Dear Malia Obama: here's how to make the most of your gap year

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Dear Malia,

Congratulations on picking Harvard! I’m sure you will meet amazing people and get a great education. And more than that, congrats on making the hard, bold decision to take a year off between high school and college.


Gap years have become more popular in recent years. According to Harvard, every year 80 to 110 of their prospective students are taking a gap year. And it’s understandable why. According to the American Gap Association annual report, taking a year off before college results in “improved civic engagement, improved college graduation rates, and improved GPAs in college.”

I took a gap year before college just a few years ago, and it was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. So I have some advice for you, as you embark on this adventure.

Find a cause to support

A couple of months after I graduated from high school, the Syrian Revolution started. I found myself in my bedroom in Chicago, reaching out to activists in Syria on social media. I translated banners for them, and planned escape routes as the Syrian regime was targeting entire villages with TNT barrel bombs. There were days where I spent ten hours online without eating or taking a break. And eventually, I decided to pack my bags and fly to southern Turkey and sneaked into Syria, to join the revolution myself.

Before I was active in the Syrian revolution, my life was about visiting the mall with friends and watching movies on Netflix. I didn’t have a grand purpose in life. But during my gap year, I found my passion. When I found out that kids between the ages of 9 and 15 were being tortured for writing “we want to topple the regime” on their school walls in Syria, I knew that I had to help.

As a First Daughter, you have been exposed to countless different worthy causes over the last eight years. I’m sure some of those causes are reaching out to you already, asking for your support during your gap year. But I advise you to find a cause you are passionate about, and devote at least part of your year to helping advance it.


Set goals and limits for yourself—and don’t forget to have fun

During the course of your life, you'll have a lot of influence and opportunities to make change. But even you can’t save the entire world. Be realistic and wise, when it comes to setting goals and limits for yourself.


During my gap year, I did the opposite: I got a $10,000 credit line, and immediately blew it all trying to save Syria. I purchased plane tickets to Turkey, medical supplies for underground clinics, and hard drives for activists and citizen journalists to document and store all the human rights violations the Assad regime is committing in the liberated areas.

Eventually, I ran out of money, and hit a wall. The Syrian regime’s airplane flew close above the building I was staying in, and bombed civilians with TNT barrel bombs. That’s when I knew that I had to draw a line—I didn’t want to get myself killed on the front lines of the war in Syria. So I returned to Chicago to help the revolution from afar.


You probably won’t run out of money during your gap year, and you'll have a Secret Service detail keeping you safe. But I would still urge you not to burn yourself out, no matter how important your chosen cause is. In Syria, I took my work seriously, but I also stopped to enjoy some of my favorite things, like the famous, delicious Syrian Shawurma.

Practice self-care

A gap year is an amazing opportunity to explore the world and challenge yourself. But it’s also a break between the frantic striving of high school and the whirlwind of college, and it’s important to take care of yourself.


During my gap year, I failed miserably at self-care. Supporting the Syrian revolution got me so stressed out that I had to deactivate my Facebook profile for 3 months, just to relax. I lost weight fast due to lack of food and vitamins. I stayed up online to talk to activists till 4:00 a.m. Dark roast coffee became my best friend. My work was succeeding, but emotionally and mentally I was not okay. I found myself calling my childhood friend on the phone and crying for hours.

I advise you to keep your friends and family members close at hand, no matter how far away you are from them geographically. Talking things out over the phone is one of the best things that you can do to make yourself feel better. Life is hard and can get really ugly sometimes, but it’s those who care about you that will help you manage. The minute you realize you’ve had enough, just stop and take a deep breath, do yoga, go for a run—whatever you do to stay sane, make sure it’s not falling by the wayside.


Ignore the haters

Unlike most gap year participants, you already have millions of admirers and well-wishers around the world, people who want to see you succeed and will be delighted when you do. But not everyone will appreciate your work and accomplishments. Some people will say you’re only succeeding because of who your father is. Others will give you more credit for your own initiative. Either way, keep going.


As I was in Syria distributing medications to underground clinics, some “peers” sent my name out to extremist groups and to the Syrian regime. I was very angry, upset and confused. But I chose to double up and not stop.

During your gap year, you may experience setbacks. Certain trips or projects may not be as exciting as they seemed. You might even find yourself homesick in a foreign country, wishing you were at Harvard or back home with your family. But I urge you to stick with it.


Forget about measuring up, and get to know yourself

Unlike college admissions, a gap year is not a race or a competition. Throughout your year, you will learn so much more about yourself—what your likes and dislikes are, where your strengths and weaknesses live, what motivates you. This is all information that will be invaluable to you in college, and in the rest of your life. In fact, getting to know yourself better is one of the best things about taking a gap year.


When I first started my gap year, I hardly knew how to carry a conversation with a stranger. I was a very shy teenager who avoided eye contact with others. I remember being the first female in Chicago to hold a microphone and speak to media outlets about innocent women detained and raped in Assad’s prisons.

But my gap year activism gave me the opportunity to find my strengths and work on my weaknesses.  It gave me the courage to stand on the street downtown Chicago, yelling off the top of my lungs to raise awareness and get people to care about a 2 year-old child imprisoned by the Assad regime. My gap year made me feel very alive. And I want you to feel the same rush.


Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."