WHEN the Minister of Higher Education Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh announced on Facebook that a Gap-Year programme would begin in September, there was a lot of excitement.
Curious to find out more, I posted a question on my Facebook page asking my friends for their thoughts. Some had actually been on a gap-year over different periods of their lives and were happy to share their experiences and views.
Farhana Zain (pic), a final-year law student from the International Islamic University Malaysia, took a gap-year from her studies between January and September last year.
“It wasn’t intentional, but I will never regret the decision,” she said.
Farhana made the decision when she was selected for the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) that was fully sponsored by the United States State Department.
“Thankfully, my faculty was supportive in terms of easing my application process.”
In February she was attached for four weeks to Arizona State University, learning about Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (SEED). The fifth week of the programme saw her in San Francisco and Washington, D. C. for cultural visits and to see the American capital.
After completing the YSEALI programme, Farhana just kept going.
Between March and September, she spent her time volunteering with various non-governmental organisations around Asean, attended a human rights workshop in Geneva, Switzerland (visiting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Criminal Court, and International Court of Justice), and she even met outgoing President Barack Obama in September in Laos.
In between, she took up a retail job for two months to gain work experience and earn some income.
Having started her classes again in September, Farhana continues to be involved in volunteerism and social work. She is currently working on a project with her YSEALI peers from the Philippines and Thailand, encouraging youth activism in combating gender inequality and violence related to women.
“My dad was the one who encouraged me to take a break. My mum was supportive but made me promise that I wouldn’t drop out of university!” said Farhana.
“Though my friends weren’t really keen on me deferring and delaying my studies, I didn’t mind because I know what the ‘real’ world is like. I tell myself that everyone will eventually take their own paths and I shouldn’t compare.
“I can’t exactly say that it helped me enhance my knowledge in law, but it did help me with things such as attitude, time management, discipline and organisation which affect my academic performance positively.”
Taking a gap-year has also had an impact on academic and career goals.
Ann-Marie Khor took a gap-year after STPM and worked at The Star as an education journalist: “I always thought I wanted to do journalism but while I love it, I’m studying computer science now – a field I got exposure to while writing an article on free coding classes.”
Fellow columnist Tan Yi Liang also took a gap-year between the first and second year of his law degree. He interned in a small law firm in KL, doing everything from shadowing lawyers to helping them with research and occasionally doing receptionist work.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he said.
The experience made him realise that legal practice wasn’t for him.
“I chose to go into journalism after reviewing my (research) skills and passion for writing. I realised that through journalism, I could reach out to readers in the hope that I could change public perceptions and preconceived notions – a good example being how Malaysians see people with disabilities.”
IMPLEMENTATION IS KEY
Overall, there has been support for the gap-year.
Dzameer Dzulkifli, managing director of Teach for Malaysia, is glad that nation-building is a big theme of the initiative and is keen to explore opportunities to collaborate.
Zaim Mohzani, founder of the Nation Building School, sees NGOs playing a vital role in the initiative. He believes that NGOs can expose students to the community and their problems, and train them through community organising and by connecting them to their networks.
“Experiences like these can potentially be life-changing” he says.
Calvin Woo, an UPSI graduate who recently met Queen Elizabeth II for his volunteerism achievements, reminded me that “Not every student will have equal access due to financial limitations”.
He said that the Ministry must not only ensure access, but prepare students, parents and institutions for a change in mind-set – enculturation is key to long-term sustainability.
Ry-Ann Lim, a former colleague who did a gap year with EPIC Homes, a social enterprise that connects volunteers to build sustainable homes for and with the rural poor, suggested that university student services or counselling services play a vital role in helping students chart out their gap-year: “There are many opportunities for sponsorship available, and universities must connect their students to these opportunities. In the West, the universities pay for students’ gap-years. In return, they expect their students to write compelling stories.”
UNITEN student leader and graduate in software engineering, Akram Yusof, wishes he had the opportunity to take a gap-year. “I would have done it so I could do all these leadership activities, get it out of my system, and focus better on my studies later,” Akram said.
Akram, who is currently running a start-up known as Go STEM (that aims to grow students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is mindful, however, of the need to manage the initiative well to ensure effective learning.
Satya Venugopal, who graduated with a bachelor’s in physics from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has met a lot of student volunteers during his time working at the Down Syndrome Association in Singapore. He suggested some kind of structure to promote volunteerism to complement the gap year, maybe even to make it credited. “Let it not be wholly unsupervised,” he says.
“It’s more than just about promoting volunteerism. It’s about wanting people to think more holistically about personal development of our students and to see how valuable travel, work, volunteerism, etc. can be during the gap year,” added Satya.
The gap-year will provide our students an opportunity to reflect, discover themselves, and intellectually develop. It’ll also give them an opportunity to serve the nation. I believe this initiative is a win-win for Malaysia’s higher education ecosystem.
- Danial Rahman has education close to his heart and welcomes feedback at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.