Stepping out of the Cycle with Antonia McGrath

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For me taking a gap year was a chance to step out of the system.

These are the words of guest speaker and ZIS Class of 2014 graduate, Antonia McGrath. Antonia had come in to talk to students and teachers about her experience of Gap Years and the misconceptions she felt surrounded them, such as the notion of taking a year ‘off ’. “Everyone always says, ‘take a year off, do something inspiring that you can  put on your resume to get into a good university afterwards.’” Her approach is very different, as she explained, “Gap Years are a year on.”

It was this last part that struck me the most, this idea of stepping out from a perpetual cycle we find ourselves in. Of taking a step back and really, properly evaluating the situation and consequently deciding to go down a different path. I often think deciding not to do something is harder than decided to do something. That it isn’t deciding to take a Gap Year that’s the difficult part, it’s the deciding not to go to university that is. This notion of breaking conventions, however small, would be reiterated by Antonia later on in her speech, this time in regards to a completely different subject.  

After graduating from ZIS, Antonia embarked on a year’s service in a Honduran orphanage looking after and teaching former street children. Unsurprisingly this meant she had an upclose view of what service really looked like, and indeed what it did not look like. Sitting there listening to her speak of school trips visiting the orphanage for a week, playing with children and then returning home, leaving behind them not much more than cases of abandonment and a few new songs to be sung, I could only think how close to home this was getting.

“I used to be very involved with the Ghana Project while I was at ZIS, I loved it so much that I went on three separate occasions, and it was a great experience. But, having seen these trips from a different perspective, I have learned how detrimental they can be.”

The cycle of service can seem like an inherently good one, but perhaps now and then we may need to distance ourselves and re-evaluate and re-orientate our methods of service to be most effective given the  circumstances. School service groups are often criticised for their lack of longevity and sustainability, I therefore thought it commendable that Antonia had built on her experiences in projects like Team Ghana and decided to participate in a year long volunteer service, thus providing a much deeper quality of care. Antonia’s chosen charity Project Trust, she explained, requires its volunteers to fundraise their living costs as well as undergo a training course so as to optimise their use in whichever posting they would end up at.

Ultimately, Antonia not only was an eloquent and accomplished speaker but what I found most compelling was the courage she had displayed in her post High-School choices. This was someone who knew what they wanted to do- certainly in the short term if not quite long term, although her gap year would go on to inform her later decisions- and had been brave enough to go for it. To step back from both the cycle of traditional education, and the cycle of traditional service groups. To refer back to her quote at the beginning of the piece about her change in perspective on service, the same could be said for higher education. For many students, now is a time where decisions regarding their futures have to be made. Many will have the notion of university funneled towards them. As Antonia said, it is not that university is a bad option, merely that it is not the only one a fact that may be missed by parents who wish for their child to follow in their footsteps.

I believe the term best used to describe Antonia, is one she inadvertently brought up herself,. “My year in Honduras changed a lot about me and it changed what I want to do in the future. What Gap Year’s give you is the chance to be self directed.” Self-Directed. Be self-directed and choose what suits you best. Take a “year on”, wherever that year should be.

Kathleen Falconer ’16

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