GAP YEAR Think you’ve got it all figured out? Take a break after school and give the unconventional a try to discover your real interests. USHA RAMAN
As the mercury rises, so does the anxiety level among school-leaving students and their parents. Where do they go from here? Will they clear the competitive exams and make it to that professional college? What do they do if they don’t get into engineering or medicine and (god forbid) have to settle for a degree course? There is no room for confusion or uncertainty. Every 17 or 18-year-old must have his/her mind made up about what to do with their lives and how. There’s no stop sign that allows a pause within which to think about, let alone re-think, what one really wants to do, what one might be good at, or to discover things outside the confines of regular schooling and textbook learning.
Yes, there might be that one-month break between the end of the board exam and the beginning of a series of competitive tests or the long list of college applications. But this is like a mere hiccup in the arduous journey of conventional education. So children race headlong from school into college and then into employment, setting aside, or more likely, leaving unrecognised, questions of fulfilment, self-realisation, or, at the most basic level, the meaning of work and life.
The idea of a “gap year” between phases of education and employment is not new. Privileged classes have for centuries allowed young people to spend time “discovering the world” — a euphemism for expensive parent-funded holidays across Europe — before they entered the formal world of work. In more recent years, it has included experiences such as volunteering in sectors such as primary education and health. Such gap year programmes package and sell themselves to Western youth some of whom are moved by a desire to do something different, and others who want time and space to think about their next moves in life.
But in the past few decades, life particularly in developing countries has taken on a complexity that creates high levels of anxiety about getting a job, getting ahead and, in truth, achieving material success. “So you have people of all ages sitting on jobs they hate, doing things they would rather not do, feeling unhappy and not quite knowing why,” says Manish Jain, founder of Udaipur NGO Shikshantar and promoter of the “Year On” campaign that encourages young people to step outside the mainstream and discover themselves through grassroots engagement.
Gap Year programmes targeting school-leavers in India are relatively few and most are located within alternative schools such as the Post-school programme in KFI’s Valley School, Bangalore; or the Experiential Learning programme at Mahindra United World College (UWC), Pune. The Gap Year College, an experiment located in the Garhwal Hills, ran a programme for young people for a few years before it was discontinued and relocated to Sirsi, Karnataka, where it takes the form of Jeevan Vidya, a reflective life-skills programme. These programmes have met with limited success in terms of enrolments, although the children and adults who have experienced them vouch for their value.
“The biggest barrier is resistance from parents,” says Manish Jain, an opinion echoed by Vinish Gupta of Jeevan Vidya/Gap Year College. Labelling the “Swapthagami Year On” programme so, rather than as a “Gap Year” points to the underlying idea that this break is not about taking time off from education but instead, it is about time spent fruitfully, with engagement in something other than “commoditised” learning. “We have students indicating an interest in taking time off, but worried about how they will convince their parents,” adds Jain. However, given the growing sense of dissatisfaction with the current education system and its outcomes, some parents are willing to step outside this framework in looking for ways that will allow their children to grow and learn.
Osama Manzar and Shaifali Chikermane have decided to have their son Abner take a “year on” after he finishes his tenth grade examination through the National Institute of Open Schooling. Abner is studying at Mirambika, New Delhi, and his parents do not want to “lose everything this experience of open learning has given him” by moving into a conventional high school. “We want him to learn without compromise, in a space where he would have more independence, and the chance to learn on his own,” explains Manzar. It was also important to them that the child learn from a variety of people who have something to teach, something that the Year On programme would allow.
Claude Alvares, noted environmentalist and writer, architect of Goa-based Multiversity, notes on the “Year On” blog, “When each of our kids completed school (either at the 10th or 12th), we set them free from all bonds for a full year. …Basically, we wanted to ensure they got time – without the pressure of another year of study, or another examination around the corner – to come to terms with their own existence, what it meant to live in a society or country, explore its environment, interact with people of all ages, experience and expertise, and to consciously understand the idea that self-imposed discipline (swa-raj) is an inherent part of being creative and free.”
