The term gap year has become much-maligned in recent years with chino-clad teenagers bragging about their experiences on round-the-world tickets or posting selfies from secluded beaches all over social media.
But one County Durham teenager managed to find a more worthy way to take a break ahead of leaving home for university.
While it might not pop up on many people’s bucket lists, Tajikistan proved to be something of a life changing moment for Chris Brown.
After finishing his A-levels and being uncertain about the leap straight into higher education, the 19-year-old from Durham set about exploring his options for how to spend his year out, before he set off to study criminology and policing at Nottingham Trent University.
Chris had spoken to friends and taken to Google in a bid to find ideas of what he could do but without wanting to fork out thousands for a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ and the urge to do a little more than party, Chris was at a loss.
But after speaking to friends Chris, who studied at Durham Johnston Sixth Form, spoke to the Voluntary Services Overseas, which, as part of the International Citizen Service programme, set him up with a placement in Khujand, Tajikistan’s second city, working with aspiring female entrepreneurs.
The ICS is a UK government-funded development programme that brings together 18 to 25-year-olds from all backgrounds to fight poverty in 24 of the world’s poorest communities and to date 3,937 young Brits have taken part in the project.
“When they emailed me and offered me a place in Tajikistan I knew absolutely nothing to be honest,” said Chris.
“When I tried to look it up online all there was, was images of a mountainous region - it was all one massive unknown until I got there.”
Initially he was unsure about the project, at the age of 18 he had barely left home apart from holidays and he had been offered a three-month placement in an area of the world that is seldom heard of in the UK.
He said: “One of my friends had done her gap year with VSO and she’d actually done her placement in Tajikistan, I messaged her asking her about it and her reply just said ‘do it’.”
After listening to his friends advice he took the plunge and signed up to the trip but before he could guarantee his place he had the small task of raising £800. A keen saxophonist, Chris tapped into his musical talents to raise the money with charity concerts.
He added: “In between the performances I gave a presentation about Tajikistan, so people knew where I was going and where their money was going.”
Ahead of the project, Chris was given business training to help arm him for the task ahead and his team were allocated their project - transforming a fledgling kindergarten into a thriving business.
Bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and China to the east, the country has a population of around 8m people and it is believed up to 90% of the country is made up of mountainous terrain.
Natives speak Tajik, which is said to be a modern form of Persian, or Russian, making communication tricky for English speakers.
However, local volunteers working with the groups ensured the group was able to overcome the language gap, if not the culture gap.
In Tajikistan women are still seen as subservient and volunteers from VSO were partnered with female entrepreneurs who were attempting to stand on their own two feet.
Chris’ group worked with a woman who set up a childminding service but when they arrived they found a country and a client who had very firm ideas of what they expected.
He said: “My placement was in a rural area where the woman has just set up a kindergarten. She didn’t have many children, or a curriculum. She had one teacher but her idea was that it would grow into a school where it had a set curriculum and a timetable.
“What we were doing was to go to the place, an hour away from the city, and one thing for a start was we helped her with the advertising. We organised an open day so parents from around the town could come and see why they should send their children to that kindergarten.”
Through their efforts, along with some local volunteers, during the three month period Chris’ group helped raise the number of children using the service from six, in March, to around 30 when they left in June.
Chris added: “One of the main reasons we were there was because in Tajikistan there is a culture against women. They don’t tend to work, they don’t earn for themselves - they are expected to fulfil a housewife role. We were there to help encourage them to do otherwise.”
Along with their work with the kindergarten, Chris worked as part of a team building homes in the region as well as repairing an orphanage and helping to raise awareness of litter by arranging litter picks in the Khujand area.
An aspiring police officer, Chris said the trip has given him vital skills for life as a student, and beyond.
“I definitely needed that before university, I already feel more prepared in terms of moving away from home and not knowing people,” he said.
“It’s made me more independent, I moved away from home for three months with people I only met one day before. I wasn’t too keen on going straight into further education, I’d had enough of school and I wanted a fresh challenge.
“When I think of how it felt when I did this, it’ll be nothing compared to that.”