A gap year is not an idle holiday but a time for young people to discover their direction, purpose and passion.
TAKING a break can sometimes be a necessity and when this break stretches out over a long period of time, it can turn into a gap year.
For some, this year is a holiday during which one catches up on travel and seeing the world. For others, this is an opportunity to explore, to find alternative careers, to wander into other fields of study that may not have been one’s first interest.
There are no real rules to taking a gap year but whether you’re taking it right after sitting for your Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or your pre-university examinations, or even if you’re in the middle of your career, it helps to be prepared.
In this issue, StarEducate highlights some interesting gap year adventures that Malaysians have had.
Delving into her psyche
AFTER her pre-university programme, Faith Chong, 21, had planned to further her studies in the field of psychology but before she began her course, she decided to have a gap year.
“During that time, I travelled. When I was back, I took up a part-time job and then I was offered an internship at a therapy centre,” she recalls.
That internship turned out to be a valuable contribution to her future.
“From my gap year, I became more independent and also came to realise that psychology, which was what I was planning to study (at the time), was much broader than I thought it was.
“I discovered so much more about myself and about what I was interested to do in the future,” she says, adding that the experience she gained from her internship has helped in her studies now.
“I gained the knowledge and experience that I now feel helps me when I study the theoretical part of psychology.”
It was also during her internship that Faith became certain that psychology was the area of study she was passionate about.
“Without the break, I think I would have pursued my studies in the field but with no idea of what it was actually all about. The gap year really helped me to stop and think for a moment instead of just rushing through life.”
Faith says that she was able to convince her mother but her father was “never completely supportive”.
“He thought it was a waste of time but after a year, he realised that I had grown and he’s never said anything about it since.”
Faith is now studying a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Psychology, at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
From dog owner to certified groomer
ALTHOUGH she has only just received her SPM results, Sabrina Lim is already an internationally certified dog groomer working at a professional pet salon.
During her last year in secondary school, the 17-year old knew that she did not enjoy studying and wanted to try something else before taking the more traditional route and going straight to college.
“I decided to groom dogs because I liked them and I wanted to be more involved with animals, rather than just being an owner,” she says.
During her training, she learnt the basics of grooming, including dog bathing, ear cleaning and nail cutting.
Sabrina has two miniature schnauzers — Kuro and Shiro — which she grooms herself.
Her family members, who collectively own close to 10 dogs, were ecstatic when she chose this route.
An experience deal
ENTERING the service industry may be typical for fresh secondary school-leavers but Lee Joe Min, now 22, was not your typical waiter or bellhop.
During his gap year, he was a croupier — better known as a dealer, the person at a casino who assists in game conduct.
“I chose this occupation because it would allow me exposure and interaction with successful people in Malaysia, hence allowing me to derive my inspiration from them.
“I did a lot of travelling too and it was fantastic,” says Joe Min, adding that the best part about his gap year was the “money, of course.”
“But it’s also about the experience and the long-awaited break that I was looking forward to after all those years of studying. (Taking a) gap year allowed me to look at things from a different point of view and to explore.
“It’s also about the people that you meet. You will never know what kind of surprise awaits you.”
Joe Min took his gap year right after finishing secondary school in Bukit Mertajam, Penang.
“I was having difficulties in choosing the major I was interested in right after secondary school. Plus college fees are always increasing every year, so I wanted to be able to at least foot half of my bills.
“That way I don’t have to graduate with student debts on my back. It was also because I felt I was so sheltered and shallow in my schooling years, so a gap year was the perfect avenue for me to explore,” he says.
He says that his parents were very supportive of his decision to take the year off from studies.
“For a start, they are not conventional parents. They don’t restrict what I do. That’s not to say they don’t care about the decisions that I make. Instead, they provide suggestions and advice and teach my siblings and I about what is wrong or right.
“However, they make it clear that only we are responsible for every consequence that stems from our decisions.”
When asked if he had any advice for teenagers in Malaysia who are considering taking a gap year, Joe Min says “go for it.”
“Being a year older than your friends in college or university is nothing compared to the things you’re going to see during that gap year.
“You are young and should take your time to explore and have fun.
“Rushing your life from secondary school to college and then work will just keep you blind from a lot of things that are out there.”
On a mission to lead
MOST of us have to convince our parents about taking a gap year but for Tan Ian, it was the other way round.
“It was my dad who introduced me to the idea of a gap year. He has a lot of friends around the globe who had been telling him about it. After conducting some research into it, I was persuaded.”
So upon completing his A-Levels, Ian took a nine-month break before starting his degree at Taylor’s Law School last month.
For two months at the beginning of this year, he served as an intern for a political party.
“I was involved in a wide scope of work, from taking photos of potholes on streets to joining big meetings at the office. I was also a volunteer tuition teacher to Form Four and Five students under the Pusat Tuisyen Rakyat programme.”
