President Barack Obama jokes with his daughter Malia Obama as they walk to board Air Force One from the Marine One helicopter Thursday, April 7, 2016, as they leave Chicago en route to Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Image Credit: AP

Malia Obama has decided to join Harvard University in 2017 for her undergraduate degree — a year after she graduates from high school. She says she’s opted for what is called a “gap year” to spare herself scrutiny on campus as her father finishes his term as President of the United States.

Although the White House hasn’t yet disclosed how Malia would be spending her time once she graduates high school, the scrutiny is apparently not the only reason for her taking time off.

New York Times reports, the 17-year-old First Daughter wishes to follow her illustrious parents to the Ivy League school, even though Obama advised her earlier “not to stress too much” about being accepted to a particular school as she would “get a great education” whichever school she went to.

Yet the White House remains ambiguous on her future plans as it says Malia is still figuring out what to do.

Celine Eckert, an IB Diploma student at Emirates International School Meadows in Dubai, says she understands Malia’s dilemma of “wanting a little freedom”. The 18-year-old Slovenian-German is taking an year off herself after she finishes school this year as she isn’t sure what she wants to study and wants to explore her options.

“I always wanted to go to France and I feel it would be great to integrate oneself into a different culture. We live a much protected life in Dubai, so there is an element of fear but only because one cannot be sure of what to expect. But I am excited to be on my own and learn to make my own way,” Eckert says. “I’m going to France for an au pair programme for about six months. I shall live with a French family and help around with home chores and taking care of the kids. This will not just help me make some money but perfect my French as I wish to return next year to France to gain a degree in fine arts or psychology or nutrition — I haven’t decided that yet”.

Like Eckert, most students who take a gap year use their time to develop their skills or build their portfolio. Eckert is a fine arts and performing arts student, too, and hopes to use the rest of the year to gain experience through internships in Dubai.

Sometimes students who take a gap year wish to travel or do adventure sports or, simply, get to know themselves better among other things. Often they gain experience through volunteer work and community service or short-term courses. These students usually return to studies recharged and focused.

Anita McBride, who was chief of staff for the erstwhile First Lady Laura Bush, and is the executive-in-residence at the Centre for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington and a mother of two teenagers herself, told Los Angeles Times on Sunday that, “[a gap year is] an opportunity to do something a little bit different that still enhances their educational experience”.

“Students who do this often make matured, informed decisions and know themselves better when they do join college,” agrees Rachana Sippy, college counsellor at Dubai International Academy. “Taking the year off after high school can sometimes be a good thing as the students get a chance to explore and discover themselves [which] encourages their ideas”.

Mohammad Nour, 20, a chemical engineering student at the American University of Sharjah, says his gap year, two years ago, was a fruitful one because he was able to take “a much-needed break from studies and focus on other things”.

“I lived for a year in Oman where I worked as an assistant administrator in a clinic for five months and then went on from there to get a driver’s license,” says Nour. It is a tough process to gain a driver licence in Oman and the break helped Nour not just learn a life skill but earn some money too.

While Nour took a gap year out of choice, there are many who end up taking one due to various issues that sometimes involve missing college admission deadlines or personal issues. Other reasons could include visa and admission processing, which can take time if you’re an international student. Some students take the time out to vigorously prepare to enter dream schools that offer limited seats such as an Ivy League institution or the Indian Institute of Technology. It can also be due to financial issues.

Sneha [named changed on request] had a completely different reason to drop an year.

Having just finished her high school finals in 2011 from an Indian curriculum school in the UAE, she was dreaming of going to one of Delhi University’s prestigious colleges with her best friend, when her parents told her they were divorcing.

“My friend and I had worked hard for our board exams and knew we would get admission at St Stephens College. We planned to do our graduation and then sit for civil service examinations,” Sneha says.

The news of her parents’ divorce plunged her into a deep depression. Doctors advised her rest and her family to take care of her. But her parents were so busy fighting their own battle that when she requested not to go to university that year, they agreed immediately as they didn’t have time to think about it.

“This further depressed me. My older brother, who was doing his masters in the US, told me not to be stupid and to at least seek admission at one of the universities in Dubai. But I couldn’t be bothered. My friend too had left as she had got admission at St Stephens,” she says.

Left alone, and no one to really care about her, Sneha recalls falling into “bad ways” till later in the year when her brother returned from university. He took her for counselling where she realised the enormity of her bad decision. Although she was able to go to college the following year, she had set herself back severely.

“Even though I had the grades to make it in [to St Stephens] that year, the following year the cut off percentage had gone up and I became illegible to apply. Moreover, when my friend returned for holidays she raved about how great her year had been, and that depressed me even more. If I had sought the right advise at the time, maybe things would have been different”.

Sneha is now in the final year at one of the universities in Dubai and plans to do her masters in business administration. She also says she felt like a failure the following year when she saw younger students in class with her. Only now, as she is about to graduate, she feels her confidence is returning.

“I wouldn’t advise anyone to take such a big decision alone and seek professional help — at least speak to your school counsellor. I could have been somewhere else today, maybe preparing for my civil service exams as my friend is doing,” Sneha says.

Sippy says she doesn’t promote taking a gap year and feels “it is all circumstantial” and “depends on the situations and decisions”.

“I encourage the student to take a gap year only if he or she is thoroughly confused and needs time to decide what to do, explore an interest or travel or wish to work,” Sippy says.

“Sometimes they may be too young [to take a decision]. Also what their parents say makes a big difference. I suggest they should apply first and then decide to go on a gap year after acceptance”.

Even though not all universities allow it, some may look into a student’s request to “delay” their entry for a year, and very rarely for two years, depending on what the student has planned to do during that time. But in some universities, such as Harvard, students are actively encouraged to consider taking a gap year. As we see in Malia’s case.