Mohd Nidzam Adzha during one of his activities at the Pusat Sinar Harapan in Jitra, Kedah.

IN September 2017, the then Higher Education Ministry introduced the Gap Year programme to allow undergraduates from Malaysian Public Universities to take a year, or two semesters, off from their formal education to engage in volunteer activities.

An initiative under Shift 1 (Holistic, Entrepreneurial and Balanced Graduates) of the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education), there are three streams of the Gap Year programme which are Gap Year National Service Volunteerism, Gap Year Volunteerism, and Gap Year (General).

The Gap Year National Service Volunteerism provides opportunities for students to join the Malaysian Armed Forces, Royal Malaysia Police and Civil Defence Department for nine months, while Gap Year Volunteerism allows students to work with government or non-governmental agencies focusing on volunteerism and community activities such as in literacy tutoring, disaster management, youth work, and human and refugee relief.

The third stream enables students to engage actively in activities that interest them. It covers a broader range of activities including work, sports, travel, and others.

Since its introduction, some students from public universities have taken the opportunity to participate in the programme. Higher Ed spoke to three students who have completed their gap year programmes and shared their experiences during that period of time.

BUILDING CONFIDENCE

While most of her university friends continued with their studies, Noraim Deraman, 25, was determined to take a nine-month break from her studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) to join the Gap Year National Service programme in September 2017.

“From my understanding, ‘Gap Year’ means the time frame that exists within a certain period that is used to perform activities unrelated to the course of study.

“The Gap Year is more focused on how we apply the knowledge we have in the working environment. If at university we only learnt, created, and shared among our peers, this time around we did so with different age groups, living standards, cultural and social layers,” she revealed.

Initially she was rather sceptical at the prospect of not being able to graduate along with her coursemates, but she decided that the experience gained would help her fit in better when she enters the working world.

“I wanted to explore new things so I’m better prepared for the future, and what was more important was that my family approved and accepted all my decisions,” she said.

The Bachelor of Science (Decision Science) undergraduate said it all began upon her completing three-year training as an officer with the Reserve Officers Training Unit (Palapes). She said this is a requirement for Gap Year National Service with the Armed Forces.

“I chose to join the Gap Year National Service programme in collaboration with the then Ministry of Higher Education by enlisting with the army. This saw her being placed with the Rejimen 515 Askar Wataniah, the military reserve force of the Malaysian Army — the Territorial Army.

“During the programme, I pushed myself to try new things, especially involving work that requires us to interact with the community.

“So I managed to build my confidence and do lots of things because I have a desire to learn.

The Gap Year National Service programme runs for nine months. “I learnt a lot of things and gained so much experience thanks to the programme. One thing’s for sure though, you have to be open-minded, confident and proactive as well. I am able to control my emotions if my suggestions or views are inadequate for a particular situation.”

Among the challenges she had to face was knowing how to deal with senior military personnel.

“I have no issues when dealing with peers of the same age because we can talk as friends, but I also needed to know how to engage with those who are older. Another challenge I faced was when researching on the Territorial Army. I had to collect data on society knowledge and make an analysis of the study,” she said.

Noraim stressed that volunteering for Gap Year is not coercion but a personal willingness and desire to explore the world. “By the end of the programme, most of my university friends were impressed as I managed to successfully complete my Gap Year.

She continued, “By taking the Gap Year, I learnt to better control my emotions, and learnt how to fit in for certain situations, growing to be more mature in thought and action.

“Today, I am a more confident person thanks to the experience and time with the Territorial Army, where I also learnt to cope with various challenges from society.

“Do not let your weakness be a barrier, instead, use it as a source of strength and as a challenge to become successful.”

Noraim just completed her industrial training last month and is now looking forward to her convocation in October.

HANDS-ON

UUM counselling undergraduate Azzarina Mohammad Shukor, 23, joined Gap Year Volunteerism under the Volunteer to Institution (V2i) programme in collaboration with the Welfare Department for three months in June 2017, which saw her being placed with the Rumah Seri Kenangan in Cheras.

“I gained valuable experience by managing old folks, by exploring their thoughts and feelings. They actually want nothing but attention, love, and friends to chat with. This is good for my future career as a counsellor.

“For example, if I want to conduct any counselling sessions with senior citizens, I now have the necessary experience to help them,” she said.

Azzarina, who has had to deal with a health issue said that the experience gained in taking care of the elderly has, in turn, helped her in dealing with her own self-esteem issues; and her level of confidence has risen.

During her volunteering stint, she also managed to shed four kilogrammes.

“It’s been a long time coming, but for me, it has always been because of a lack of motivation. But after seeing the fate of the elderly at the old folks home, who are mostly ill or ignored by their families, I’m more motivated than ever to be healthy.

“After the programme, I continued to practice healthy eating habits and exercise. I managed to lose 20kg in just four months,” she shared.

“However, I also faced various challenges. For example, prior to that, during every semester break, I would work. But under the programme, I did volunteer work where I was not paid and had to use my own money.

“The second challenge was to serve and care for the elderly as best as I could, while staying calm and patient with them.”

Azzarina hopes that other university students will participate in such programmes as she believes that the experience gained will make them more resilient while enhancing their survival skills. It would also get them out of their comfort zones because they have to adapt to new environments and surroundings.

EXPOSURE

Another UUM undergraduate, Mohd Nidzam Adzha Abdul Razak, 21, began his Gap Year experience as a volunteer just this month under the V2i programme as well. He said the programme focuses on the community which requires individuals or groups to carry out activities at selected organisations for three months during their semester break.

