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The unusual ‘Gap Year’ we are experiencing

03 July 2020

A ‘gap year’ is a concept that has been made popular in Europe, the US and, increasingly, around the world as young adults from every culture begin to think more carefully about their futures beyond school. At its core, the idea of a gap year is that the young person in question will take some time for themselves after completing high school, but prior to starting their university studies or beginning a career. This is not necessarily a full year; it could be shorter or longer depending on the individual’s life goals. They can dedicate this time to all manner of pursuits, from international travel, to gaining work experience or completing some other personal goal or ambition. Regardless of their chosen activity, the purpose of a gap year is to slow down the frantic pace of life for a short while, allowing them to experience all manner of different living circumstances, new challenges, and their first taste of true independence. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc., and Benedict Cumberbatch, who played the role of Sherlock Holmes in the hit TV series, both took a gap year in their youth. Many Western universities strongly support the idea of taking a gap year, hoping that as a consequence their students will gain invaluable life experiences as well as a clearer view regarding their future aspirations.

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But why are we discussing the topic of gap years under such exceptional global circumstances, when international travel is not encouraged and in many cases impossible? Because we are all experiencing our version of a gap year. If we try to break down the meaning of a gap year, we will find that ‘year’ is a concept of time and ‘gap’ is the key word in this phrase. ‘Gap’ can have the same meaning as ‘pause’ or ‘interval’, implying that we suspend our current state and get used to another state of living. Such a switch enables us to arrange our time differently, see various new possibilities and tap into our potential that we were unaware of before. The more completely we understand ourselves, the more clearly we can find our future direction and our interpretation of the meaning of life.

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The time spent isolating ourselves from the epidemic was an unexpected event. Unlike a gap year, this situation was not a conscious choice. But, both concepts have similarities in that they force us to suspend our current state and lifestyle we often take for granted for too long. In the early stage of the epidemic, we were all compelled to adjust our daily lives and habits, and everything seemed to take on a new look and feel. This crisis emerged all at once, so that we were thrown into an unprecedented situation and did not know when it would end. Without forging new routines, new ways of living and coping, the experience would have seemed too chaotic and stressful to deal with successfully. Young people taking a gap year want to empower themselves through this experience, expecting that it will help them to consider their future path and better prepare themselves to embark on it. The experience of facing the global pandemic can be viewed in the same light. After going through all the disorder and haste of the initial stage, the Huili pupils and community came together to combat the virus as if they were experiencing their own ‘gap year’, managing to give meaning to this period as much as the Huili community could.

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Although the epidemic has presented everyone with certain challenges and difficulties, the process of overcoming them has allowed us to better ponder the meaning of life and feel the value of unique experiences that we gain through times of adversity. To give another example, many people do not understand why some individuals are obsessed with mountain climbing and running marathons. For these people, their thinking methods and overall understanding of life can achieve a higher level when they push their body to its limits. Life is all about experiences. Those who put too much emphasis on results rather than the process tend to be pessimistic. Instead, people, who can make the most out of their experiences are usually better able to perceive the meaning and goodness of life. The pandemic has prompted us to think independently and deeply, allowing us to consider what matters to us most. For pupils, their work during this period of independent learning can be considered perfect demonstrations of their thoughts and ideas.

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During this semester, pupils have spent more time learning at home than in school. Lasting less than two months, this semester at school can be seen as a ‘stop gap’, allowing us to return to normal and set off on another important period of time — the summer holiday. Every year, our summer holiday is overloaded with numerous great plans we are eager to try and complete during this time. Very often though, we cannot recognise that it also has the characteristics of sort of mini gap year. In such a long holiday, we try to change our original lifestyle and living environment while doing things that we do not usually have time to do. The reflections and experiences we gain during this process will benefit us throughout our lifetime. Consider how Ernest Hemingway once described Paris: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.”

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We are familiar with an opinion put forward by a Zen master who lived during the Song dynasty. It states: “When I began to study Zen, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it is just that I see mountains once again as mountains and waters once again as waters.” Before the epidemic broke out, we saw ‘mountains as mountains’ and ‘waters as waters’. After experiencing the social changes and international turmoil, we no longer showed a superficial understanding of the pandemic. Instead, we began to consider and seek the deeper facets of this global crisis when ‘we saw that mountains were not mountains and waters were not waters’. During the post-epidemic period, elements of daily epidemic prevention strategies have become a new normal in our daily routine. Moreover, in light of many unexpected situations that we experienced, we are still being pushed to see this world from multiple perspectives and as a consequence, we are able to gain insight into these complex things despite being confused about them at the beginning. We should also abandon negative emotions while trying to retain positive thoughts and feelings when considering our futures in a post-COVID world. By doing this, we can see our lives as being inspiring and wonderful again and thus can concentrate on accomplishing worthwhile things. The epidemic offered us a chance to reflect and contemplate on our lives, enabling us to reach a state when we see mountains once again as mountains and waters once again as waters.

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The summer holiday is coming soon. After undergoing such an unusual and difficult spring, we cannot wait to make the most of this precious time. We believe that, thanks to the lessons they have learned during the pandemic, our pupils are now better able to independently schedule their activities and make the best use of their time during the coming holiday. They are capable of exploring themselves, knowing themselves and guiding themselves in the right direction. What is more, with an inclusive attitude in mind, they are able to see this world from a broad perspective and eventually they will integrate themselves into it more smoothly and successfully than they might otherwise have done. As kind-hearted, independent and resilient individuals, they can have a positive influence on society. We look forward to seeing all our Huili pupils again in September, when they will have gone through their own unique ‘gap months’.

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