Australia international border closures: My gap year changed my life. Now many Australians will never get one

I wore shorts just once in Scotland. Once, in four months of living there during summer, working on a farm up near Aberdeen. Once. And that one time I did get to wear shorts was not because the sun had decided to make some sort of miraculous appearance and warm the air to something approaching double digits – it was because the local nightclub was having a beach party.

Every other day of that summer, every day of May, June, July and August, I wore long pants and a jumper, and usually something waterproof, because it was cold, and it was raining. It was, to keep things briefer, Scotland.

You only get to be that young and impressionable, malleable and entirely carefree once. And then the chance is gone.

I was 17 then, probably far too young to be wandering the world without responsible supervision. This was back in the day when you finished high school in Queensland at that tender age, and as someone whose birthday falls late in the calendar, I would spend my entire first year of adult freedom as not really an adult.

And so I did what only a few people were doing back then, and I took a gap year. I spent my last year of high school peddling Big Macs and saving money and then I escaped, with my mate Karl, for a year of discovery, of joy, of confusion, of fascination, of fear, of freedom. We flew to the USA and stayed with family friends, we went down to the Bahamas, we jetted across to the UK, we settled ourselves to work in Scotland.

The weather there was awful, and it turns out I'm not a particularly talented or enthusiastic farmer. But oh the times we had in that small Scottish town where people are friendly and bartenders never ask for ID. We formed a group of lifelong friends there on the other side of the world. We worked, we drank, we explored, we shivered.

I lost plenty of things during my gap year: a few socks, a Metallica CD, a daypack, my innocence, my virginity (finally). But I also gained an immeasurable amount: friends, experience, knowledge of the world, and confidence to move through it.

I came home, finally 18, a different person to the one who had left. I had to make friends again with my old friends, to get to know who they had become, and to try out the things that had changed in me – and that was everything.

I find myself thinking about that gap year a lot recently. Partly because I have plenty of time to think about everything in lockdown, but mostly, really, because I'm aware there's a whole generation of kids right now who are not having that same opportunity. As borders have closed, so have opportunities: those who might once have gone to pull pints in London, or clean hostels in Berlin, or work on volunteer projects in Cape Town are stuck at home now, unable to travel, some unable to even leave their homes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck us all in its particularly crushing way. We've all lost something. And yes, there are people who have lost far more than the opportunity to have an extended holiday. But you can still acknowledge that fact and yet have sympathy for those who are watching crucial points of their lives slip away, never to be regained.

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There are two groups of people I feel most for when it comes to the lack of travel in our lives right now. One is people of an age sufficiently advanced to feel that this is it for them, this is their last chance to see the world. They have a few more years of travel left and then it just won't be physically possible. And those years are slipping by. That last big holiday might already have been taken.

The other group is school-leavers, young people. Young people, who should be having formative experiences out there in the world right now. Young people, who should be going through rites of passage in far-flung locales. Young people, who should be out there figuring out who they are and who they want to be while working crappy jobs and sleeping in hostel dorms and have dirty flings with foreign strangers.

That's a huge opportunity to miss. And yeah, they can probably do it when they finish uni, or take a career break in five or 10 years, but it's not the same. You only get to be that young and impressionable, malleable and entirely carefree once. And then the chance is gone.

I don't know if I would have turned out different if I hadn't gone on that first gap year, way back when I was 17. It's easy to say it was formative and that it changed the course of my life. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. Maybe I was already the person I turned out to be, or I would have got there some other way.

But man, it was fun. It was so much fun. Up there with the most enjoyable experiences of my entire life. And I'm sad that so many kids aren't getting the chance to do something similar right now, to wear shorts to a Scottish beach party and pick strawberries in the rain.

The pandemic takes from all of us. But for some it takes more.

Did you take a gap year when you left school? Or go on a formative trip when you were young? How did it change you? Do you feel for school-leavers who don't have that option now?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

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