“Dad…I’m going to take a gap year.” “You want to take a what?” He replied, his perpetually smiling face instantly morphed into a frown. “A gap year.” I said rather boldly (have I lost my mind?!) “OK…OK…OK” he said repeatedly as I became increasingly unnerved with each utterance, then it stopped. Silence. What seemed like an eternity passed. “So you are not going to go to university?” he said. Oh dear I could see where this was headed. “Yes dad I will be, just not this year but definitely next.””OK…OK…OK… So what does that mean?” His words mingled with sadness and restrained anger. This conversation went round in circles for quite a while and as you probably guessed, it didn’t end well.
My dad was one of the most liberal, free-spirited people on the planet whose abiding mantra was ‘live and let live’. I could have told him I was a lesbian, entering a nunnery, joining the circus or any other random scenario and he would have been perfectly fine with it as long as it ‘made me happy’. However the concept of a gap year didn’t compute.
To be honest, I was fairly surprised by his response because our household was not especially traditional. However looking back there were elements – no matter how liberal – which will always remain such as respect for your elders and reverence for education.
I should have known no matter how ‘open minded’ dad was, in an Afropolitan household – especially a Nigerian household – gap years are as elusive as unicorns. Things may have changed now (though I doubt it) but over ten years ago, it wasn’t very common amongst the British based West Africans I knew. Gap year for what? For who? What have you experienced in life which warrants a ‘break’? What are you going to do? All these questions would be swirling round in a Nigerian parent’s mind in response to such a ridiculous proposition.
Getting a good education was and still is of the upmost importance because it equates to securing a good future for you and your family. Go to school, go university, study something sensible (Law, Accountancy, Medicine), get a good job, buy a nice home, start a family, take care of your parents in old age – the usual trajectory in any traditional BME household which highly prizes education as the route of all self betterment.
I could now see that my poor dad thought his super academic daughter was ‘going off the rails’ and with it all his hopes and dreams for me. What was he going to tell his friends and family? How could he explain this decision to them? I felt like such a failure in his eyes which I had never experienced before. My dad and I were extremely close, in fact he delivered me at birth and our bond had been apparent ever since. But this was one of the very few times in my life where I had disappointed him, almost to the point of disgust. He would not talk to me for weeks afterwards and refused to give me eye contact – he was that upset.
Dad didn’t even particularly care what I studied as long as he could say I went to university. He himself didn’t go to university so was not so focused on what I studied as long as I went. I planned to study English and History (which is an entirely different conversation altogether and something which still confuses my maternal grandmother until this day) but in his mind, at least it meant a move towards progress. He wanted a better life for me than he had for himself and education was the key to securing this. Why would I make such a selfish decision as to delay it?
I didn’t take a gap year because I had grand plans to travel the world. I did it out of embarrassment and because, in my eyes, I had no choice. I received my A Level results and though I got an ABB, unfortunately it was not the right grades to allow me to study on my preferred course at a prestigious Red Brick institution. I remember results day like it happened last week – I didn’t realise how arrogant I was or how much my identity was bound up in my intellect until the day of the ‘rude awakening.’
After realising I got the wrong ABB (the A was neither in English Literature or History) I instantly ran to the careers service to see what could be done to ensure I could go to my first choice placement. I managed to meet the main careers advisor, who had a horrific reputation for being brutally honesty and in a nutshell, crushed any hopes I had. “Well judging by how competitive the course and institution is you won’t get in this year. If you are lucky they may offer you another course which you can take and hope someone drops out mid way on your preferred course so you can change over but it’s not guaranteed and quite unlikely.” All I could hear was bla bla bla and at one point I said to her: “But how can I not be going to university? I mean it’s me! I got all A’s last year.” My pride was completely crushed as a cloak of shame covered me, how could I explain to my friends and family that clever kem kem was not so clever after all?
In retrospect taking a gap year was the best decision of my life. I developed a strong work ethic – working two retail jobs, six days a week including one at GAP – (yes you couldn’t make it up); took up another A level because I always wanted to study that particular subject (super geek), took up singing in a choir, met some amazing people including session singers and actors who had to do retail when their craft couldn’t pay the bills, found my faith (in fact it was the first time I truly spoke to a God and He answered!) … It was nothing like I expected it to be but I grew so much during this time and saved quite a bit of money towards University too! And when I did eventually go to University the following year, God provided the right group of friends, the right course and I had such an incredible experience as a result.
There are untold benefits to a gap year but one in particular, is that you realise more than ever whether university is for you or not. For some people taking the time out allows them to come to the realisation that they are ready to enter the world of work rather than accrue debt which might or might not lead them to their dream job. For others, myself included, I realised that I wanted to go to university, but for the right reasons this time (not just to party and be promiscuous as popular culture loves to remind us.) I didn’t want a life of low paid work to make ends meet – university was my route out of poverty and I was going to grasp it with both hands.