So, the earth’s shrinking. No, seriously. The world is getting smaller and I found the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this fact before university and work: a gap year to travel and master languages. Here's my plan:
- Saudi Arabia to immerse myself in Arabic and Arab culture
- learning Arabic more formally with teachers in Toronto
- staying in Pakistan to get better at Urdu
- volunteering back in TO/ Skyping with friends to practice American Sign Language (ASL)
- Spain to speak Spanish
- Paris to work on my French
Now don’t clutch your chests and stagger just yet (though coming from a South Asian family that was pretty much the reaction of most of the elders around me when I made this decision). The “gap year” phenomenon is only just starting to make an appearance in North America, which is why this choice, when announced casually, can tend to sound like “I want to drop out of school for a bit, frolic in fields, and basically waste my potential.” However, Google defines a “gap year” as a period, typically an academic year, taken by a student as a break between secondary school and higher education.” For myself, that means taking a year to pursue the kind of education I wouldn’t necessarily find in a classroom.
In Europe and Australia, the gap year has been around for ages; it’s basically considered odd if you decide not to not take one, like “What? Go straight from high school to university without taking a break? Do you WANT to go insane?!” In fact, universities in the UK look at what you’ve achieved in your gap year very seriously and even take it into consideration when reviewing applications, kind of like how extracurricular activities are so important for Canadian and American university applications.
According to studentawards.com, “employers in the UK are more interested in what you did in your gap year than what you did for an undergraduate degree.” That is because the Europeans understand something that North Americans are slower to grasp –- thinking outside of the box is not only okay, it is needed in today’s world.
Let’s go back to our shrinking planet. With airplanes, speedy travel is now a convenience we take for granted and this was one opportunity I was not going to let slip away. My mother first introduced the idea – having grown up in England, she took a gap year and didn’t understand why I was so nervous by the idea back when I was an early teen. I didn’t really have a focus back then. I enjoyed writing, I’d read a book a day, and journalism seemed really glamorous to me – but I had bigger worries, like entering the soul-sucking dungeon that was high school. In grade 10, things started to happen.
First of all, I started to really learn about and fall in love with different languages. I actually started liking French, which my mother and I often spoke together in, and I began trying to really learn my mother tongue, Urdu. I even started teaching myself American Sign Language. I had studied Arabic growing up in an Islamic school and a religious household, and to keep up with four languages meant I’d need to be more dedicated than the wannabe polyglot that I was. And surprisingly (mostly for me) I stuck to it.
A volunteering blip at my local mosque was the tipping point for me; a group of adult French students came over from Paris in an exchange program. One of the students stayed at our house – that, combined with volunteering as a tour guide and a sort-of-translator for this group sent my French skyrocketing and made me realize how perfect a stay in Paris for my gap year would be. I could spend a year both in Toronto and abroad improving my Arabic, Urdu, American Sign Language, Spanish, and French.
Taking a gap year is going against the grain in North America, and I needed all the pushing I could get. “I really wish I had taken some time off after graduating high school to figure out what I actually wanted to do, whether it be through volunteering or going to university part-time – anything other than going headfirst into a full course load,” one girl in university told me. “It would’ve given me time to make some money to save up for university and take a break from stuffing my brain full of information,” another echoed.
“My mentality right now is just get it done. Make it to the summer. Finish the semester. It's been like that for a while, actually,” a friend confessed. People seem to be rushing into university. But she also admitted “if I approached my parents about taking a year off, they would not have been okay with it because there is a very condescending stigma,” around getting behind, and being lazy.
It’s now March, a quarter-way through my gap year. I’ve taken a semester to study Arabic and religious studies at a Toronto institute, travelled to Pakistan for three weeks, and spent a month attempting to achieve fluency in American Sign Language to pass the screening for George Brown College’s ASL-English Interpreter program. Now, I’m about to embark on a long-term travelling spree, where my next five months look something like this: a week in Saudi Arabia, three weeks in England, a week in Spain volunteering at a mountain retreat and practising my Spanish, two months in Paris taking French classes and interning at a newspaper, and back to England for another two months of volunteering.
I’ve discovered that there are so many people around me who themselves have taken gap years and along the way discovered the untapped potential that was lying inside of them. The university that my friend Muminah started to attend turned out to be over-priced with poor academics, so she took a year off. She worked as a tutor, at a school for special needs children, and volunteered as an English teacher at an orphanage. When an unexpected move to the US pushed her university application back a semester, she spent that time as a tutor and substitute teacher at a small school in Michigan. “For the first time I worked and made my own money,” she tells me. “I found out what it's like to spend what you earn. For the first time I learned how to actually work in a new place, where I wasn't experienced at all.”
She ends with a piece of wisdom from her journey: “I learned that volunteering is a source of happiness, and helping others is also happiness… I think taking a gap year really builds you as a person and lets you find yourself. I didn't really know what type of person I was or what I liked doing till until I took time off and discovered so many new things about myself.”
So now that my year is halfway through and I’m just beginning my travels, I hope that you're more motivated to think outside the box, upset some uncles, and aim for the unexpected.
Want to know how to pay for a gap year like mine? My globetrotting gap year article series will return to lay out all the tips and tricks I used to save up and pay for six months worth of travel.