What if you had one year to yourself, without the confines of school, college, exams or studies? One year to do anything you wanted. Pursue your passions. Realize your dreams. Or even do nothing! What would you do? Yes, YOU. What would YOU do?
Gap year or ‘year off’ as it is usually called, refers to taking time out between school and college, graduation and post-graduation, or even between jobs. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a complete 12 month period. It is a substantial amount of time, devoid of any routine and without the pressure of classes, studies, assignments or exams. During this time, one can do anything and everything one has ever wanted or dreamed of doing, but hasn’t found the time in the timetabled life of structured classes.
The concept of gap years began in the United Kingdom in the early 60’s and spread its way to the West, gaining increasing popularity in America as well as other countries. Currently, taking a year off is the new trend amongst high-school leavers and college graduates, who feel this time offers a much needed break from the pressures of institutional education and a space to ‘discover oneself’. Voluntary work, traveling, exploring one’s interests and passions, honing one’s skills, learning a new language, playing a sport, or even mediation are some of the activities a gap year-takers usually do. It is completely up to the individual to decide and plan his/her time. In fact, some people, burnt out by the endless cycle of exams and classes, may simply decide on a ‘doing nothing’ year.
In India, traditionally the concept of a gap year or ‘drop year’ is to study for competitive entrance exams for professional courses at prestigious colleges such as IITs or IIMs. While that is still widespread, there are an increasing amount people who are taking a break to simply explore the world and themselves, before becoming entrenched in the overwhelming demands of college or work. Like Ishan Raval, who took a year ‘ON’, as he calls it, after twelfth. Or Sagar Atre, who after completing graduation in Pharmacy, decided to spend a year in the tribal district of Gadchiroli, researching on making medicine cheaply available to the tribal people.
Sonika Gupta had a cushy job at Marico, after graduating from a prestigious college in Delhi and an MBA from symbiosis. She quit after a year and took a gap year to start the Gandhi Fellowship, a 24-month fellowship for young people to revolutionize government schools. Currently, she has left Gandhi Fellowship as well, and in another year off, is now involved with a campaign to spread the idea of taking a gap year to more young people across India.
The idea of such a campaign is not new. In the U.S., Ivy League colleges are now encouraging prospective students to take gap years to enrich their understanding of life, and gain hands-on experience and varied perspectives in their fields of learning. “We think this kind of service experience abroad will give them a very different perspective on their Princeton education,” says Princeton Provost Christopher Eisgruber. And at Harvard, they have an entire page (http://admissions.college.harvard.edu/apply/time_off/index.html) dedicated to ‘Taking Time Off’, as they call it.
According to a survey by the Harvard publication Crimson, most of the students who had taken a year off found the experience “so valuable that they would advise all Harvard students to consider it.” Closer home, experiences in a Year ‘On’ (rather than year ‘off’), have been life-altering, at best. For Ishan, it was a journey of self-discovery. In his words, “When you’re not bogged down by the expectations of being a part of the system and have enough free time, you’re bound to end up reflecting about yourself and the world. Embarking upon on a journey of self-discovery and intellectual inquiry into abstract matters of meaning in life and the nature of the self is something I got into during my break. Answers are not easy to come, but the very act of searching is an act of mental vitality that was not open while being in the system.” Most people get a new direction in life, in terms of what they want to do ahead. Some are so motivated that they leave formal education altogether and opt for learning from life. Those who go back choose fields that fit into their passions, rather than joining the rat race for a degree and job. Like Sagar, who says it was a great experience “Knowing what happens when knowledge is applied at the grassroots level, and to know I am doing something useful with my knowledge, something which is useful for me, my surrounding people, and maybe others.” Sagar is currently pursuing his passion for journalism through post-graduate studies in the University of Ohio.
There are many websites, portals and other groups supporting those who are embarking on (or want to!) gap years. Sites such as http://yearon.wordpress.com/, http://www.gap-year.com/, http://www.gapyear.com/, http://www.gapguru.com/ help in planning and designing one’s gap year. There are also support networks of people who are out of the institutional system of education, such as the Swapathgami (walk-outs) Network in India. They have a wide-ranging pool of resource people and organisations, gatherings and workshops where people from all walks of life can participate, and publications such as newsletters featuring people who have done something different from the institutionalized, mechanized system of education that we have today.
After ten to fifteen years of rigorous schooling, textual learning, and factory-like education, one year of ‘breaking free’ is not just a dream; it is something realistic, achievable and even desirable. As some champions of this cause assert, “You won’t miss a year; in fact, you’ll gain one”. So, finish all those exams, round up all the assignments and pack away those textbooks. Get those paintbrushes out, and remove the dust from your guitar. Start doing what you really like. A year’s all yours.