Before that, the 20-year-old spent 10 weeks in Mozambique on a mission trip with Iris Global, where he was involved in activities like building houses for widows in the poor and war-torn region.
“The poor are the best teachers. They teach you what it really means to be content and genuine,” he says of his deeply spiritual trip.
As an aspiring future politician, Ian says that it’s important for leaders to have a willingness to serve.
“For me, politics and social work are closely related. I believe the most important quality of a leader is to serve and be humble.”
His time abroad has helped to give him a global perspective, Ian adds.
“As Malaysians, we don’t really mix with other people. I was guilty of that too. But in Mozambique, out of 300 volunteers I was the only Malaysian and I met people from 42 other countries. It’s important to hold on to our Malaysian identity but also be aware of what’s happening around us.”
Overall, the future leader says that his gap year has made him a wiser and more confident person.
“I have no regrets. It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Time to decompress
TIARA Shafiq believes in taking time off so wholeheartedly that she has ‘gapped’ three times.
“After my SPM, I took a year off and pretty much took it easy. I took dance classes and travelled a bit, but really I didn’t have any plans. After 11 years of school stress, I needed a break!
“My parents were puzzled and reluctant, wanting me to get a degree straightaway, but they noticed how stressed I was and figured that some time off was useful for everyone’s sanity.”
Then, a year and a half into her studies at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, Tiara joined Up with People, a global education organisation which allows young people to travel whilst engaging in community service, leadership development and the performing arts.
“That was so much fun. I grew up so much in those five months. My worldwide trip also sparked my interest in alternative experiential education and was the impetus for my education activism.”
After graduating with her degree in Creative Industries from Queensland University of Technology in 2008, Tiara travelled across Australia and the United States as a performance artist and producer.
Her travels included a stint in 2011 as an artist-in-residence at CELLSpace, San Fransisco where the 27-year-old is currently based.
“I fell in love with the city so much that I looked for ways to return. I enrolled for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Enquiry at California Institute of Integral Studies.”
On whether Malaysian students should take a gap year, Tiara has two words: do it.
“My time off allowed me to decompress. As Malaysian students we don’t often get encouraged to rest, yet if we keep on GOING, GOING, GOING, we’ll just burn out and suffer. It’s OK - necessary even - to take breaks.”
Find your purpose
AFTER her SPM exams, Tan Shen Wen had six months of free time before she began her A-Levels at Methodist College Kuala Lumpur.
Far from being idle, she taught History to secondary school students at a tuition centre and was involved in the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre ballet production of Romeo and Juliet as a dancer and choreographer.
Then after her A-Levels, she had time again before starting her studies at Kent University, Ohio in the United States, so she continued to teach and dance.
“I was also actively involved with the Malaysian Youth Prayer Gathering and I went to Cambodia and Sarawak to volunteer in children’s ministries.”
Shen Wen says that her gap year enabled her not only to broaden her horizons but to seriously consider her purpose in life.
“The one thing I truly gained from my one-year ‘holiday’ was discovering my love and passion for teaching. I never knew how much I loved teaching until I invested time into tutoring secondary school students.”
The 20-year-old adds that she is thankful to her parents who supported her through her gap year.
“Both of them shared the idea that there was no hurry for me to enter university. My father wanted me to love my future career and not work in misery for the rest of my life, so he was very understanding and encouraging when I wanted to take a gap year.
“He knew that it was more important for me to use that time to discover what I truly loved rather than rush into something that I would dislike doing in the future.”
A journey of self discovery
PEOPLE often underestimate how important self-discovery can be.
“Many of us who go through the national education system are taught to think like systematic high achievers: we need to get good grades in school so that we can get a scholarship to study a degree in something practical and then work, earn a wage and enjoy a good and secure life.”
More often than not, what we “want” is often shaped by what other people want for us, argues How Han Ming.
“So a gap year is a time for you to discover what you want in life. It’s a time to discover your passions and interests and your strengths and weaknesses. It is also a time to realise that you are more than the sum of your resume and grades.”
Before university, Han Ming immersed himself in the world of theatre and storytelling, writing and staging plays as well as writing stories for the Malaysian Nature Society and The Selangor Times.
And what did he discover about himself along the way?
“Among many other things, I discovered that I could tell stories to children and ignite their interest in science, work with actors twice my age, make friends with people old enough to be my parents, fall in love with the idea of a Liberal Arts education and develop dreams to be a filmmaker. My gap year has given me the courage to pursue what I love.”
Han Ming is currently studying Film Studies and Economics at Wesleyan University, Connecticut in the United States.
* Did you take a gap year? We want to hear about it. Send your gap year stories via email with subject line “Gap year story” to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include your full name, IC number and contact number.