Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Gap year pays for life

Uncertainty can be unsettling. But it can be rewarding too for the few who dare to face the challenge. Uncertainty, not necessarily out of confusion, but out of a deep urge to find out what life means beyond the academic route, to explore within and find their true vocation. And what better time for that than the transition phase from school to college! 

How can a Class XII student find his innate interests before pursuing one seriously that will define his happiness quotient for life? Teachers, parents and students who have given serious thought to this have come up with the concept — Gap Year! Take a break after the hectic academic phase, explore to experience the real world, discover yourself and go ahead seems to be a good idea for them. Says G. Gautama, Director - Secretary of The Chennai Education Centre KFI (Pathashaala & Outreach), and former Principal, The School KFI, “In India, the pressure to be on the treadmill, from school to college to work is heavy. Creating room for the students to get a breathing space to get their bearings is necessary for the journey of a learner, for a human being to find his passion and avocation.” 

But why take a gap year for having such a breathing space? Can't the regular academic stream accommodate that? “Over the last two to three decades, while the timeframe (12 years from Class I) has remained the same, the information to be processed has gone up manifold. Ideally, this should lead to extending K-12 to K-14, but the alternative is to give students a gap year to think, in an unstructured manner, what kind of career and life they would like to have,” says Sriram Naganathan, southern India coordinator for IGNUS ERG, an initiative that aims at improving the quality of education for marginalised students. 

And learning is not limited to processing information. By and large, it happens through direction in schools. “Life teaches in a 'non-directed' manner. One goes through experiences and one absorbs, learns through trial, failure, observation, participation and assuming responsibility,” explains Gautama. 

Breaking free
For Lakshmi who finished her Class XII in a CBSE school in Chennai in 2012, this “directed learning” and the consequent academic pressure was stifling. So much so, a bright student who aspired for a medical seat and even got it, she decided to break free and “take the baby steps to the beginning of a life with meaning.” Looking back, she says, “I was irritated with people expecting too much from me and I had submitted my exam papers blank once.” What has this gap year done to her? “It was a gift I gave myself to find out who I am, step out of my comfort zone, explore, experiment and learn new things. At school, we are always fed with information, ideas, and perspectives of how others have made sense of the world, what we should eat, buy and so on. We are never given the time or freedom to have our own perspective. The gap year is that breathing space.” 

This breathing space has expanded the frontiers of learning beyond the academics for Anant Singh, now an organic farmer and a sustainability consultant. He took a gap year in 2006-07. “It is the time you give yourself to find out what kind of work you would like to do for the rest of your life. Meeting new people, travelling alone, getting hands-on at a job, immersing oneself fully in a hobby... the benefits are endless. You get to spend quality time on what you are deeply interested in, build your worldview and learn to be part of the solution to the world's problems and not be part of the problems!,” he goes on about the merits of a break from the academics. 

For some it is a pilgrimage and a period of unconditioning oneself of 12 years of schooling. Says Madhur Anand who took a year off in 2012, “It helps to let down the lenses and the conditioning you have acquired at school. At school I was in a 'race' to win. But my gap year took me into a pilgrimage. Where your journey is yours alone. It brought me face to face with the world. Without any institutional backing. And I feel more empowered now.” 

New opportunities
Gap year is also seen as an opportunity for trying out unconventional skill-building and career choices. Chayant Gonsalves, now a II-year student at Madras Christian College, Chennai, justifies his gap year in 2011-12: “My interest was wildlife. In my gap year I volunteered at four NGOs, 4 - 6 weeks each. That gave me clarity as to whether a career in conservation would suit me. That would have not been possible had I followed the conventional academic route.” 

There are also students who initially felt they had failed in the rat race, took a year off to study more and re-appear for the exams, only to realise this 'gap' has opened new doors of learning for them, as in the case of Rahul Hasija. “After college, I took a year off and wanted to reappear for my CAT exams. But that idea stayed barely for two weeks. I realised decisions were being taken by others for me and my mind was influenced by societal pressures. And there began a journey to reclaim my life. I never went back to a four-walled classroom. I saw life exists beyond the 3 - 4 streams taught in school.” 

