Heading into my gap year I had my life mapped out. I got some great A-Level results and was headed to train as a Midwife at King’s College in London, one of the top universities in the world. Fast forward a year and I’m further south in Sussex, studying International Development.

So what changed? In short, I did.

My whole career and life path radically shifted after my overseas placement with Tearfund and the Zoe-Life organisation in South Africa.  It was the classic ‘find yourself’ cliché experience. Staying in a township community called Chesterville, near Durban, I battled with homesickness, culture shock, actual sickness, team dynamics and language barriers. In essence, it was a world away from the comfort and security I was used to.  Yet encountering the stark juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, the very real legacy of apartheid, and mass inequality in South Africa deeply challenged me.

Cross-cultural collaboration

Every moment of my placement instilled me with a passion and determination to make justice my life’s work.

The focus of the placement was to empower children and young people through education. My absolute highlight was collaborating on gender-empowerment workshops with my South African team mate Tshidi. We shared our own personal stories of victories and challenges, whilst addressing some widely-held beliefs about women in a typically patriarchal culture. We inevitably discussed love and relationships, but also the importance of chasing after your goals, positive body image and strong role models.

Our team was a kaleidoscope of personalities, races, backgrounds and goals.  You pretty much 24/7 living in community together, and so the people you work with make a massive impact on your experience  – whether positively or negatively! Working together, we muddled through our differences and emerged as a strong, unified team – a family that genuinely sought to care and look after one another.

I felt empowered that social justice is actually something we can all do.

More than a trip

As I write this, I’m reminded over and over again of the brokenness and beauty of South Africa. It is the only other place on the planet I would describe as home. It’s filled with such warm, fun-loving people and many happy memories. Yet for me, volunteering with Tearfund was about far more than travelling.  I came back with more than a suitcase full of souvenirs and an album of photographs to reminisce over. It was more than an ‘experience’. My placement changed who I was and who I am today. It gave me a sense of purpose. Everything I thought to be true was challenged and stripped away. I gained a broader perspective and felt empowered that social justice is actually something we can all do. We don’t even need to travel overseas to make a difference. Social justice starts with us.

What next?

I’ve tapped out these words in my university flat, at the end of my first semester as a student. Changing course from the dream of Midwifery that I treasured for years, to study International Development felt like the biggest gamble. I have much to learn, but I’m so grateful for the opportunities my placement with Tearfund gave me. When I look back, I know these opportunities have shaped where I am today.

My best advice if you’re thinking about volunteering overseas on your gap year? Go for it!

Thinking of taking a gap year? Check out Tearfund Go to see how you can travel with us.