The Bachelor of Operations Management undergraduate said that even though he has just begun volunteering, he has already gained in terms of experience that has so far benefitted him in carrying out voluntary activities.

“Before this, the charity and volunteer work that I did was limited to what was being done on campus at my university through various clubs and associations.

“I hope to improve my knowledge in the field of volunteerism under this programme and hope it will become a valuable experience in the future. Who knows, I might end up organising my own community activities,” he said.

For the next three months, Nidzam will be placed with Pusat Sinar Harapan in Jitra, Kedah, which houses disabled children.

He added that among the traits he has acquired is enhancing social networking, as he has to deal with professionals such as physiotherapists, childcare specialists and the administrators of the home.

“Through my exposure with different professionals, I am able to gain valuable knowledge and experience that is not readily available from the university, such as caring for the disabled and how to manage a childcare centre.

“In addition, through such activities, I became exposed firsthand to the less fortunate and a genuine affection for them was nurtured. Before this, I knew little about caring for children with disabilities. But once I got involved in the programme, I got to mingle with them and learnt how to administer proper care while being compassionate at the same time,” he said.

Additionally, he said the programme helped him improve his communication skills and to better interact in the working environment.

No experience comes without having to face challenges , and the same goes for Nidzam.

“I have to use my own pocket money to cover my travel expenses and food costs. I travel to and fro from the centre for some 60km every day. With the busy traffic, this is another challenge to stay cautious while travelling,” he said.

He said they are required to implement at least two activities for the residents.

“We are not provided with any financial allocation for any activity, and we are only allowed to use equipment available at the centre. Therefore, I have to be creative and make full use of the tools available.”

Despite initial protests from his family, Nidzam managed to convince them of the benefits of the Gap Year programme, and they accepted his decision, even encouraging him subsequently.

“It was the same for some of my coursemates, who initially felt that this kind of programme would be a waste of their time. But they did not know much about the gap year then. However, after they saw my experience through social media, they got interested and regretted not joining me.

“My advice for those who want to participate in this programme is to prepare yourselves mentally and physically because in carrying out volunteer activities, things may extend beyond what you expected.

CHALLENGES

Dr Hendrik Lamsali, UUM’s deputy vice-chancellor (Student Affairs & Alumni), said that since the programme started in September 2017, two of their students have participated in the Gap Year National Services with the Territorial Army.

“At the beginning, we had six undergraduates who applied for the Gap Year National Service, but then after speaking to their parents, most of them decided to withdraw.

“For this year, there are another two students who will be completing their programmes next month.

“Another student completed her Gap Year (General) with the Roar of the Hopes Organisation, a non-governmental organisation that focuses on poverty,” he said, adding that UUM is the only university participating in the Gap Year National Services for 2018-2019.

Hendrik said the Gap Year National Service programme was less favoured by the students; many opted for the Gap Year Volunteerism programme instead which lasts for just three months.

“Students are more willing to participate in Gap Year Volunteerism as they worry that they will finish their studies later than their friends. This perception has to be changed as we want them to develop a culture of volunteerism and a sense of patriotism, apart from gaining experience through the programme, which most of their friends will not have by the end of their degree programme,” he said.

According to Associate Professor Dr Raja Zuraidah Raja Mohd Rasi, Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia’s (UTHM) director of the Marketing and Corporate Communications Office, the programme was first introduced at their university in 2017.

Raja Zuraidah said under the programme, UTHM had been chosen as a pioneer university to offer Gap Year Volunteerism in collaboration with the Department of Social Welfare. However, the response from students was lukewarm, mainly due to a lack of awareness on the benefits of the programme.

“We also found out that support from parents was lacking as they were not confident enough to permit their children to leave campus for a long period of time to be a part of the programme.

“In this regard, the university took several initiatives to overcome such obstacles, among others, by introducing the V2i programme as early exposure for the Gap Year programme.

“The V2i programme is in collaboration with the Welfare Department and it has attracted a great deal of students which has ensured the success of the programme.

“We have also started awareness campaigns on the Gap Year Programme to ensure clear information about the programme reaches the students,” she said.

Raja Zuraidah said there are two major benefits of the Gap Year Programme — academic and personal. By taking part in the programme, students will be inculcated with patriotism, unity and compassion, apart from responsibility, which only serves to add to the experience and knowledge that helps broaden minds.

“During the transition time of the gap year, students will also have the opportunity to reflect and explore different career paths and other learning opportunities. The Gap Year programme is an alternative path to help students become mature with a good sense of purpose,” Raja Zuraidah said.

To date, about 100 students have joined the V2i programme.

IMPROVEMENTS

In order to improve on the Gap Year programme, Raja Zuraidah said the university should include the programme as part of the structure of their course modules.

“One way is to offer a tuition-free year for students who wish to do the Gap Year programme, or financial assistance to fund students’ activities. For example, Florida State University and the University of North Carolina will consider providing financial assistance for students who apply for a gap-year programme,” she said, adding that the students and their parents have to change their misconception about joining the programme.

Her colleague, Dr Elmy Johana Mohamad, head of the university’s corporate communications department, also agrees that a gap year offers students the opportunity to explore other interests and gain valuable experiences which fundamentally improves them to become better persons.

“It helps to empower students with the kind of motivation and purpose that can enhance their entire learning experience at university.

“So universities must give some form of motivation to support a gap year programme even to the extent of awarding scholarships to students to return after a gap year to boost and motivate others to join the programme,” she added.