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Abby Falik is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, an organization dedicated to engaging young Americans in a transformative “bridge year” of service abroad between high school and college.
Headlines remind us daily of the challenges faced in our interconnected world.
The problems are enormous and complex – climate change, conflict, extreme poverty – and the consequences of not addressing them are shared. Yet few Americans have had personal experience with life beyond our borders. Only 10% of Americans speak a second language and fewer than 30% hold passports. Given these realities, how can we expect our country to address global problems when so few of us have seen the globe?
Here's one answer, and it only takes a year...
A global "bridge year" is a year of structured international service between high school and college that gives young people the opportunity to understand another culture, learn a new language, and gain first-hand insights about the causes and consequences of global poverty. Its roots are found in the gap years that have traditionally taken youth from the UK and Australia around the world. Those roots have taken seed and been expanded to create substantive academic and practical learning components aligned with the preparation, knowledge, and skills that colleges and universities seek in their best applicants.
In his new book, Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times even went as far as advocating that universities make such experiences a requirement. Colleges and universities are increasingly in agreement. For decades, Harvard has encouraged its admitted students to take a year off before enrolling, and last year Princeton University instituted a program through which up to 10% of their incoming class will have the opportunity to engage in a year of international service before even setting foot on campus. And to sweeten the deal, Princeton picks up the tab.
Why the surge in high-profile interest? The benefits of a global bridge year couldn't be more clear:
- The National Research Center for College and University Admissions estimates 50% of students switch majors at least once and take an average of 6.5 years to complete degrees at 4-year institutions. A global bridge year enables incoming college students to clarify their academic and professional interests and better focus their education.
- On an individual level, a global bridge year not only promotes greater confidence, independence, and maturity, but the experience can also foster sustained civic and philanthropic engagement in communities at home and around the world.
- On a societal level, employers are clamoring for high school and college graduates who are actually prepared for the rigors of 21st century jobs, and four million people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. Just as national service may help to ease unemployment, as John Bridgeland states, so too can international service equip the next generation with the knowledge, skills and experience needed to help America remain competitive in today's global marketplace.
The initiative I lead, Global Citizen Year, is training a national corps of high school grads and supporting them in apprenticeships in Africa and Latin America during their bridge year before college. But our vision reaches far beyond our current program. Ultimately, we envision a world in which a global bridge year is the norm - not the exception - for young Americans. We envision a day when every graduating high school senior has the opportunity to spend a year before college living and working in a community in another part of the world. Only then can we ensure that the next generation of American leaders has a life-long commitment to service, the fluencies needed to communicate across languages and cultures, and the ability to provide innovative and effective leadership to address the most pressing issues of the 21st century.
The idea is simple, but the potential is revolutionary: the challenges we face are increasingly global, so let's give emerging leaders the opportunity to experience the world during the formative transition to college, equipping them with a global perspective that they will carry throughout the rest of their lives.
Given today's headlines, we can't afford not to.