Name: Ben Duncan.
Degree and university: History/Politics, University of York.
Volunteered at a foster community in the Russian Federation
What did you do?
In the Summer of 2007 I worked as a volunteer at a foster community known as Kitezh. I was, first and foremost, an English teacher but did all manner of other jobs besides, ranging from chopping wood to cooking, planting trees and cleaning ponds, from building houses to organising games for the children. This brilliant organisation has a well-deserved reputation for taking promising children out of the state orphanage system, which has a questionable record with regards to troubled children. Most of these children have awful, traumatic pasts and so Kitezh tries to give them what most children take for granted: a stable, loving home. Children live and go to school at two compounds. The largest, Kitezh, is situated 140 miles south of Moscow, deep in the countryside of the Kaluga region. The second area is called Orion and can be found less than 40 miles south from Moscow, which is spitting distance by Russian standards. I spent most of my time in the latter.
What was your motivation in taking a gap year?
Taking a year out is a brilliant opportunity. If it is planned well and you do something interesting, it can really broaden your horizons and leave you a better person as a result. It was a brilliant opportunity to start learning a new language and to experience a place that was completely alien to me. I should emphasise that before my decision to go I spoke no Russian whatsoever. Russia was always a bit of a blind spot in my world knowledge and, culturally at least, what I knew about it could have been fitted onto an exceptionally small Post-it note. The Russia I discovered at Kitezh may not be anything like the Russia that lies beyond the trees that lined Orion, but I will never think of that beautiful country in the same way again. Every day challenged my perceptions of what Russians are really like and that has definitely changed me as a person.
How did you fund your gap year?
I worked for a few months in the winter as an assistant photographer for a firm that took school photographs. Despite being absolutely useless at my job, I somehow managed to keep it, which was good as it was very lucrative work. I then started a job as a waiter at the Noodlebar, an upbeat, exciting restaurant staffed almost entirely by students and an experience that was almost as good as the travelling itself. In all honesty, the funding of my travels was only a fraction less interesting and enlightening than the travels themselves.
What did you most enjoy about your gap year?
Every experience I had in Russia was completely new to me: the wildlife, the lifestyle, the people, the food…. everything. Even the sky was different! However, the highlight of my trip was not the scenery but what I got involved in. I had tea and cakes with ardent Stalinists after the 9th May Victory Day parade. I travelled around by sleeper train over a weekend to the ancient rural regions east of Moscow, which was a great experience. Also, the vast wealth of knowledge I left Russia with was a huge benefit. Give your average Orion volunteer some bricks, mortar and wood and he’ll build you a roof and then teach you some irregular verbs. A gap year should and will push you and you will be infinitely better for it.
None really. If I had a regret, it would be that I was not as good a teacher as I thought I could be. It really was a stressful job, even with their small class sizes and, though I did improve eventually, I always thought I could do better.
What skills do you think you need to have a successful gap year?
Only one, in my view, is truly necessary: arrive in the country with an open mind and be prepared to get stuck in with whatever you choose to do. Nothing will annoy a host more than turning your nose up at something just because your palate isn’t adventurous enough.
What’s your best piece of advice for students considering this?
Your gap year will be infinitely less exciting if you don’t arrive with a broad outlook. What is the point of going to these places, seeing these people and having these experiences, if you don’t have the desire to try anything and everything that is presented to you? We choose to save up and travel around the world to experience something completely different and out of the ordinary from our everyday existence. What is important is that we go for every opportunity that is available to us and try to experience the new and the unexpected. The sky really is the limit.