Traveling the world is a dream: to tread the grounds where no feet have touched, to taste the sweetest berry that nature has to offer and to sleep under the brightest stars of the night. Maybe that dream has a place in the books, but young hopefuls fresh out of schools are looking at making their own discoveries by taking a leap of faith before landing a nine-to-five desk job.
To take a gap year is to take time out to travel when one is in between life stages—a common term used when students set out to trek the globe after graduating from high school or university, and before they embark on their tertiary education or career life. It could be a good idea if your child is still unsure of their career path.
The duration of a gap year is up to the student. It could take a week or the entire 12 months, depending on how long of a break they would like to have. Although they could choose to spend this time to simply travel, sightsee and have some fun, many opt to sign up for a volunteer, internship or work abroad experience. First decide on what your child would like to achieve on this trip, and then choose the most appealing type of program that would help them achieve their goals.
Monash University graduate Choong Yoke King’s reason was simple: she wanted to see as much of the world as possible before beginning her career and committing to other responsibilities in life that would make it harder to leave for a long period of time. Over the period of 12 months, she traveled to Bangkok, Guangzhou, did a backpacking stint from Beijing to Mongolia where she spent a week in Gobi Desert, and then to Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai and finally to Harbin to experience the Ice Festival.
Recounting her most memorable moments, being out in the open desert was at the top of the list. “At Gobi Desert, I saw my first shooting star and slept under the stars—we were in the middle of nowhere and it was very beautiful because it was my first time in a desert.”
Most students and parents are afraid of what a year of traveling will result in—will employers be impressed with such a long time out? Yoke King shared her predicament.
“(When I returned) my peers were already employed and I was the only one left without a job, so the peer pressure was there. When I started looking for a job it was very, very hard.”
It took her about three months to land her first job, and although the gap year in her resume had been dubiously questioned in many interviews, that was the factor that had impressed her current employer. Yoke King has no regrets.
“Even though it had been very difficult when I was job seeking, and I was actually asking myself—why did I take a gap year?—now that I’m working and looking back, I’m very glad that I did it. I think it’s one of those things that you should do when you’re young. I wouldn’t be able to take even a month off right now because of my career.”
Work and play
Volunteer work abroad is a great way to get more out of the trip, allowing your child to employ their energy and skills to benefit the people or organisations that are less privileged. It could help develop their strengths and knowledge in a relevant field of career or simply to help out in a cause that they are passionate about. From helping to coach a junior school football team to helping feed endangered animals in a reserved forest, there are many organisations that need help. Always check if the organisation is a safe and reputable one, contact them and let them know that you are interested.
Trips that need a little help in the funding department can opt to work part time, but check if the visa allows your child to do so. Some students take on internships that will allow them to learn on the job, earn some allowance and travel at the same time. Alan Fong did just that. Having studied among international students and experienced a diverse cultural environment in university, he was adamant to find a way to explore the world. After several attempts, he found through the Internet an internship opportunity—in Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Arriving in the coldest month of the year where the wind blasts at 60km/h, he got heavily involved in the International Seafoods of Alaska’s daily grind. He also got to study their structure, the packaging process of raw fish and the logistics involved, which were all an advantage for him as he majored in International Business. It was a laborious job, lugging totes weighing hundreds of kilograms day in and day out, having food in the pantry stolen by bunkmates and going to bed cold with muscle aches.
“I was scheduled to work the midnight shift, from 6.30pm to 5am,” he explained. “Sometimes I worked up to 16 hours with a one-hour break in between. That’s how I really learned that life is not that easy.”
Tough as it had been, he acknowledged that Alaska was not a common gap year destination, and reveled in the beauty that it offered. “During summer time, there are dolphins and whales, and deer and bears running around. It was fantastic—an amazing experience.”
From meeting the only Malaysian on the island by chance to receiving compliments from his superior who said that Malaysians were the hardest working employees that they’ve seen, Alan had plenty to share about his gap year, and how important it was to stay determined in the face of hardship. His hard work paid off, allowing him to save USD7,000 that funded his trips to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York and his favourite, Seattle.
“I feel that I look at things differently ever since. It broadens your knowledge, changes the way you communicate and the way you work with people. It’s different.”
Funding is at the top of most students’ worries. Once your child has decided to take a gap year, allow some time to fundraise. See how much you can contribute and let them organise them a fundraise effort to support themselves—it is all part of the experience. Although the prospect may seem a little daunting, it will teach them to support themselves and appreciate the value of money before they embark on their journey. They will have to research their destination(s) and find out the cost of living, accommodation, transportation and meals. Make an estimate of how much is needed and set a target, then sit down together and brainstorm for fundraising ideas. It could be something as simple as generating cash from their chores, such as walking your neighbour’s dogs, babysitting or car washing. A bit more planning will allow you to organise a bake sale or a party where you can hold an auction or sell raffles to raise money.
For Roslyn Ruslan, the inspiration for a gap year came when, after high school, she participated in an empowering month-long expedition called Raleigh International, where young adults from around the world gather to make a difference in underprivileged communities. She made up her mind to take a gap year after finishing her diploma, and set to raise funds immediately. Three years of working part-time at a backpackers hostel in Kuala Lumpur throughout college, plus some contributions from her supportive parents, helped in funding the trips.
“The countries I wanted to go to was something that wasn't planned, but rather what was available on AirAsia,” said Roslyn. “With budget flights, a huge relief was taken off my shoulders as I couldn't afford to go far or stay long if I were to pay for non-budget airlines. Most of the countries I headed to were suggestions, or somewhere that I found to be affordable. None of them were places that were planned out from the very beginning.”
Roslyn ended up in India to explore the Golden Triangle, Australia to visit her close friends, Singapore for a Metric concert, South Korea to learn Korean and Jogjakarta to climb Mount Merapi with her friends.
“Through my gap year I learnt soft skills that I would probably not have learnt in a classroom setting,” Roslyn said upon reflection. “I found ways to talk to other people without requiring words due to language barriers. Sometimes you realise that once you overcome social awkwardness and learn to delve right into a friendship, everyone can get along swimmingly without having much in common.
“I wasn't expecting to have one of those Eat, Pray, Love sort of journeys with me finding myself. All I wanted was to widen my cultural adaptability and awareness and to meet new people who would introduce me to things I wouldn't be introduced with if I didn't travel.
“I was pretty clear with what I wanted to do after my gap year, but taking time off made me realise that I can adapt to more that I thought I initially could. So with that, I had a wider selection of countries to apply to for university.”
Doing a gap year requires responsibility, and it will allow students to immerse themselves in different cultures, learn new skills and learn about themselves and the world. Many gap year adventurers agree that their experiences had been a humbling journey as they explored foreign cultures, and the experience of saving and working for their own big adventure had taught them that money does not come easily. These are valuable life-long lessons that cannot be taught through textbooks—the world can be a great teacher too.