Alvares’ son Rahul ended his gap year in 2003 having written a book about his experiences, titled “Free from school”.Sometimes, even where parents are open to the idea, children are afraid to take what they see as a “risk”. Says Gurveen Kaur, who runs Centre for Learning, an alternative learning space in Secunderabad, “When my daughter reached Std 10 I told her to take a year off. She refused to even consider the idea with the explanation, ‘I will be left behind and all my classmates will get ahead of me.’”This fear of not keeping up drives both children and parents; children worry about falling behind their peers, while parents worry that children may end up wasting time in an unstructured environment.
Organised gap year programmes help address this concern by offering the space to think and negotiate life differently, but with guidance. Nandita Dinesh, who directs the Experiential Learning programme at UWC describes the gap year as “an option to students who want some time off before college to figure out what they want to study and also if they really want to go to college.” The Year On, too, places young people within a community learning context, and as Ishan Raval, a Year On taker, put it, affords an opportunity to get away from the “everyday black hole of Facebook” and learn something new.The years a child spends in the formal schooling system tend to cordon off certain experiences and opportunities to do and think differently.
Osama Manzar decries the fact that contemporary mainstream education now has so much competitiveness that “things have got rotten”. He says, “We need to create an infrastructure for the inner self.” This is where such gap year programmes prove valuable. Proponents of the gap year — while admitting that it is largely the elite who can afford the “risk” of interrupting the progress to a livelihood facilitated by formal education — do feel it is important for such opportunities to be made available to all young people, who, as Mazar says, “need the freedom to progress in the way they want to progress”. Manish Jain is emphatic “This need not be an option only for the rich —even mainstream schools can build in such thinking.”
Programmes such as the Year On, in his view, offer a “middle path to try out what unschooling may be like”. “Not enough children are allowed to take up this suggestion but most of those who do, emerge energised, self-motivated and clearer about their path,” adds Gurveen. “Our children need our support to take this time off to figure things out for themselves as it is absolutely essential for their well-being. If we really care for our children’s’ well-being and happiness we owe it to them.”
“I heard about the idea of a gap year from my British cousins who had taken a year off after their A-Levels to backpack with friends. At first I did not take the idea very seriously, but on realising that my marks would arrive too late for a college like St. Stephen’s College to accept my application for admission, I thought that I might use the year productively and apply to colleges in Delhi University at the end of the year. Even though I may not have taken the year off if DU were more flexible with admissions, I would not have done it any other way.” - TARA FERNANDEZ took a year off after completing her twelfth grade, to volunteer in an NGO in Uttarakhand, teaching English to village children, and helping with a theatre production.
“Prompted by a feeling that I had missed the excitement of doing something original, and learning from it, I chose to take a year off doing something different. My year outside the system destroyed a lot of my preconceptions and narrow-mindedness. However, what frightens me is that without this gap year, my life would have gone on without giving me a sense of how big and phenomenal this world is.” - SAGAR ATRE worked with a health NGO in Gadchiroli, Madhya Pradesh, as a conscious choice to pause between two phases of formal education.
“While I was doing my Masters in Clinical Psychology at Christ University I found myself becoming increasingly overwhelmed with the field of mental health care and its several challenges in our country. I was growing into a myopic being who was losing her capacity to harbour myriad perspectives and nurture ambiguities of life. It was at this point, when the Young India Fellowship Programme accepted me as one of the best students from across the disciplines from our country for a period of one year and I applied for a sabbatical with the assurance that I would return to my calling with a richer mind. I would believe that a year from your life at college provides you with the scope to observe yourself outside of your safety nets of friends, teachers and academic facilities. It provides one with the time to introspect away from routine that is predictable and well thought through. Through my one year outside the academic structure, glimpsing into the world of real time challenges, issues and prospects of applying theoretical postulates, I learnt to nurture ambiguity, accept others’ perspectives, remain stable and find the anchor within myself in the trying times, but also develop a worldview that now helps me relook at my own field of passion with a unique value and a vantage point”. - SRISHTI SARDANA (As told to Kasturi Ramanathan, Christ University)
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