Have You Considered Taking a Gap Year Like Malia Obama?

By John Peter TanLim Lay Hsuan|14-06-2016 | 9 Min Read
Source: U.S. Embassy, Jakarta | Flickr

Last month’s announcement from the White House that Malia Obama (Barack Obama’s eldest daughter) has decided to take a gap year before starting Harvard University in the fall of 2017 drew swift response on social media. Some supported the idea of gap year, while some commented that it is only for the affluent and influential.

What’s a gap year, you might ask? It’s typically a break before college/university, or sometimes a break after university but before a formal employment. Gap year generally provides space for students to explore careers, learn new skills, travel, work and earn money.

Being a ‘gapper’ is probably not very common in Malaysia, but it is definitely catching up slowly. Here are some thoughts shared with Leaderonomics on gap year.

From HR practitioners and industry experts

Would you take in gappers? Why, or why not? If you do, how will you provide the necessary support for them?

Sugunah Verumandy, HR director, Gas Power Systems, Asia Pacific, General Electric

I would certainly support gap year talents. If a gap year is planned and executed well, it provides opportunities for talents to frame a foundation for future career and growth, as well as networking opportunities with diverse workforce. This helps develop their thought processes and behaviours.

In fact, in GE Malaysia, we are currently hosting gap year talents. The programme is designed with clear opportunity for talents to experience work, volunteering activities, travel, networking with senior leadership team and navigating through uncertain times.

At the end of the programme, the talents do not just walk away experiencing stretch and resilience but having tried the unknown, earning some cash and having fun at the same time.

Loo Leap Han, group HR manager, Beacon International Specialist Centre Sdn Bhd

Yes, I would take in gappers. They are the in-between solution for talent shortage. They are motivated, focus-oriented and engaged towards achieving their goals.

As an employer, it is our responsibility to support their transformation and create working life experiences that are meaningful through job rotations, project assignments and career counselling.

A gap year is a great time for them to build character, embrace confidence, and knowing what they really want in life.

Peter Ling, chief organisational development officer, Mah Sing Bhd

We are confronted with many business challenges these days. Today’s companies are facing a borderless and 'boundary-less' environment. Digitisation has caused huge disruption, the management workforce is aging, the demands from the customers and employees are getting higher, and the gap between generations is growing!

Therefore, I will welcome an opportunity to provide such 'gap' learning environment space for such talents to help them to explore potential careers, learn leadership skills, travel and work and even 'earn' money.

Unfortunately, there is not many such programmes here in Malaysia. I believe to do so, there must be concerted effort between the educational institutions and companies. The reality is that we may not be ready to do this successfully at this present moment. We, in Mah Sing, are exploring such opportunity with our talent programmes.

What our fellow students say

Would you consider taking a gap year? Why or why not? If you do, what would you be doing in your gap year?


Amery, 20
Many students previously took gap years because of our national service. Also, many fresh graduates want to take a break before pursuing their interests (in studies or in their career). They would go on trips or even hang out with friends. It often varies from an individual to another. Personally, I took some time off reading up on careers and the most suitable institution to continue my education.

Freda Wong, 21
Yes, of course. I’d choose to take a gap year before entering college or university to explore more about the world and to get to know people. I’d like to be a part of their experience, while I take time to decide on the course that I would love to do. I’m currently in university life already, but I did take a few months break to do part-time work as a barista. Through that experience, I learnt the importance of customer service.

Isaac Kam, 20
I support having a gap year before continuing studies because a new environment creates an opportunity for growth. Taking a gap year helps with personal growth and provides time and space for me to breathe and expand my thoughts for the future. Signing up for voluntary work or part-time jobs can be a transitional period to develop maturity. These qualities include rational decision-making, understanding and accepting new opinions and ideas.

If I had a gap year, I will choose to spend half of the year exploring, travelling and learning. For the other half of the year, I will get involved in voluntary work or part-time job for the community’s benefits and for my own personal growth.

Darshinie, 21
I would consider taking a gap year because I feel that it will help one to gain experience and become more mature. If I did a gap year, I would consider working as it helps me gain experience and earn some decent money.

Lim Qin Wei, 20
I would take a gap year to try out various things. Maybe I’ll gain some work experience and explore where my interest may possible be.

Arul Annemarie Rayan, 21
Yes, I would. To take a break from studying in a classroom setting and to consider all options before deciding on what course to take in college or university. I would do charity, learn languages, work to earn money and gain experience. This will improve me as a person, not just with knowledge but also prepare me with life and people skills.

