t wanted to study at, because they lost their offers and didn’t manage to get them back,” says Maya. “Some people have enjoyed it.” But others, 她说, feel very “isolated” in their halls or student flats, unable to join societies or clubs, or see their coursemates. “I have quite a few friends who haven’t made a single friend so far.”

Many people assumed student numbers would fall in response to the pandemic, 但 534,750 applicants were accepted at universities for 2020-21; 20,000 more than in 2019, according to Ucas. 然而, more than half of students said their mental health and wellbeing had deteriorated since the start of the autumn term in 2020, according to an Office for National Statistics survey.

“In addition to the obvious disruption to education and career plans, they’ve had their social and sexual development really interfered with,” says Sue, who works for a suicide prevention charity, and often hears from 18 和 19 year olds. “There’s been no outlet for sexual desire, very little opportunity to create friendships and relationships – and you often form lifelong friendships when you’re at university. 然后, for those on gap years, having to stay at home with your parents, at the very point in your life when you are really seeking to establish your independence, is a huge setback.”

This strange gap year has also been a time of unexpected opportunities and revelations. Olivia Clarke, 18, lives in Fallowfield, south Manchester, with her dad, a freelance photographer, her mum, a driving instructor, and three younger brothers.

The day Olivia learned that her A-level results would be worked out by a computer program, she felt relieved. “I had faith in the process because I thought it was going to focus on homework and class assessments. I perform well in class, so I thought, ‘I’ve got this in the bag.’” She was predicted to get CCC; the algorithm gave her CCD, which meant she didn’t have enough Ucas points to get into Liverpool Hope University to read theology.

But that wasn’t the only reason for her anger. “To see the algorithm working against people in working-class communities; I was fuming.” Her school, Loreto college, a sixth form in Hulme, 是, says Olivia, “based in a very working-class community. I have peers who live in better off parts of Manchester who got their predicted grades.”

By the time her grades were upgraded to BCC after teacher assessment, Olivia was clear-eyed and resolute. “I want to learn about every little thing behind the education system we have today. I want to change it, and in order to do that I need to know who made it and what their thought processes were.” She has a place at Manchester Metropolitan University, to read education. “We should never have had our lives predicted by an algorithm,“ 她说.

She had planned to work in a pub and travel around Greece, but the pub closed and she got a job as a “youth change leader” with Ashoka, a charity that supports young entrepreneurs. “I should be lying on a beach now. 反而, I’ve been put in a position where I get to recruit two other young people to join the team, which is really exciting.”

Will she travel at all? “Me and my friends had been thinking about going away this summer, but it’s not looking very hopeful. I’ll probably be staying at home again this year.”

The pandemic has given others time to learn about what matters and what doesn’t. Eleanor Bartram, 19, lives near Ashburton, in Devon. Her father owns a holiday rental business; her mother is a town clerk, she has three younger brothers, and went to Torquay grammar school for girls.

Eleanor planned to “really throw myself out there” on her gap year. “I was hoping to visit every continent, somehow.” But then local cafes closed, shutting off her means of earning money. Tourists stayed home. And so did she.

Life changed when her exams were cancelled last March. “I was planning to get a job anyway, so I thought, let’s just start a little bit earlier.” She saw an ad on Facebook for a care worker in a nearby residential home.

The idea of working in healthcare had first occurred to Eleanor the previous year. “I had an eating disorder and spent a couple of months in hospital. It was a key experience in that it made me realise I was quite good at supporting people, even as a patient. I was interested in what was going on professionally; and it made me consider working in the healthcare industry.

“I definitely came out better than I went in, but I did struggle with lockdown. Quite a big source of support for me was my friends, and not being able to see them or go to school or have face-to-face professional support was challenging. So that was part of the reason behind me wanting to get a job, because I knew I needed to keep myself busy. I’m not a person who likes to spend a lot of time sitting around with my thoughts. I applied for the job, and it has kept me very busy.”

She is now a senior care worker at the home, is “passionate” about dementia care, and has a place at the University of Cambridge to read psychological and behavioural sciences – the same course as before, but with a different end result in mind. “I used to see my trajectory as finishing A-levels, going to uni and then into the world of work. When I was in hospital, I had time to think about what I wanted out of life, and I decided I wanted a year out to learn more about myself and the world, just to get a bigger perspective on life,“ 她说.

“I didn’t get to every continent, but in a strange way I’m glad that I’ve had a different gap year from the one I’d planned. I’ve realised there are many more opportunities closer to home than you think.”

How can this generation, who have been stymied just as they transition into adulthood, recover? “It’s important that universities and society as a whole don’t expect them just to move on as if nothing has happened,” says Tyler. On the other hand, there may be some silver linings, 她说. They may be a kinder generation. “They’ve been forced to put others before themselves. They’ve had to develop resilience – they’ve sacrificed a hell of a lot.” And for a generation who’ve never had to wait for anything – if you want food, 外卖; if you want a song, Spotify; if you want clothes, go online, even at midnight – “they’ve had to develop patience, which is no bad thing”.

Even the turmoil of last year can provide a kind of perspective. While working in Cafe Coco isn’t quite the gap year Daisy imagined, she says she feels lucky to have a job. “I’ve made sure to apply for courses that have a study-abroad year. And hopefully before university, even if it’s in England, I’ll do something small; have my own little adventure.”

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