Egyptian private school graduates mulling sabbaticals as the pandemic lags on

Like many 17-year-olds, Joury Azmi is bursting with ambition.

She has worked part-time in marketing for her family’s furniture business for over five years, and when the time came to apply to universities, she decided to hold off temporarily. With the learning opportunities offered by online courses and her broader aspirations outside the classroom, she finds that pursuing other avenues during a gap year might be the best thing to serve her prospective undergraduate experience.

“I didn’t want to start university during the pandemic, while universities at a number of countries are still affected by the corona waves. Also, I know that I want to study in France, and the type of degree I want to do, but I don’t yet know my intended major,” she explains. “So, I thought that taking a year off to try new things and meet new people would help.”

Like Azmi, a growing group of Egypt’s private and international school graduates are holding off attending university as the pandemic lags on. With the multiplying cost of higher education nationwide, the widened access to online courses serving as a glance into some of the world’s best universities, and a shift in the attitudes among Gen-X parents, young would-be college students are taking a more holistic approach to education, albeit temporarily.

“When you’re a teenager, you still don’t know yourself; so, taking some time to live nomadically, or to do something that will help you develop yourself or build work experience might be a better use of your time than starting university too early and choosing a major that isn’t a fit,” Azmi says. “Today, I feel with social media and the like, parents are less likely than in previous generations to pressure their children to do a particular major, like engineering or medicine, so incoming university students have much to benefit from working or learning new things before college.”

Another reason for the growing appeal of the gap year concept among young school graduates is the pandemic’s mental health crisis. Going through the transitions of adulthood during an unstable time might be overwhelming for some, and future university students might find that taking a sabbatical after high school helps with maturely evaluating their goals from prospectively pursuing higher education.

Despite the pandemic’s shift to online learning, university costs are rising. The annual tuition cost at many private universities is at least twice an Egyptian family’s median income level, which is another reason driving a prudent transition from school to college for some youth, according to Al Fanar Media.

Malak Yasser is due to start her bachelor’s in architecture in early October, after taking a gap year during the pandemic to reflect, reassess and relax.

“When I finished my IGCSE subjects last year [in 2020], it was very difficult, and it had really become too much. So, I wanted to take some time off to do something other than studying,” Yasser says. During her year away from the classroom, she enrolled in a fashion course, travelled to several destinations for the first time, and spent time getting to better know some of her family and friends, since she felt her time as a secondary school student had taken away from her personal relationships.

“I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to during my gap year, because of the pandemic, but I really made up for the social life I had missed out on in high school,” she explains. In pursuing her interest in fashion and taking it up more seriously, she also solidified her goal of pursuing further studies in fashion design after completing her BA. “I’ve also seen this gap year idea help my peers improve their health, maybe they start a new hobby or go to the gym more religiously, and once you see them again it’s like they are an entirely new person.”

Yasser worked at a nursery for a while during her time off, and wholly enjoyed her first employment experience. “I was working with entirely new kinds of people, who I hadn’t met before…my mom didn’t initially approve of me taking a gap year, but when she realized that I had actionable goals, and that a lot of other young people were taking a gap year before university, she ultimately agreed.”

Globally, students have faced unprecedented stress and disruption during the pandemic. For the likes of Yasser, in the British system, grades were decided based on students’ rank in their cohort, rather than set assessment criteria, in 2020. Meanwhile, the 2021 IB, A-level and IGCSE cohorts witnessed reported grade inflation, a cause for celebration amongst a burnt-out generation, whose own woes might be amplified by watching their parents navigate the financial precarity of a largely destabilized world.

Dalia Awni, 18, describes being so completely demoralized by the pandemic’s rapid transformations that she didn’t feel up for starting a new degree program. “Studying at home and not seeing friends for months on end, at the beginning of the pandemic, was pretty rough. My grandmother passed away from coronavirus after the ‘second wave’ and I just couldn’t be productive [as I grieved] for a very long time.”

Should visa acceptance and loosened border restrictions allow, Awni—who volunteered in high-school with organizations like the Resala charity—is planning to spend at least a few months during the pandemic volunteering and taking yoga classes in Southeast Asia, before moving to the UK to study international development at one of the handful of universities she’s applying to. “I’m so excited to live away from home for the first time! But I figured waiting another year [before university] until things are more stable in Europe might be best, especially with all the pressures my family has been through,” she says.

The shift towards a gap year trend, consequently, comes from a need that might reflect an older generation’s “great resignation.” Just as seasoned professionals are quitting their jobs and seeking a greater sense of purpose out of their work while the world emerges from the pandemic, some of their younger peers entering adulthood are taking some time to form concrete goals before enrolling in university.

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