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Bridging the gap

SECOND THOUGHTS: Varisa Tharawat switched courses after a year at university.

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'The more I got to study major subjects, the more depressed I felt about being at university," said Varisa Tharawat, who is in her second year at Mahidol University but is a first-year student in the communication design department.

Last year she was a first-year student in the international business department. She knew then she did not have the passion for the subject but she decided to study international business because her parents wanted her to.

After one year, however, Varisa realised she should not continue with the course. She decided to change departments, and she is happy with her decision.

"I think Thai students deserve to have more time to think about what they like and what suits them best," said Varisa, even though her classmates call her a dek siw or "fossil student" -- the college student at least a year later than their peers in the same class.

Some change department while others decide to reapply for the university examination after they failed the first time to get into the faculty of their choice.

Rear view of little boy standing on the mountain peak while holding suitcase and looking at clouds Gap Year PHOTO: 123RF

In Thailand, once students finish high school, they are expected to go straight to university. There are three main examinations that Thai students who attend public schools have to take: GAT-PAT, O-Net and the central examinations. Students usually take them all since these exams are required by many public universities.

Besides having to study hard during their high school years, students have to decide which direction they would like to take after graduation. "In high school, all we focused on were exams. There was no time to figure out what we like best," said Varisa.

Due to the time constraints, students tend to focus on preparing for exams rather than consider which major they think is best for them.

Varisa said if she'd had the time to mull what she would like to study, she might not have had to waste one year studying a subject she did not like.

In some countries, students can choose to take a "gap year" after graduating before they further their studies. Some students use that time to explore their study and career options, volunteering, travelling abroad and learning about other cultures. Some change their area of study after they have found a new passion during the gap year.

According to the 2015 National Alumni Survey undertaken by Nina Hoe, PhD, in collaboration with the Institute for Survey Research, Temple University in the US and the AGA Research Committee, 98% of the students who had taken a gap year claimed that it helped them develop as a person, while 77% claimed it had helped them find a purpose in life.

Taking a year out can lead to a greater motivation in college, according to an Australian study of 2,502 students published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

"I don't regret it," said Muantawan Viboonnun, a third-year journalism student at Thammasat University. She took a year off right after she completed high school. Moreover, her parents were a major influence in her decision to take a gap year.

"My parents value experience over education," she said. "They feel like the more I know about the world, the better."

During her gap year, Muantawan had a chance to work at her father's company. Her father owns a TV channel that focuses on cars.

That gave Muantawan a chance to actually work in the field, which led to her decision to pursue a degree in journalism. "It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do. I love writing," she said.

RIGID IDEAS

"Half the problem with students today is that they don't know what they want to do," said Rochelle Gay Foley, director of international students at St Dominic's College in Auckland, New Zealand.

As director of international students, Foley makes sure that they achieve the results required by the universities in their countries as well as ensuring they face a smooth transition.

Foley said taking a gap year gives students an opportunity to learn life skills. She explained students ought to use the gap year to step out of their comfort zone, put themselves in a place or a situation they have never encountered before and learn from such experiences.

"If you're stuck in school until the age of 18, your whole life is run by a bell. A bell. You get up, you go out, you have lunch, there's a bell. You go back into class, there's a bell. You stand up, you go home. And all of the sudden, there's a world out there with no bells," she said. "For students who cannot think of anything to do or nothing inspires them, nothing is going to make them succeed."

However, the idea of taking a gap year is beyond the consideration of most Thai parents.

"If I were going to take a gap year, my parents would say 'Wouldn't it be wasting your time?'," said Varisa.

She also said Thais have rigid ideas about the age when they are supposed to graduate and embark on their careers.

Varisa said it is difficult convincing Thai parents to let their offspring take a gap year due to their traditional ideas about how to raise children. Thai children are not taught to spend time learning about their true passions. Instead they are encouraged to take tutoring classes during their free time. "Otherwise, they may just end up in Siam Paragon," she said.

TRUE VOCATION

Anusorn Sivakul, chairman of the executive board of Vannasorn Education Co, which runs several tutoring schools in Thailand, said the gap year does not necessarily inspire students to make the right choice for their studies. In fact, most students decide on their course of study without the need for a gap year.

"Thailand's education system does not accommodate the gap year, but we have a number of dek siw students because they realise they did not get the subject they really want to study," he said.

This mostly happens among students in the sciences rather than the liberal arts because their field of study plays a major role in determining their career path.

"We have a number of students who started out at science or pharmacy faculties who dropped out after the first year and attended our tutoring school because they want to reapply for medical school. Of course, many fail to get into medical school the first time and want to reapply one year later. But there are also some who found out after years of study that they have studied a subject they are not passionate about," he said.

He cited an example from one student who came to his tutoring school to reapply for medical school after she graduated from the faculty of arts at Chulalongkorn University, regarded as one of the best liberal arts schools in Thailand.

"After realising that she wanted to be a doctor, she decided to finish her arts degree before studying maths and science at the tutoring school to so she could apply to the medical faculty. She does not mind starting again because now she knows what she really wants," Anusorn said.

"The gap year alone may not be enough for Thai students to realise what they want from an early age. It depends on their parents and the school system. Our system does not encourage students to think for themselves. The schooling and exam system does not help students explore their studies or career option."

In Thailand, parents have a strong bearing on a student's decision when it comes to choosing a field of study, he said.

"I have a student who finished medical school even though he did not want to be a doctor. He studied medical science to make his parents happy. After graduation, he decided not to become a doctor and told his parents that he had fulfilled their wish and now he wanted to have his own life."

TAKE YOUR TIME: Rochelle Gay Foley says taking a gap year gives students life skills.

STAYING AHEAD OF THE GAME: Above and bottom right, extra-curricular textbooks help students to prepare for their university entrance examinations.

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