Published: 20th August 2021
They were on a break: Why taking a gap year is not really a bad option in India
Sometimes taking a gap year may be the best thing that you can do. A few students, parents and educators tell us why
Our time zones were five and a half hours apart. After deliberating over emails for a couple of days, we finally agreed upon a convenient hour — 10 pm on a Monday. Sunkalp Gupta sat in front of his computer at his place in London. He calls London home now. Recently, his family moved there from Kolkata. He, on the other hand, had moved there from the US, a few months ago. He spent a little over six years there, from 2014 to 2020. But I wanted to hear more about his life prior to that.
"This was undoubtedly the best decision that I made," he tells me. He was talking about a period of a year, from March 2013 to mid-2014. To quote Ross Geller from Friends, 'he was on a break'. In simpler terms, Sunkalp took a gap year right after Class XII. In 2021, the term 'gap year' may not be alien to most of us in India. But to create a clearer perspective, a gap year is a break year that a lot of students opt for, mostly after completing school and before joining university. They could use the year to upskill themselves, prepare for examinations, do internships, travel or figure out exactly what they want to do with their lives.
And that's what worked for Sunkalp. "In Class XI, I found out that I was quite interested in Mathematics and Physics and wanted to study these subjects after school. I was exploring options on Astrophysics and my brother, who was in London at that time, suggested that I apply to go to a university in the US. I quite liked that idea," says the 25-year-old engineer. Sunkalp says that he was quite clear in his head that he wanted to take a gap year quite early on — even before he wrote his pre-board examinations. This, he says, allowed him ample time to apply to universities and figure out a course that he liked. Even though it was a challenge to keep FOMO at bay, on the plus side, he got to spend some time with family. "However, I gave the state engineering entrance examination a shot and this reaffirmed my belief that I must take a gap year for sure," he says.
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The application process got over by August 2013 and he finally got accepted to Purdue University in Indiana. "This gave me a lot of time to do things that I always wanted to do. I volunteered with the Red Cross for a while. At one point, I even went horseriding for a few months. I even joined the Calcutta School of Music and learned to play the saxophone before I went to the US," he says.
There's a gap out there
This appears to be a common phenomenon. A lot of the people whom we spoke to, spent their gap years preparing to crack NEET or JEE Advanced. After all, we all live in India, a country where a lot of parents do not think beyond their child becoming an engineer or a doctor.
These choices often come from a position of privilege. Srishti Bhandari agrees with this notion. Even though she did not want to be a doctor or an IITian, she took a gap year in 2017. Right after graduating high school, she dropped a year to apply to a few universities abroad, particularly in the US and Singapore. While she did not end up going abroad considering the affordability factor, she says that the gap year did not do her any harm. "The application process for a lot of these universities was extremely long and tedious. So, I did not want to do it in a hurry," says Srishti, who is now a business graduate.
It was also around the same time that her grandfather passed away. She says that the application process and writing essays helped her cope with her grief better. "It wasn't a bad choice at all. However, staying at home was not very easy either," she says. She also did three separate internships during that period to gain experience and to understand the market and the workspace that she is getting into. "A corporate job is not a dream anymore," she laughs.
It's my child's life!
It is established that not a lot of parents around will be happy with their child opting for a gap year. But Biji Jayakrishnan is no such parent. A mother of two girls, she talks to us about how her elder daughter opted for a two-year gap after Class XII to prepare for the medical entrance examination. "This decision was no shocker for me. Since the time she was young, both of us would talk about how amazing it will be for her to take a gap year and do some travelling before she goes to college. You don't have timelines restricting you," she says. "She also wanted to go abroad, so I thought that a year's break would help her prepare better for that," she says.
This was back in 2019. Biji's daughter wasn't able to go abroad the next year, owing to the pandemic. That year's break was inevitable. But neither mother nor daughter has complaints. "She started concentrating on art at that time while applying to universities abroad. On top of that, it was really helpful for my younger daughter who was going through a hard time. She could have used a sibling's support a lot," she says.
Now in 2021, Biji's daughter is packing her bags to go to Ukraine to study medicine. Her younger daughter, who is now a 12th grader, has the option open to her. "I don't mind if she opts for a gap year too. It's her life after all," she says. While this entrepreneur from Kerala was called a 'cool mom' by many, a lot of fingers were pointed at her. "People would tell me that this would, in turn, spoil my child's future and to ask her to pursue the next course available. But how will that make any sense? This is more like asking parents to marry their child off to the next guy they find on the street because she is unmarried," she says.
Policy changes and much more
The new National Education Policy, though prone to a lot of criticism, acknowledges gap years and takes them quite seriously. It even expands its flexibility in such a way that students can take gap years even after their first or second year of studying a certain course. The students can save their academic credits attained in the previous semesters on DigiLocker and can carry them forward when they rejoin college. Addressing this, in 2020, Amit Khare, Secretary, Minister of Education, had said, "The credits that the students obtain in their first and second year will be stored using the DigiLocker system. So, in the third year, if they want to take a break and continue their course within a fixed period, they can utilise these credits for further education."
Educational Consultant Jyoti Swaroop emphasises this point. "The NEP assures students that they can pick up academics anytime after gap years. So there's a safety net," she says. Jyoti also advocates gap year and thinks that students must opt for it even if they are not using the time to prepare for competitive examinations.
And does this work for them? Yes! "While most students take a gap year to figure out things and some others to prepare, I think they should be encouraged to just live for the moment, pursue an interest or learn skills that fill their souls. There is nothing wrong with drifting and tasting the essence of life, just for its sake," she says, adding that gap years are not just restricted to students and that anyone can take a break (and maybe have a KitKat) whenever they want to. "You live for an average of 80 years. A year's break wouldn't really make a difference," she says.
Game. Set. Break Point?