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It's Not A Year Off But A Year On

Major universities around the world encourage students to take a gap year before admissions, but the Indian education system does not welcome or support such breaks

Recent Indian films such as Tamasha are encouraging young people to not settle for a routine well-paying job but to take time and explore their passions and dreams. Embedded in their appeal is a strong critique of an education system which pressurizes students into mugging up for marks and leaves no time for students to engage in more relevant experiential forms of learning. The end result is hordes of frustrated students who have little practical skills, self-awareness, self-initiative or life perspective.

In 2012, Udaipur-based Shikshantar Resource Center for Homeschooling and Unschooling started the Year On Campaign to inspire young people to consider taking a gap year after class 8, 10, 12 or college and engage in travelling, practical work experiences, internships, volunteering, DIY projects, online learning, learning a skill and community service. Vidhi Jain, learning activist and co-founder of Shikshantar, says, "The reason it is called a Year On is to challenge the common cultural misperception that children waste a year if they take a gap year. So rather than take a year off, we suggest taking a Year On to explore yourself, your passion and your community. We need to remind students and their parents that the world is our real classroom and life is the best teacher."

Ishan Raval, from Baroda, Gujarat, took a Year On after class 12. He spent the year focusing on his Hindustani classical singing, writing articles, making short films, and travelling. He particularly values the fact that he was able to come out of the bubble that schooling puts kids into and to interact with all kinds of diverse and amazing people over the course of the year. He is now studying in the honors programme of North Carolina State University in the United States. Sakhi Nitin-Anita, from Nashik, Maharashtra, who took a Year On after class 7 and liked it so much that she extended it for four years. She rejoined school for class 11th. She spent time in her gap year honing her journalism and writing skills and got several articles published in national newspapers. Recently, she was a topper at the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences for the Women’s Studies Course.

Major universities from around the world, such as Harvard University, are encouraging students to take a gap year before admissions. They feel that students who have taken time away from studies are more emotionally mature and focused, perform better academically, and can better avail of opportunities at the university level. They have found that students bring many more varied life experiences, powerful questions and practical skills into the learning environment.

As part of the campaign in India, several school principals and guidance counselors from well-known educational institutions such as Mirambika, the Valley School, Riverside School, have started voicing their expert opinions that it is very beneficial on both pedagogical and social levels if the student takes gap year. They feel that the gap year after 10th or 12th should be an essential part of the students' educational programme for the 21st century. It promotes the students' foundational capacities for self-discovery, confidence, intrinsic motivation, self-discipline, collaborative learning. Also, these enlightened principals are willing to allow students re-admission to their schools after the gap year.

Several CEOs and visionary leaders are also starting to recognise the transformative value of a gap year for their future employees, and give preference to those who have taken one in their hiring strategies. In fact, many have personally shared that a gap year was very pivotal for them in their own life journeys. Many speak of their year away as a "life-altering" experience or a "turning point". In his work, Chintan Bakshi, founder of Startup Oasis in Jaipur, encourages a gap year for budding entrepreneurs. Gaining gap year work experience helps students become more acquainted with the ins and outs of a professional atmosphere. It also helps them to know whether they enjoy a particular field and want to work in it.

Many young people actually find the courage to take a gap year only after they complete graduation or after 1-2 years of professional career life. Others finally get to do it when they enter their 40s. Vidhi Jain says, "It is never too late to start working on your dreams." Some companies and HR professionals are starting to encourage and support their employees to take more broad-based self-education breaks as part of their strategies as Learning Organizations. They are seeing these forms of self-development as ‘assets’ that enhance the company’s culture and overall mission rather than simply as a diversion in a hobby.

Currently, the biggest barrier to the Year On concept are Indian parents. The popular youtube video "Anu Aunty" satirically depicts the narrow career perceptions that strait-jacket children’s learning.

Parents think that the children will waste time in a gap year or lose their career track if they are not supervised/controlled by a full-time teacher. The Year On Campaign hopes to change this perception of parents and local communities by highlighting the valuable learning opportunities that students can get involved in. Students around the country have been volunteering in organic farms and restaurants, working with underprivileged children in NGOs, conducting research and writing a book, focusing on music, dance, and sports, working on their own IT start-ups, supporting anti-corruption campaigns, and all kinds of other amazing things. Most importantly, they have been travelling extensively and experiencing the "real India". A good start would be to make a bucket list for oneself of all the things one dreams of doing before one leaves this earth. Vidhi Jain advises young people who are initially confused about their preferences to "start anywhere and follow it everywhere."

Also, the Indian formal system does not welcome or support such breaks. They are seen as unnecessary diversions from the formal syllabus. Vidhi Jain explains that, in foreign countries, students can get formal academic credit for explorations done their gap year. She says, "The government needs to not only develop more seamless mechanisms for students to move in and out of the formal system, but also develop more tools to recognize, integrate and value the tremendous learning that takes place outside the walls of the classroom."

There is a very beautiful book, Free from School, written by Rahul Alvares and published by Other India Press, which highlights the learning adventures of a student when he takes a year on after 10th to work with wildlife conservation groups. The US-focused Teenage Liberation Handbook is also an excellent resource for those who are looking for more ideas on what to do in their gap year.

Unlike many international gap year programmes, there are no fees to join the Year On campaign. Vidhi Jain says, “We believe that there is an abundance of learning resources in India just waiting to be tapped into. We are much richer (and more flexible) than the Western countries in this regard. We have found that there are many amazing people and spaces out there who would like to support young people in their learning journeys.”

Shikshantar Resource Center has created an interesting blog for India with lots of testimonials, resources, posters to support students in their Year On explorations. There also are several mentors listed who are willing to counsel youth/parents on their gap year options and help them create their own customised learning plan with specific goals.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Manish Jain

Manish Jain has been working in the field of education for the past 20 years and is involved in incubating many innovative education projects around India. He has worked with Morgan Stanley as an investment banker and with UNESCO as an education specialist

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