Freshman Year for the Bold

Written by George Anders


Nicholas Montano has been operating farm machinery in Senegal, turning dried corn into couscous. Noa Bridson has been helping Ecuadorian villagers promote their alpaca refuge as a new tourist destination. Amari Leigh has been selling lettuce and beets at a farmers’ market in southern Brazil.


All three of these teenagers could have spent the past eight months enrolled in U.S. or Canadian colleges. They graduated from high school in June 2016, with strong grades and admission to the sorts of schools that make parents beam. Instead, though, these explorers opted to see the world — and do something socially useful — through a program known as Global Citizen Year.


I’ve written before about students’ rising interest in gap years, which is fueled by everything from high-school burnout to a desire to escape the familiar and immerse in an unfamiliar new culture. The chance to have positive social impact is a big factor, too. Estimates are that 30,000 or more students now take a structured year off between high school and college. Interest in gap years, as seen by Google search trends, is clearly on the rise.


What’s intriguing now is that the transition-year concept — a fringe idea at first — is making its way into the academic mainstream. Tufts University now offers a 1+4 program in which admitted students can get financial aid to pursue gap year programs in 28 U.S. cities or several foreign countries, before beginning regular classes at the Massachusetts campus.


Abby Falik, the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, says she is in discussions with three prominent U.S. colleges or universities about setting up similar pathways, too. Such pairings are particularly appealing for disciplines such as international relations and human geography — where immersive foreign experiences before coming to college are likely to help students learn more and do more.


It turns out there’s interest, too, in providing gap-year opportunities for students considering pre-med or computer-science majors. In those disciplines, relentless course requirements each term can make it hard for undergraduates to participate in study-abroad programs during their regular college years, Falik points out. By creating a non-academic but culturally rich transition year before college, such students can complete their majors on time and still come out of college with the global expertise that can open up broader career paths in years to come.


At the very least, bridge years tend to unshackle teenagers from the learned helplessness that can arise when well-meaning parents provide too much support for too many years. As one Global Citizen fellow reminded me this week, “there are freshmen in college who don’t know how to operate a washing machine. That’s not us. We’ve been washing our clothes in the river for months.”


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Global Citizen Year is moving forward as part of our new, larger brand: Tilting Futures. New name, same mission, expanded programs and impact.