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Imperative lessons in life

In a job market more competitive than it has been for 30 years, youngsters need to find new ways to stand out. They must develop skills and experience early to fast track their development and make them a more attractive proposition to employers benefiting from a `buyers market'.

The feedback I have gathered after many years organising school and college trips to the Himalayas leaves me in no doubt that engaging in practical experiences outside of study is critical for a young person's development, with advantages that not only benefit their studies but also their capacity to find fulfilling employment.

A recent example comes from a higher education trip we organised last year. It is important to point out that the "educational level" of the students is largely irrelevant. The benefits of "life education" are universal for all young people.

Our two-and-a-half-week expedition to Everest involved medical students from the Wilderness Medicine Society at Edinburgh University. The 15- strong contingent led by David Luther and Simon Beggs, fourth-year medical undergraduates, set out to test the effects of high altitude on the human body.

Although managing their own research programme was the students' focus, the expedition also taught the group how to lead, be self-reliant and take responsibility for their own actions. Interpersonal skills were also developed through interactions with Nepal's medical fraternity, as well as knowledge-sharing, teamwork and acquiring and integrating new skills.

The students returned to their final year refreshed, confident and with new skills they could use to enhance their studies.

Individual or group volunteering trips bring similar benefits. "Village home stays" in the Himalayas deliver long-lasting benefits to young people as part of their post-school gap year or a summer trip during their studies. The village home stay is a chance for young people to live and work in an authentic and often challenging Nepali village community.

The ability to be self-sufficient in these surroundings is a critical life lesson. Many Nepali villages are isolated from the world, with no running water, electricity or home comforts. Food is grown locally and water transported by hand. There is an incredibly strong link with nature and the environment, a respectful, sustainable connection, something from which the West could learn a great deal.

The chance to interact with new cultures is fascinating and life-changing. Learning a new language, communicating and interacting with different people, negotiating and working together builds confidence, leadership skills and self-worth which will benefit a young person's studies and employment, and support them in dealing with the rigors and stresses of university and work life.

Traditional education is ill-equipped to prepare us for many of these eventualities. Most courses rely too much on theoretical education, even those supposedly based on practical application. The sooner "life skills" can be learnt, the better - and volunteering combined with travel provides an ideal platform to do so. There is no better classroom or lecture theatre than life itself.

Oliver Margry is managing director of OJM Travel.

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