Kiwi “gapper” Sophie was placed in Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, volunteering as a Lattitude School Assistant.
What made you volunteer in the first place?
I wanted to volunteer overseas because I had a huge desire to travel while also wanting to work and actually experience living in a different country. Lattitude gave me the opportunity to live in a different country that was so far away from home while also being able to travel around Europe and the rest of the UK.
I was also unsure about what I wanted to study at university, I knew what I enjoyed but I wasn’t able to narrow it down to what I wanted to major or pursue in the future so I thought getting away from home and being in a completely different
environment would help me realise what I actually wanted to study and help me narrow down my interests.
Why the UK?
I have very strong family connections in all areas of the UK which was a big reason to why I wanted to live and volunteer in the UK. I also chose the UK because my brother had gone through the UK Lattitude programme in 2011 and my mum and I went and visited so I had some prior knowledge of the programme but also how much my brother grew from his experience and how much he enjoyed it.
I also love the history and culture of the UK and the various cultures that are within the UK as well. The reason why I chose an English speaking country was
because I knew that I wanted a change but I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the most drastic change that a non- English speaking country would bring, plus I wanted to travel Europe in particular and the UK is always such a good base to do so.
Can you describe your placement in detail?
My placement was called Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. It was a coed school for ages 8-18 for kids who take a particular interest in the performing arts. It was both a Boarding and Day school. I had 3 other gappies with me on my placement, 2 kiwis and an Aussie. My school was about 40 minutes NorthWest of London in Tring, Hertfordshire. The school day is split up into two parts, in the morning the older kids (ages 14+) will do their academic work then in the afternoon they will work on their performing arts and take classes. The younger children are the same but switched around. When the kid come into intermediate school they must decide what area they want to major in. For the little kids you can chose either Dance or Theatre Arts, which includes musical theatre, drama, music etc. Or Dance course. Then when you reach 6th Form you must chose your complete major: drama, musical theatre, music etc. With the two major departments being Academic and Vocational I came across a lot of different personalities with many many talents. You come across very strong personalities and egos working in a performing arts school!
What are some examples of the duties you performed there?
I had a variety of duties at my placement. My duties included doing the ticklist for the meals in which we had to tick off the names of all the students for each individual meal (it helped with learning 300+ kids names!) I worked mostly in the Academic staff room doing admin work, helping in some classes and being a extra hand in general. I also worked in the school theatre and did a lot of hands on work with building sets, setting up the theatre for performances and of course the big tidy up after the performances. I learnt a lot of new skills with that job! I also got to chaperone on some school trips we took every sunday or trips for classes. My favorite was going to the studios where Harry Potter was filmed in Watford. But my main and favorite job was working with the kids in the boarding houses. I was a houseparent/big sister and worked in the girls boarding house with girls aged 10-18.
The various ages came with various jobs and responsibilities. With the younger kids it was definitely a lot more hands on and dare I say chaotic work whilst the older kids because of their age were a lot more individual and took care of themselves a lot of the time.
I got to work with a great team of pastoral and nursing staff who fully took me
under my wing and who ended up being my family away from home. Getting to know and work these kids and pastoral staff was the highlight of my job and even my year. Each child was so unique and special and being able to look after them, have a laugh, be there for them and make memories with them was the best part of my job.
Can you describe your accommodation?
My accommodation varied throughout the year. I shared a room for the entire year which was a learning experience in itself. First we were placed in the girls boarding houses then halfway through the year we were placed in a different building until finally all of us gappies were put into what is now known as the “Gap flat” which has 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, lounge and kitchen.
How did you cope with the big differences between living in the UK and home?
The big differences that I encountered when I moved to the UK was the difference with the amount of people there are vs in New Zealand. Going to London was always a small culture shock because of the business and hustle and bustle of the city and the people. The other main difference was having everything right there and so accessible which was a difference I was so willing to accept, having the rest of the UK and Europe right there in front of you was so exciting and so different that I really had to narrow down and realise that I couldn’t go everywhere in one year.
Being in a country all by yourself was also a big change and a big culture shock. You didn’t know anybody going over there and you didn’t know the people you were going to be living with either which was quite strange and a little bit of a shock and certainly took some getting used to. I think i coped with this by just really getting involved in work and didn’t beat around the bush and just jumped right in. I think that was the best way to cope with such a new situation was just accepting and embracing your new situation which helps a lot with homesickness because keeping yourself busy gives you less time to think about home.
What do you think was your favourite moment/ best thing that happened to you whilst there?
I had a lot of favorite moments throughout the year. In terms of travelling my favorite places that I went to were: Edinburgh, Swiss Alps, Florence, Krakow, Plitvice Lakes in Croatia and of course London. These places stood out to me because of the scenery, history, people and the fun experiences I had when I visited.
A very moving experience for me was visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps while I was in Krakow, it was very moving and humbling being in a place with such dark history and although it was deeply emotional Im so glad that I was able to have that experience and learn so much about that period in history. The Plitvice lakes was a huge highlight and I would recommend it to anybody. I also went to an incredible exhibition at the Victoria &
Albert Museum in London about the designer Alexander McQueen, that was a huge highlight for me and of course watching the Rugby World Cup in Trafalgar Square in London was one of the best of experiences of the year!
In terms of my placement, it was the little memories that ended up being my favorites. Having these memories with the kids and the amazing staff was such a highlight. I was able to watch the kids perform in so many different shows and see their talent and passion come through on stage. Spending evenings with the Pastoral and nursing staff and talking for hours on end are things I cherish so much and seeing the kids achieve goals and break new ground were sometimes so small but ended up being the things I loved the most about my placement.
Can you give examples of any personal development you may have gained during your time there?
I feel like I grew a lot as a person from my time away. It wasn’t always huge leaps and bounds but more reassurances about myself. I became a lot more self assured and I became a lot less scared of confrontation and standing up for myself and what I believed in, which was something I wasn’t so sure of before my placement. I became a lot more independent and learnt to deal with the more stressful situations in a good way. When you are travelling you can be put in hard and chaotic situations that school doesn’t really prepare you for!
But learning from these experiences has helped prepare me so much for the real world and the real situations that life can throw at you and how you can deal with them. I feel like when I came back to NZ after a year I was so much more self assured, confident and really happy with who I was as a person which I think is the best thing you can take from a gap year.
What are you doing now, and how has your volunteering experience influenced/helped you?
Im originally from Wellington, so I have now moved to Auckland and studying at AUT majoring in Communication Studies. I love my course and the different areas that it can lead off into, taking a gap year helped me realise what: A. I wanted to actually study and B. what kind of career I wanted to pursue.
I was constantly working with people in my job and I realised how much I enjoyed working so directly with not just people but in a team of people. I didn’t even know what communications was when I was in high school and by researching and figuring out what I wanted in a career, I found communications and realised it was the area of work I wanted to pursue. I can guarantee that if I hadn’t taken a gap year and given myself time and had those experiences then I would be doing something completely different in a completely different city.