Some people are lucky. At fifteen, they know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and spend the next few years getting the qualifications they need to get there.
The problem was that, this time last year, I was about to start my final year of education with no idea what to do next. I'd only chosen a maths degree because I was "good at A Level", but that was good enough to get me into a top-ten university. However, three years on, I was barely scraping my degree classification, so didn't have the time for the many application forms, assessment days and large amount of interview preparation required to secure a graduate job at that point. With a number of potential career ideas in my head, I decided that spending a year volunteering would help me decide what I wanted to do. I decided to take a gap year.
There was one small problem, however. Having just spent my final year in one of the most expensive halls of residence outside of London, I had no money. Therefore travelling was out of the question because, even if you want to work while abroad, you have to find money for flights, so I quickly decided to limit myself to the UK.
That's when I found Community Service Volunteers (CSV). If you can agree to volunteer full time for 6-12 months, anywhere in the UK, they'll try and find you a project to work on. You don't have to pay rent and the only bill you have to worry about is your phone bill. Additionally, you get £35 a week for general living expenses, and another £40 a week for food if it is not provided by your placement.
I decided to go for it. The application process was pretty simple: I applied online at www.csv.org.uk/gapyear, filled out an application form and was offered an interview. The interview was to find out a bit more about me and what kind of projects it would be suitable to match me to. Afterwards, a personal profile was written about me and my motivations for volunteering, which was then sent to potential placements. If a placement likes you, they send you a profile back, and you go from there. Personally, I found the interview very unintimidating. To me, it just felt like having a nice chat with someone for an hour!
So that's how I ended up where I am now: a live-in volunteer supporting a man with cerebral palsy. This involves doing a huge variety of day-to-day activities, including personal care (which you get used to surprisingly quickly), cooking (which I love anyway) and being around to have a chat. It has also involved attending important conferences in London and going to see the touring West End production of the Lion King! My time so far has been interesting and fun (hopefully for both of us) and I've learnt a lot, and I've been supported every step of the way.
If you are also wondering what to do next, my advice is to not rush into it. If you jump into a degree you discover you don't like and leave after a year, you're looking at a £15,000 debt for basically nothing. A gap year gives you the chance to take a step back and re-evaluate your life, and with charities like CSV, you don't need a bank loan or rich parents to have one.