We cannot change the education system overnight, and neither will most people decide to do without it, the gap year at least provides valuable time to explore and discover one’s true calling - a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to learn from experience.
I took a year off after my graduation because I could not find a suitable postgraduate course. I happened to find work as the manager of a small printing press, which gave me enough free time to read, and discover new friends and places to visit. I also travelled periodically to the nearest big city, Chennai, to buy a bunch of second hand books at Moore Market. My parents did not worry. No one made a big fuss, nor did anyone wonder if this one year was useful or a waste of time. I simply needed time to decide what I wanted to do next, and that’s what I got. No one called it a gap year or anything else.
That was more than 40 years ago.
Times have changed, and today, professional education and landing a great career are big. So most youngsters do not dare to think of a gap year. But there are a few students and parents who are seeing the gap year as valuable time to explore and discover one’s true calling or at least find the most appropriate path to take.
In the US, students taking a gap year has become so common that many universities offer short gap-year courses. Many professors find that after a gap year, students are more serious about their coursework because they have taken time to choose what was right for them. Quite often, students take time off to travel and there are many websites that advise students on how to plan for everything — their travel, learning goals, money etc.
In India, it seems that we are at an early stage of the gap year culture setting in. Here, most of the youngsters taking a gap year seem to be the ones whose parents are actively encouraging them to look beyond mainstream careers. Also, many perceive it as expensive, as it cuts short one year of earning. And students at this age become sensitive to living off their parents, so they often combine some part time jobs with the various experiences and explorations they seek in a gap year.
Learn from experience
So much of education seems to be about sitting in a classroom studying books and preparing for the exams. Tunnel vision is accepted as normal and legitimate. A major issue we need to realise is that mainstream education distances you from real life. But if we cannot change the education system overnight, and neither will most people decide to do without it, the gap year at least provides a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to learn from experience.
Meeting interesting people, some travel and ‘wasting time’ can be a good dose of real life! Our youngsters need to throw away blinkers, and follow their hearts, or noses, to taste a bit of the wider world they are often protected from. The big achievement is to decide to take a gap year and get the support you need to take off. Then there are many focus areas that can help you decide what you want to do.
Check out a career idea
A gap year can be a good time to check out a vague dream or career idea. If you are wondering if you should go into, say, event management, before you plunge headlong into a course you can try getting an internship or even volunteer with an event management firm. Even if you are sure of a particular field, sometimes it may help explore other possibilities by informally meeting people or doing short courses.
Deal with confusions
Before a child reaches Class 10 and even much earlier, she is expected to know exactly what she wants to do in life. While many children meekly accept such straight-jacketing, there are many who are confused as to what to do next. Actually if you are confused in this way, because the world wants to push you in some direction and your inner voices have doubts about it, then call it a very positive confusion! It means you wish to think for yourself, rather than be programmed by others.
A gap year may be just the right thing to deal with your confusions in your own way. If you let your intuition guide you, you may find people who can be formal or informal mentors, who can be friend-philosopher-guides. Also an interest in reading, or in today’s times, meaningful internet searching or video watching can open up new directions.
There are also many who travel around alone, get into rock climbing or water sports or just exploring the Himalayas, remote villages or forests — but this surely needs some savings or funding support. While such adventures do add an undefinable something to the person, such travel as education is not so common in India as it is in the West. But more safe and secure possibilities exist through trekking and travel organisers who are mushrooming everywhere.
If you cannot get excited about a standard corporate job and are the kind who needs to have a deep belief in what you do, you can check out the world of alternative careers. Be it sustainable living or organic farming, wildlife photography or alternative education, there are many institutions that offer short and long term courses and internships. Most of these offer hands on and experiential learning and can connect you with a network of people and organisations that can help you figure out what you want to do and what life with an alternative career would be like.
Instead of alternative courses, you can attempt to volunteer or look for an internship in a civil society organisation. If you have a strong interest in a particular area, you can search for the kind of organisation that you find inspiring and you never know how much it might fire your passion.
See the hidden world
Most of us have an innate tendency to look for familiar places to visit or learn from. But trying to look for experiences you have never had might be a great way of making a gap year meaningful. I have heard of youngsters going to remote desert villages to help with solar electrification, joining in wildlife surveys, helping make eco-friendly buildings in the Himalayas, volunteering with tribal projects and so on. Moving away from one’s comfort zone, roughing it out and making friends with strangers can be an education in itself.
If you need more intellectual stimulation of an academic kind, you can try to track down people to meet and interview. You can combine this with reading up, looking for or creating your own writing or videographing assignments.
A range of organisations exist to support you in your search. These institutions offer short and long courses which can open up new avenues. There is so much that can add vibrancy and meaningfulness to your life if you have the faith that the world is there for you to discover. We need to rename the Gap year as ‘Search Year’.