Hey Young People! Take A Gap Year to Claim Your 20s

- What are you doing now? What’s the career plan?

Here it comes again, the question, and the excited face of whoever asks this question, indicating the expectation for a dazzling reply. “I’m opening my own business” or “I’m working for this multinational company XYZ”, or at least “I’m studying a Master”. That’s how thing happens with a motivated 24 year-old woman whose CV has some considerable international working experiences.

Therefore, when I looked at the eyes of the asker – I try to – and simply say “I’m back to university now” with a grin, there was an awkward silence between us, as if in they just went “Uh Oh!” in their brain. Then the person forced a smile:

- So…you haven’t finished university?

Then I always felt the need to justify myself:

- I took a two-year gap year, the university was very understanding, the opportunity was too good to ignore… (Blah blah blah)

I wish I can stop the urge to defend myself in situation like that, because it signals shame. And to hell with shame, I’m entitled. I feel a lot of things about my choices to take time out of formal education, except for shame. Still, the disappointment in their eyes, even for just a second, was clear. Academic study is of utterly honored in Vietnam. It is the first thing to be taken seriously, the last thing to mess with, the foremost important, the jewel on the crown, the parents’ pride. Gap year for a Vietnamese student is a big no no.


In Vietnam, most parents believe that taking time away from education is detrimental. All distractions are harmful and their kids better go straight to university after high school, gluing themselves to the classroom chairs for all academic years, and “be done with it”, as if the degree was the fat fairy in Cinderella. She will waive her magic wand and ta-da, good job, prince charming, happy ever after.

Yet young people between the age of 15-24 accounts for 48% of the total unemployed. Out of 10 unemployed young persons, 1 holds a university degree. Those numbers alone may not ring a loud alarm comparing to many other countries. However, taking the Vietnamese booming economy, the “Golden Age” young population, and the talent headache of employers into account, they make me question how education is done around here.

asteriskContrary to the misperception, studies show that gap year bring considerable academic, professional and personal benefits, such as better team work, time management, re-ignite sense of curiosity in learning, empathy, increased ownership, increased sense of purpose,etc. the long list goes on.

quotation markA gap ‘year’ is defined as a period of time between 3 and 24 months which an individual takes 'out' of formal education, training or the workplace where that time sits in the context of a longer term career trajectory.

Gap year is encouraged in countries with developed education system such as the US, the UK, Australia, and many countries Europe. And employers are found to understand the intrinsic values of Gap year, according to research.  Below is an info-graphic with good gap year statistics : 


In her six-million-view TED talk Why 30 is not the new 20, Meg Jay, a psychologist who specializes in adult development and the author of “The Defining Decade”,what struck me most is the significance of a person 20s to his life. Jay gave striking statistics:  

quotation mark80 percent of life's most defining moments take place by age 35

eight out of 10 of the decisions and experiences and "Aha!" moments that make your life what it is will have happened by your mid-30s.

first 10 years of a career has an exponential impact on how much money you're going to earn.

the brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood, which means that whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it.

personality changes more during your 20s than at any other time in life,

female fertility peaks at age 28, and things get tricky after age 35.

She concluded that: “claiming your 20s is one of the simplest, yet most transformative, things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world.” 


No! Young people! You cannot waste our 20s studying like a robot in university without understanding why. You need to have those “Aha!” that give you a sense of who you are and what you are capable of. You need to have these defining moments when bit by bit, you find out what you yearn for. You need to experience something you never imagined exist, and be amazed, in awe, speechless, goose-bumps, bewildered. Those moments will force you to marvel the vastness of life. They will bring you humility, compassion, and depth. You need to see the world, so that you can see yourself. Go.

For me, I am grateful that I claimed my 20s through my work with AIESEC, the incredible youth-led organization that gave me countless opportunities to volunteer, work, lead, learn, travel and see the world, including the 24-month gap year in Ho Chi Minh City and in Rotterdam. 

Thanks to these two years, I travelled to do business with multinational organizations in US, Europe and Asia before finishing my degree in Business Administration.  But more than that, I know who I am and who I am not; I defined my value system and moral principles; I have a determination to become a better person to fight for a world that I deem worth fighting for.

And being a twenty-four in the final year of university, I’m still claiming my 20s every day. Claiming it in the class with re-ignited curiosity, and at my writing desk, with truth and love in every single story.

What about you?

How are you claiming your 20s?

For more on travelling and changing world view, read the poignant short story How My First Trip Abroad - to Kenya - Changed Me Forever and Something Happens to Us When We Travel

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