Every year, May and June are extremely busy months for students who have finished their high school. Students spend months preparing for entrance exams to get into colleges. They take extensive campus visits to colleges all over the country and weigh their options very meticulously. But what about the children who look at education very differently? Yes! Some students in Bengaluru are skipping the formal education route and a few are taking what they call ‘gap years’.
Experience over certificates
Is a college education necessary to learn a skill or master a subject? Nineteen-year-old Asawari Mathur doesn’t think so. “When I was in the fifth standard, my parents pulled me out of mainstream school,” she says. “They said that the school wasn’t serving what they thought was the purpose of education. They homeschooled me for the rest of the fifth grade. They started an alternative school and I was part of this environment till I turned 17.” Asawari says that she was more interested in experiential learning and felt that she could only get diverse experiences outside a college set-up.
In 2015, Asawari joined Swaraj University in Rajasthan, which is an alternative learning space for the youth. “I pursued a two-year degree-less programme that was based entirely on my interests,” she says. “I travelled a lot. I also volunteered at Swaraj as a facilitator and worked with the youth there.” Asawari plans to work in the areas of alternative education and sustainability. She thinks that she learnt something very important from her choice to skip the formal education route. “When children turn 16 or 17, a choice is put before them, that they should decide immediately as to what they want to do with their lives,” she says. “I think it is too soon to make this decision. Children are so pressurised that they are not able to explore who they are or what they want to do. They don’t realise that they actually have the gift of time. I found that for me, a college wouldn’t work. I don’t like constraints or learning in time blocks. I prefer to make my own structure.”
When 17-year-old Sahil Ashir finished school in 2016, he wanted to jump straight to work instead of going to college. “I loved photography ever since I was little and I knew I wanted to be a photographer,” he says. “I wanted to start working on my own and supporting myself financially.” Sahil is now part of the youngest in a group of 15 freelance photographers who work for different clients. The oldest member is 40. “I focus on food and event photography,” he says. Sahil, who has been doing this for two years, doesn’t regret skipping college and is grateful that his parents supported him completely.
“In my line of work, you need to keep constantly proving yourself,” he says. “You need to keep improving the quality of your work and getting more experience, but that’s what I like too. Looking back, I am happy with my decision!”
While skipping college entirely may still seem too radical an approach, many teens are taking gap years to get off the treadmill and take some time off to figure out what they really want to do.
Getting off the treadmill
A ‘gap year’ refers to a year that students take off from formal education, especially high school students, on the cusp of college education. While the concept is fairly new in India, many teens abroad look upon a gap year as an invaluable life experience. Each student has a different reason to pursue a gap year. Some students use the break to travel. A few of them view it as a way to challenge their comfort zones.
For Medha Patil, the reason was time. After she completed her 12th standard in 2017, she started applying to colleges and even sat for the JEE tests. She got into excellent colleges but according to her, something didn’t feel right. “My father suggested taking a gap year,” says Medha. “At first, I was against the idea. I told him I was not wasting a year. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.”
The gap year reinforced her belief that Maths was what she really wanted to pursue. “I realised that I am even more passionate about Maths than I thought,” she says. “I didn’t need exams to keep learning or working on Maths continuously. I used Khan Academy and other online learning platforms. I found that I loved Maths, Computer Science and Coding, so even when I was not forced into it, I was inclined towards those subjects. Now after a year, I am confident that this is what I really want to do.”
During her gap year, Medha volunteered in a school for special needs children and pursued a research internship with an economics professor. She will now be pursuing BSc in Maths. “In the end, it doesn’t matter how old I am when I graduate or achieve something in life,” she says. “I was so thankful for this realisation so early in life.” Her father Shrikant Patil was instrumental in convincing her to take a year off. “I lived in Israel, where all students do army for two to three years after their 12th,” he says. “This gap of two to three years in education has a major influence in Israelis setting global trends in science, arts and technology. In India, the younger you finish your degree, the smarter you are considered to be. But when you reflect later in life, one year is a drop in the ocean.”
Career counsellor Swarnalatha Sampangiramiah thinks that most children who opt for a gap year in the country are from more advantageous economic backgrounds, although there are a few exceptions. A gap year, she suggests, would be a good way to gain clarity. “Many children get into colleges and realise mid-stream that they are not suited to that subject at all,” she says. “Things are changing slowly. Institutions like the Swaraj University have gone to the next level of talking to companies like Google and Facebook. They are managing to convince them to take in students based on their skills and experience instead of just the degrees.”
According to Swarnalatha, parents today start talking about a child’s career when he or she is in the 8th standard! “If a child is mature and knows what he or she wants to do, that’s great, but what if they aren’t?” she says.
Seventeen-year-old Pranavswaroop Vinod has a different take on why he decided to take a gap year in 2018. “I would like people to judge me based on what I can do instead of how good I am at writing an exam,” he says. “Outside an exam, I can do so much more.”
During his gap year, Vinod is pursuing an internship with a business process outsourcing (BPO) and is working on projects that involve AI and data analyses. The experience, he says, is invaluable. “I am also looking at a music internship and a few other interesting opportunities. In fact, I am part a music project at the BPO where I work.” Vinod says that he doesn’t have the kind of stress that his peers have, now that he has taken a year off. “If I had applied this year, my schedule would have been crazy,” he says. “I would have been taking exams from January to March, apart from school work and interviews in April and May. Now I have more time. I can start preparing in November for college admissions. Most importantly, I have realised that we do not make the best decisions when operating at top speed.”
While there is a long way to go, it is interesting to see how parents and children are redefining the conventional perception of education.