The gap year has not always been a smooth ride for these students, faced with peer pressure and criticism that they could “waste their time.” So, how did they spend their time and respond to these challenges? Lakshmi's answer puts gap year in the proper perspective: “The key is to spend a lot of time doing nothing if that's what one wants, only then can one make sense of what he has already experienced, start questioning, look inward. Most of the year, I learnt nothing new (from outside, but I did about myself), which gave me clarity on which direction should I move on.” Just how after his gap year, Chayant realised his direction lay in wild life studies. “It's up to the individual. The learning curve is incredibly steep but once you've caught on, it's a fantastic journey,” he says. 

It's Year On
To challenge the notion that gap year is a “waste of time” and only those who are not “smart” take it, Swaraj University which offers various self-designed learning programmes, has done a campaign called the ''Year On.” Says Rewa Dandage, one of the co-founders of the university: “It is not a Year Off, it is Year On. It nurtures the seed of learning forever. A period of time with no agenda is healing and gives one the opportunity to question things around him. By the age of 16 or 18, youth are expected to decide the field of study, but they don't have the opportunity to experience how this field of knowledge is actually applied in the real world. By taking a break, they can apprentice in an area and find out if that is what they would like to devote their energy to over the next few years.” 

It is a new life opening up for these students as they break the academic barriers. A life with never ending learning opportunities as they unfold themselves and travel a wonderful journey, with clarity and confidence. As Gautama puts it: Students who dropped off the treadmill, breathed easier, were not afraid of the criticism that they knew would come and they smiled. 

-After completing Class XII in Chennai in 2012, spent two years at Swaraj University. 

-At present managing/mentoring and organising various new projects at reStore, an organic store in Chennai; Freelance Facilitator, co-facilitates workshops/events about localisation, sustainability, alternative education, sexuality and sexual health, alternative therapy. 

-Has launched a project called COW (Conscious Workplaces) to help start-ups/companies create a culture that promotes happiness and prosperity of everyone in the company. 

-Also part of different groups such as Vikalp Sangam, International Alliance for Localisation, Learning Societies UnConference, Economics of Happiness Conference. 

Anant Singh
-Organic farmer and a sustainability consultant. Lives in his grandmother's farm, working towards making it fully economically and ecologically sustainable. Conducts cycle tours of Srirangapatna. Runs a company producing virgin coconut oil. 

-After completing Class X in Chennai, took gap year in 2006-07. Later completed Class XII through the National Institute of Open Schooling. Then joined a self-designed learning programme at Swaraj University. 

-During his gap year, volunteered at the Marudam school farm in Tiruvannamalai, participated in the Landscapes and Lifeskills course at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad; Volunteered at Auroville's organic farms; cycled around the city, apprenticed at an electronics shop, did experiments with his own solar panel, worked on his own self-watered rooftop garden. 

Rahul Hasija
-Now works as a Lead Facilitator at Swaraj University, does freelance writing, editing, translation, storytelling. 

-After completing graduation in 2009, took gap year before joining Swaraj University as a learner in 2010 - 12. 

-During his gap year, learnt about bird watching, terrace garden, insect life, organic farming, unschooling, gift culture, dance movement, body intelligence, consumerism. 

-His present role at Swaraj includes designing and implementing the structure of the programme, developing facilitation tools, hosting sessions on team-building, cooperative games, circular dances, reconnecting with the ancestral roots, re-thinking development and connecting with the nature.

-His TEDx talk on 'What if learning was possible without degrees' at /watch?v=RYL_vleJd3k 

Chayant Gonsalves
-Currently studying zoology at Madras Christian College, Chennai. Wants to pursue master's in wildlife ecology/conservation, sustainable development or social entrepreneurship.
-Graduated from Centre for Learning, Bangalore in 2011. 

-Took gap year in 2011 -12. Joined MCC in 2012. 

-During his gap year, worked as Research Assistant on different wildlife projects in the Western Ghats, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. 

Madhur Anand
-After completing Class XII in Bhopal, underwent a gap year programme at Swaraj University.
-At present, facilitator, working on rethinking development at Sambhavnaa Institute of Public Policy, Himachal Pradesh; assistant editor, 

-How he generally spent his gap year: Walking in the woods, cycling, journaling, working on a film project, cooking, storytelling, participating in community meetings, working in farms. 

-After his gap year, got working with an international documentary, ‘Enlivened Learning’, which is about questioning the purpose of universities and exploring experiments in higher learning in USA, India and Latin America. 

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