Sarah Lim Jia Hui, 21
I feel that, in my case, a gap year is unnecessary. This is due to the fact that I have consciously used my time as a college and university student to get valuable work experience, volunteer, learn soft skills, and travel. Where other students might use their gap year to 'find themselves', I have always been confident of what I want to study. If I were to take a gap year following my degree, I would probably use it to earn and save enough money to finance other education opportunities I might pursue in the future.

What the parents say

Would you encourage your child to take a gap year? Why or why not? If you do, how will you provide the necessary support for him/her?


Aileen Lau, wine seller
As a parent, I would let my child make the decision. If she decides to take a gap, I’ll make sure she fully utilise the time to do what she wants to do, i.e. to figure out what she wants and to explore the world. As a parent, I would support her wherever I can.

S. Thanga Eswari, retiree
Yes, I would. It’s good for them to take a breather from studying, and do charity and see how others live instead. Get temporary job in a field of their interest to see what it’s like. A year away from family will make them more independent. They’ll have to manage themselves and meet strangers, which will improve their self-confidence and communication skills. A gap year will teach them things a book can’t. I’ll support by teaching them to learn about people and how to treat colleagues respectfully. As for money, I have to impart to them to live within their means.

Racheal Tan Soo Kim, homemaker
We as parents are funding our children through their studies. Therefore, instead of encouraging my children to take a gap year, I’ll tell them to make the most of the time they have. Long breaks, such as the waiting period between college and university, as well as summer or mid-year breaks, are great times to earn money, travel and gain work experience. Following this mentality, I feel that a whole gap year is quite superfluous.

Parent 1
I would encourage my child to take a gap year. However, the duration of it should not be too long. I want my child to complete his/her studies quickly. A break would be good, but if the duration of that break is too long, they may start slacking, becoming lazy, or even forgetting most of what they have studied previously. Then when they resume their studies again, they would be lost and probably not be able to recall what they have studied previously. As long as the gap year is not more than five months, I would encourage it.

Parent 2
I am neutral when supporting my son’s gap year idea, partially because of the unfavourable economy now. It is hard to fund a trip for my son and the cost which comes with the trip. However, I do agree that a gap year is good for young people to explore and see the world before they begin their working lives.

Parent 3
I support gap year for my children because back in my days, it was hard to save money for travelling. I will support my children for a gap year if it means they learn more about the real world first-hand.

Parent 4
I wouldn’t encourage my child to take a gap year as it will disrupt the current momentum of studying. Children who take gap year and start working tend to enjoy seeing the monetary rewards and become disinterested with studying.

Parent 5
I wouldn’t be against the idea of my child having a gap year, as long as it is not wasted on irrelevant activities. If he feels like he wants to explore the world and gain some real life experiences along the way, I would strongly encourage it.

Leaving your comfort zone and trying new things in your gap year

In closing

We often look at the benefits of taking a gap year, i.e. to challenge oneself, to improve one’s employability, to make new friends and to learn new skills.

The downsides of a gap year including you being a year behind your peers and a possibility of you losing interest in your studies, making it more challenging for you to adjust to student life again. Not forgetting, a gap year can also be misused and abused if a gapper loses his/her sense of objectivity. A case in point is Richard Huckle, the British paedophile who abused babies and toddlers in Malaysia and Cambodia, reportedly while he was on a teaching gap year when he was 18 or 19.

The choice is really in your hands.

Jeffrey J. Selingo sums it best in his article which was published in The Age:

For a gap year to have a significant impact on success in college, and later in the working world, it needs to be a transformative event, quite distinct from anything a student has experienced before – a meaningful work experience, academic preparation for college, or travel that opens up the horizon to the rest of the world.


Hence, taking a gap year needs to be intentional, and not just something that happens out of the blue to merely pass time and ‘discover oneself’.

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John is a former intern at Leaderonomics. He believes anyone can be leaders if they want to because he believes it only requires simple steps for a drastic change.
Lay Hsuan was part of the content curation team for Leaderonomics.com, playing the role of a content gatekeeper as well as ensuring the integrity of stories that came in. She was an occasional writer for the team and was previously the caretaker for Leaderonomics social media channels. She is still happiest when you leave comments on the website, or subscribe to Leader's Digest, or share Leaderonomics content on social media.
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