After high school, Abby Falik’s dream was to spend a year doing humanitarian work overseas before college.

When she was rejected by the Peace Corps because she hadn’t yet attended college, Falik was crushed to discover the dearth of overseas options outside of religious or military service. So she followed the traditional path: college, then work, with a one-year hiatus from school to work in Nicaragua and Brazil. “It had nothing to do with formal schooling and yet it was the most formative part of my education,” Falik says. “And when I came back to college and I had just one year left, it brought me back to that original question when I was 18, which was ‘why in the world we encourage kids to sort of keep running along this path without pausing to figure out what it is they want to study and why they’re going to school in the first place?’ And so ever since I have been on this path of making sure that this becomes the new normal.”

The idea that students should have the option of a “bridge year” between high school and college (as is Malia Obama’s intention) — stuck with her, so much so that she founded a nonprofit, Global Citizen Year, to help others at the pre-college inflection point gain the empathy, skills and grit that are proven to help them in university and working life.

In 2008, after 10 years of work in the non-profit space, she went to business school to put together her own business plan. While there, Falik introduced the idea for Global Citizen Year, , by entering – and winning – the Harvard Business School Pitch for Change competition. In 2009, the first pilot program launched with 11 fellows; today, it has 350 alumni, and this summer they announced their largest cohort yet, admitting 114 Fellows

As the name suggests, Global Citizen Year connects young adults with yearlong immersion in countries around the world, including Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal and India. While living with a host family, participants work side by side with members of their adopted communities, getting hands-on experience in fields such as agriculture, environmental conservation, education and public health. Tuition is determined on a sliding scale depending on the student’s needs. Most fellows receive at least some financial aid, which is supported by donations and partners, including Stanford University, Rosetta Stone (students use its software to learn their host country’s predominant language), the Salesforce Foundation and others.

The organization is careful to refer to these 12 months as a “bridge year” rather than “gap year”:

The gap year has traditionally been viewed as a luxury reserved for privileged kids or remediation for those who are somehow “off-track.” In contrast, the notion of a bridge year conveys an intentional transition from one life stage to the next. Crossing a bridge is a better metaphor than falling into a gap; and, with the right design, the bridge becomes a launching pad for a lifetime of leadership. 

In an interview on Lauren Schiller’s Inflection Point podcast, Falik explained how she addresses underserved communities whose students could not afford to take a year abroad. “One of the things we have focused on, and the reason we’re set up as a 501(c)3 not for profit is so that social impact can be the bottom line and we can admit the strongest candidates we can find, irrespective of their financial background.” And Global Citizen Year is living up to this. To date, 80 percent of their participants received financial aid and 30 percent have received a full need based scholarship. “It’s one of the things I think we’re most proud of as an organization-that each year we’re building a cohort that truly reflects our country’s diversity.”  And donors are excited about giving. “The reason donors tend to get excited is is the bigger vision of what we’re trying to do. The recognition that our education system needs to be reimagined; that we’re stuck in a system that is really not serving our kids and our society well, and that Global Citizen Year is poised to be one of the solutions.

“I was able to join Global Citizen Year because of the financial support they offered, and that’s a common thread among many of the Fellows,” said Joan Hanawi, a 2012 Ecuador alumna and recent UCLA graduate. “Without it, many Fellows would never have opportunities for experiential learning at the global level, and the diversity of knowledge from their own life journeys makes the peer cohort a richer learning environment.”

So why are bridge years a preferable alternative to the usual progression for college-bound students? Here’s what Falik had to say on the topic:

Reduced College Dropout Rates

The National Center for Education reports that in 2013, only 59 percent of full-time undergraduate who began their degree in 2007 received their diploma within six years.  

“Kids get to college exhausted because they’ve been on this treadmill for so long,” Falik says. “Nationally, a third of college freshmen don’t come back for a second year,” she says. While it’s safe to say that skyrocketing costs play a role in America’s dropout rate – the highest among developed nations, according to some studies – Falik says psychological factors are at play, too. “Rates of depression and anxiety have just skyrocketed,” she says. “We know that those things come about when somebody doesn’t have a clear sense of purpose or the sort of self-awareness or self confidence to know what they’re doing there in the first place.”

Uncovering Hidden Passions And Talents

In 2015, 3 million students were expected to head to college for the first time. Yet according to a recent study from ACT, only 36 percent declare majors during the first year of college that fit well with their measured interests, and 32 percent declare majors that fit poorly with their interests.

Global Citizen Year says bridge years help address this mismatch by uncovering dormant interests, be it organic farming, photography or international relations. Unlike the Peace Corps, which sends recent college grads into the world to apply their new skills and education in the service of communities, Global Citizen year seeks to help young people learn about the world and their place in it first so they can better know what skills and education they want to pursue. “Our program is very deliberately focused on the developmental stage and transition of an 18-year-old,” Falik says. “We’re very explicit that this is not a year about going out to do good in the world. It’s not a year of service. It’s a year fundamentally about re-envisioning yourself, understanding how the world works and figuring out what role you want to play over the course of your lifetime.”

Fellows undertake apprenticeships spanning a number of sectors, including agriculture, education, environmental conservation, and social enterprise. For example, apprentices in Brazil gain hands-on experience through such work as farming, wildlife preservation and monitoring projects, nonprofit fundraising and tutoring.  

  • Josue Morales Vivas taught students in a rural village near Mboro, Senegal.
  • Gabriel Lucas Yerdon helped rehabilitate wounded animals in Lagoa da Conceição in southern Brazil.
  • Maria Nazarova worked in an organic farming cooperative in Morretes, also in southern Brazil.

Fellows relay the breadth of their experience — with work, their host families and their new communities — on personal blogs, which you can read here.

Hitting The Ground Running Freshman Year …

Falik says Global Citizen Year has fans among university officials searching for ways to boost retention and performance and lower reports of anxiety, depression and exhaustion. “Colleges have started coming to us hungry for our alums because they know that they arrive on campus as movers and shakers,” she says. “These kids have confidence, purpose, focus. Often those are things that a young person might develop during a junior year abroad and then they come back for their senior year and suddenly now they know why they’re there.” Colleges are getting on board, including Tufts University, which encourages incoming freshmen to take a Tufts-sponsored bridge year before completing four years on campus; and they recently announced a new partnership with the United World College, which allows high-potential high school graduates from all over the world to complete a bridge year with Global Citizen Year before matriculating to college.

Rick Shaw, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at Stanford, agrees. “I’m a strong proponent of it,” he says. “These programs are huge growth experiences.” Bridge-year participants gain exposure to new cultures, religions and socio-economic spheres and must also cope with the fear of living far from home, among strangers, he says.

The result, according to Shaw: Students better primed for college. “When they come back,” he says, “they really bring a perspective to the classroom as new first-year students that has a much greater level of maturity.”

… And In The Workforce

In partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, Global Citizen Year tracks its alum’s academic and performance year over year. “We’ve got Fulbright scholars, Teach For America teachers … a number of fellows as they finish college find resources to go back to the communities where they were working.” Among those are fellows who’ve set up digital literacy labs in the Amazon, and another who’s setting up a sewing cooperative in Senegal. “It’s extraordinary to see beyond the what of what they’re doing, the how — the sense of purpose that infuses their work,” says Falik.

So what’s the next step for Global Citizen Year? “My wild vision for this is that we have tens of thousands of Global Citizen Year fellows each year and I don’t see any reason that that’s not possible.”