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3 Valuable Ways Singapore Students Can Spend Their Gap Year

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Joanne Poh

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Despite the fact that a gap year is still thought of as a big waste of time during which one is not economically productive (the shame!) in Singapore, more and more people are taking them. Sometimes it’s deliberate, as is the case for the youths in this 2014 report, who took a breaks from school to volunteer or start businesses.

Other times it’s unintentional—poor A level results or indecision about what to do can stymie one’s progression on to university. Heck, I even know someone who had to put her studies at NTU on hold because the HDB flat she was living in with her parents was haunted and everyone at home went a bit nuts.

Whatever the reason, it’s not that uncommon to meet young people in their late teens and early 20s who are taking their time to graduate or delaying entry into university. Yes, even in Singapore. If you parents aren’t going to give you too much grief about “wasting your time”, here are some ways you can fill your gap year that won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

 

Get an overseas internship

I’ve met so many young Singaporeans who say they want to work overseas but have no idea how to get their foot in the door. Well, getting an internship abroad is way easier than finding an actual overseas job when you graduate. So if you’re looking to get overseas exposure, a few months interning abroad is a great way to do it.

Be aware that not all countries are as easy to find internships in as Singapore. For instance, in the US unpaid internships are common, which can be tough for those who need a small stipend to help with their rent and living costs. Language abilities are another consideration—while companies in France are obliged to pay interns at least 400+ euro a month, you’re going to need to speak some French to even be considered.

It takes a bit of luck and you have to be willing to reach out to your network, but many Singaporeans have done overseas internships and if you’re determined enough, you’ll find one. Here are some tips.

  • Ask seniors, relatives, teachers or older friends working in companies with overseas offices whether they can refer you for an internship. Short internships of 3 months or so are seldom a problem.
  • Apply to the overseas offices of local companies, or better yet through someone you know who works in either the Singapore or overseas branch. For instance, Strip (the waxing company) has a Shanghai office that has taken in Singaporean interns, while numerous local law firms have started setting up branches overseas.
  • Your tertiary institution might be able to point you in the direction of overseas internship opportunities or even have programmes structured around overseas work experience, such as NUS’s Overseas College programme in Sillicon Valley.
  • Know which countries you stand a higher chance of finding internship opportunities in. If you speak Chinese, you might stand a shot at joining a growing number of Singaporean interns in Shanghai. Unlike many other European countries, interning in the Netherlands doesn’t always require knowledge of the local language, since most Dutch are fluent in English. And it’s easier to find internships in certain industries than others—for instance, smaller NGOs are often understaffed and more willing to take on interns than huge companies that receive thousands of applications a year.

 

Volunteer abroad

To most Singaporean youths, volunteering means CIP points. To others, it means going on voluntourism stints overseas. If you’re not that mercenary, volunteering full-time for a couple of months can be a great way to spend your gap year.

Most local charities will have room for a full-time volunteer, although you might have to speak to someone in charge directly instead of going through the regular channels, which are for people who volunteer on a part-time or ad hoc basis.

If you intend to volunteer locally, it’s a good idea to try out the organisations you’re considering prior to your gap year. As is the case when job hunting, a sustainable volunteering experience depends a lot on finding an organisation and a role that suits you and your lifestyle.

Those who have the time to do volunteer stints of several months overseas will find lots of opportunities, especially in neighbouring countries. Some stints will require you fork out a bit of money for food and accommodation, while others will see to it that your basic living expenses are covered. Here are some to consider:

  • Juara Turtle ProjectSave the turtles off Tioman Island. Your tasks include patrolling the beach and ocean for turtle nesting, releasing turtle hatchlings and relocating any newly discovered turtle nests (to a safer place where they’ll be unharmed). Volunteers pay 2,000 MYR (671 SGD) to 2,500 MYR (839 SGD) per month (less if you stay longer) which includes all accommodation, breakfast, lunch, drinks, laundry, use of the kitchen and wifi.
  • Baan Unrak Animal Sanctuary – The animal shelter is located in Northwest Thailand. Your duties might consist of walking the dogs, helping with cleaning and grooming and fundraising. If you’re a veterinary student or have other veterinary experience you might be able to assist with treatments and sterilisation. Lunch and dinner is free on weekdays when school is in session.
  • Kalani – If hippie living is more your thing, this non-profit organisation in the jungles of Hawaii’s Big Island offers workshops and retreats that help people find their higher selves. Hmm, okay. Volunteers get to stay and participate in programmes in exchange for helping to upkeep and maintain the facilities. Stay for 2 months at 23 USD (31 SGD) to 30 USD (40 SGD) a day, or 3 months from 19 USD (26 USD) to 22 USD (30 SGD) a day.

 

Take a course

University isn’t the only place you get to learn stuff, and believe us when we say that if you wait till you have a full-time job in Singapore you may not have the time or energy to get as far in whatever you’re interested in.

Pursuing a non-degree course, or just taking a year out to beef up your competence in a certain skill, whether locally or overseas, is a very legitimate reason to delay your studies.

For instance, if you’re thinking of gaining admission to a German university (which, by the way, should be almost free to attend) and haven’t achieved the requisite level in German yet, taking a few months out to study the language intensively before applying for university might make you a little slower than your peers at the start, but will pave the way for some huge life changes later on.

If you’re planning to work in the creative industry but want to go the conventional NUS/NTU/SMU route, NAFA and Lasalle offer short courses of up to a year that can sharpen your skills at something a little less academic than essay writing or regurgitating information for exams.

Many graduates of NAFA’s certificate in photography programme go on to become part-time freelance photographers. Design schools like Orita Sinclair have courses in communication and publication design, typography and digital imaging that can be useful if you plan to work in a creative industry in future and have enrolled in, say, NUS’s faculty of arts.

If you have some hobby you’re really nuts about, you might want to take a year off to get better at it. Whether you’re headed to Thailand for muay thai training, India for yoga teacher training or want to attend a cooking course, taking a semester or two off to do it (and work part-time to pay the fees if necessary) might be the way to go, especially if your uni schedule is normally very hectic and doesn’t allow much time for extracurriculars..

Don’t think of it as a waste of time. If it’s something you really want to do and you have the means to do it, go for it. Wait till you’re in the rat race and you might find yourself wishing you’d done something more with your uni life than pass exams.

Would you consider taking a gap year? Tell us why or why not in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.