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Not going straight to college: An atypical year

Humans are generally cyclical — we seem to operate in cycles of never-ending anxiety, pressure and expectation. As kids we worry about school, in school we worry about college, in college we worry about work and when you work you worry about family and kids.

What about stepping back and taking a moment to catch your breath? I was fortunate enough to take that break to help me figure out who I was and what I wanted.

As cliché as “finding myself” may sound, I think this break actually had a huge impact on my life. Here is the story of my gap year.

I was a senior in high school and although I have known what I wanted to do since I was very young, I was feeling lost. I wanted to dabble in cinema and theatre since I was about five when my dad first pointed out that I had an eye for cinema. Towards the end of films I would notice that the camera was zooming out, and I would exclaim, “the film is ending!” I am not quite sure this qualifies as a “cinematic discovery,” but I was five, and it was enough for my dad to believe in my talent.

During senior year, while everyone was cramming for the SATs, college applications and internships, I was pretty calm. The cinema institute only wanted a 2.0 GPA and 1,200 on my SATs, which I had. So the stress of applying, and worrying never really came to me. I underestimated how not getting into college would affect my life, but never expected it would also be the best thing that happened to me.

So after prom, graduation and my diploma, I headed to the High Cinema Institute in Cairo to apply. If you’re Egyptian or living in Egypt you probably comprehend the struggle of trying to get a proper answer from any government entity. “You need a higher SAT Score.” “You need two copies not one.” “Come back tomorrow.” “Sorry you’re too late to apply now.”  So you can understand my frustration. I should not totally blame them for the disorganization — I too slacked off myself because I was not in any way ready to start a new chapter of my life. So by August 2015 it was official, I could no longer apply to the cinema institute anymore and thus my gap year story begins.

The fact that my parents are both open-minded, and that I wanted to join the Academy of the Arts which accepts students from a prior graduating class, made considering a gap year a possibility.

Although it was not my parents’ favorite idea in the world, they were very supportive, though slightly hesitant. Knowing the lazy brat I was, they assumed I would probably stay at home the entire year watching crappy movies without studying or even making an effort to improve before next year. I won’t lie, this is how it was for the first two months, and I gave them the opportunity to believe I was that predictable.

But then one day, I met up with a few friends who knew other people taking a gap year and they spoke about what they were doing, their experiences and the obstacles they faced. As they were talking, all I could think was what if I am not like them and I never achieve all the amazing things they did on their gap years. Then again they chose to go on gap years, while mine was a bit forced. One of them then looked at me and told me that it’s okay to be scared at first, and that it would be a slow process to figure out how I am going to spend an entire year, but she also told me it would be a fun and different experience.

Around this time I had a serious talk with myself and decided to actually try, which is something I usually avoided in my daily life. I decided to prove everyone wrong and get off my butt and actually do something. It wasn’t as easy as I thought though because, unfortunately, I have always been the person to take the easy way, even if it is the wrong way. But since it was to be a year of growth, progress and change, I wanted to push myself.

I started working with Cairo Sitters, a tutoring and babysitting agency and earned my own money for the first time. Growing up, I always begged my dad for an allowance but he would refuse and tell me to take money any time I needed it. This did not help me learn the value of money growing up, especially in an unreliable economy where prices are constantly changing. I had also never saved before. I went from being the girl who goes out to fancy shmancy cafes and orders the most expensive meal, to the girl who thinks twice before ordering delivery because she works too hard to waste her money. So slowly but surely, I started to learn the value of money.

Breaking out of my usual Zamalek bubble wasn’t easy at all. It took me a while to discover that there are other cheaper, closer and more exciting places to go. I also started to work in my fields of interests and studies, attending workshops with famous directors Aly Badrakhan and Mohamed Khan. Through these workshops I met new, exciting and different people and that helped push me out of my comfort zone.
A major challenge for me has been my re-introduction to Arabic, after an education that neglected it in the curriculum. The Film institute has three major requirements: being politically aware, having a strong background in the Arabic language and finally having a certain amount of cinematic knowledge. All my life I’ve attended an American school and Arabic classes were just about memorizing what comes in the test, and that’s it. This was the beginning of my transition to reading, thinking, writing and breathing all things Arabic.

I was able to travel on my gap year going with my sister and her friend on holiday to Morocco, a wedding in Greece and a youth development workshop in Lebanon. It was my visit to Sinai, however, that was probably the most beneficial for me. I decided to take a trip with Gazef travel agency. I asked a bunch of friends to tag along but they all had finals. A part of me was happy to just escape and try something alone for once, and another part of me wanted a break from electronics and noise. I hiked, dove, swam, rock climbed, did yoga and even horseback riding. I opened myself up to new experiences and challenges.

I know gap years aren’t always a productive or positive experience, but I really recommend it for high school graduates who are still unsure of what they want to do, and I urge parents who rush their kids straight from high school to university to give it a chance.

I can safely say that my gap year was a huge success and not at all a waste of my time. I learned how to be more responsible, made my own money and exposed myself to new ideas and new people. Breaking out of my comfort zone and opening my mind to what’s going on around me made me more socially aware of the world I live in, not just in Cairo. I am enrolling in the film institute this year with more confidence and courage, and I now have a better background in the language, the history and the practical parts of the course. During my gap year I made my first documentary. It follows the workday of the foul and falafel guy in my street. It wasn’t the best documentary ever, but it was my first and I felt like I did a good job on it.

Some part of me wonders what it would have been like if I’d gone straight to college. I probably would have become frustrated because my Arabic wasn’t good enough, or because I didn’t have the tools I needed to thrive in the cinematic world, or simply because I would have lacked the confidence that I have spent the past year building up.

Jaida El Shimi