Global Citizen Year: Creating Transformative Experiences for Young People on the Cusp of Adulthood

The following is a conversation between Erin Lewellen, CEO of Global Citizen Year, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

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Denver: One of the most innovative and forward-thinking nonprofit organizations to come into existence over the past 15 years is Global Citizen Year. It’s also an organization that is continually reinventing itself in response to our changing world. And here to discuss that with us is Erin Lewellen, the CEO of Global Citizen Year.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Erin.

Erin: Thank you so much, Denver. I’m so excited to be here.

Denver: For those listeners, Erin, who are hearing the name Global Citizen Year for the very first time, tell us about the organization and how it got started.

Erin: Yes. Global Citizen Year started with the idea that a global experience at a formative age, on the cusp of adulthood, could absolutely shift the trajectory of a young person, the perspectives of a young person, and the ability to think about solutions to our biggest challenges through a global perspective that can actually land lasting solutions to some of the challenges that we face today.

Denver: Let me ask you a little bit about a gap year, because I think when the organization was first formed, we were talking about a gap year. You might call it a bridge year, but it was kind of fixed in my mind, Erin. It was a year between high school and college and kind of finding yourself and doing some different things.

But I’ve got to tell you, everything has been disrupted so much with this pandemic, all our structures and all our fixed notions of both education and of work. How do you kind of look at it now in terms of where a young person is in that period of their life?

Erin: Yes. We were founded on this idea that we should really maximize transitions, and an excellent transition to maximize the learning  is from high school to college.

And we still believe in the power of transitions and taking time to really explore something different, something new… have a deep transformational experience before you start on a new life stage. And at the same time, in the pandemic, what we recognized is that we don’t have to so narrowly define what that transition looks like.

If we think about the cusp of adulthood, from the time a young person graduates from high school through those beginning years– whether they’ve started college, whether they haven’t started college yet– that time of a young person’s life is just ripe for some sort of experience that grounds them in who they are and what they want to do in the world.  Gives them a sense of agency and a sense of purpose. That’s where, I think, when we think about the idea of a gap year, we can also think about the idea of this transition to adulthood.

Denver: Yeah. I love this concept of transitions. We don’t talk about it enough. I worked with the United Way a number of years ago, and they put their entire effort around transitions, early grade to middle, middle to high, college to work, and things of that sort.

What is so tricky about those transitions? Where do people sometimes stumble? And what is the key to make those transitions in a young person’s life successful?

Erin: That’s so smart that the United Way focuses on that because I think that… what we have found is the moment of transition is often an opening in the way you’re going to think about something and the way you might approach something differently. And we talk a lot at Global Citizen Year about being in your stretch zone.

And sometimes when we go from one life stage to another and we don’t take the time to reflect and sit in that transition, we don’t put ourselves in our stretch zone. And we believe that there’s a comfort zone, there’s a stretch zone, and there’s a panic zone. And the most learning happens in the stretch zone.

And our job as folks who are either in transition or helping young people transition is to help them get to their stretch zone, because that’s where the learning is maximized. And it’s also where it becomes more embodied rather than just academic.

Denver: In this gap year concept, and right from your very beginning, Erin, Global Citizen Year has some extraordinary partners with the top colleges in this country. Tell us a little bit about those partnerships.

Erin: I would love to. I would start with an example. We worked with Tufts University for a number of years. And when we worked with them, it was all about how they could bring more young people to their campus who arrive with a perspective that is fundamentally different than their peers.

They’re in classrooms offering global perspectives, asking questions around how this relates to communities across the globe. How are their challenges similar and different than ours? How do the solutions need to be nuanced and different in different cultures?

That type of richness that a young person who’s had a global experience, like what we offer, can offer in the classroom, is something that colleges are seeking. They want those young people in their classrooms and on their campuses. And so Tufts is just an example, but we’ve got a growing list of university partners who are seeing the value in having young people like this on their campus.

Denver: Yeah. I mean, just for me, even if I just took a pause for a year and didn’t do anything, it would’ve been good. You get on such a conveyor belt between high school and college, you don’t even think. You just do. And this pause is an exceptional one, really can change the trajectory of an individual’s life and society at large.

Well, the organization made quite a pivot in the way you deliver your programs during the pandemic, as well as for whom. Walk us through that, Erin.

Erin: Definitely. You can imagine, for the first 10 years, we served young people in a deep, global, immersive experience, and the pandemic hit; everything changed. We launched a completely new offering, and that was a game changer for us. It taught us so much.

We launched an online version of our curriculum. And what I think that offered us is it showed us that the type of impact we create can happen through different means. We were, I would say, healthily skeptical that a virtual offering could be truly impactful, so we partnered with the team at Harvard to measure it, and we absolutely stand corrected.

It opened up our thinking in really bold ways. For one, demonstrated the power of serving a truly global group of young people. We, in the academy, in our virtual offering during the pandemic, we served young people from a hundred different countries. And the…

Denver: Oh my goodness!

Erin: Yeah, the power of that diversity in the learning is absolutely unmatched. I mean, it really showed us what’s possible.

And then back to your question earlier, it really demonstrated that this year between high school and college is different across cultures. It really taught us that focusing on a developmental stage is key to maximizing the learning. And when a young person is ready for this and they’re in that cusp of adulthood, that’s the time that’s truly creating access to our opportunity.

And then I would say lastly, there’s two big things that we learned from our pivot to virtual that we’ve taken forward, which is how we develop our programming. So the first thing I’ll talk about is that we now have a global team developing our curriculum, and this is critical because it helps ensure a global perspective is infused in our approach.

And then the second is that we asked young people and their parents what they need and want coming out of the pandemic. And the coupling of the youth voice and the global program design team, that is where the magic can really happen in creating something very special.

Denver: Yeah. That’s really cool. And I’m guessing, you probably were able to serve a lot more people through this hybrid approach than you did traditionally through the in-person?

Erin: Oh, yes. We served a thousand in our first 10 years through our global immersive fellowship, which was an absolutely transformational experience for young people. And in the two years of our virtual offering, we served over 1,500 young people.

Denver: Oh, wow!

Erin: Yeah, it was very different. Very different.

Denver: Yeah. If there was a universal lesson you could take away and share with listeners about going hybrid or virtual or remote, the way you did, made that pivot, what would be the cautionary note, the word of advice you would like to give them?

Erin: I think it would be to always be listening and learning, and a willingness to truly listen. I can’t articulate that enough. What are the young people telling you? What is the impact you’re having? And I think, for us, it was really looking at those two things and saying: Okay, we need to shed some things because they’re not creating the impact, even though we might love those things.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. That’s hard to do.

Erin: Those… we need to shed those, and we need to focus on what’s truly creating the impact and what young people are telling us that they find most useful and meaningful.

Denver: Shedding things is so difficult for organizations. I sometimes go to them and I say: start, stop, and continue, and I get tons of starts and tons of continues and I get no stops, and it really is hard to stop.

I think the point you make about listening is really good because generally when people are talking to us like this, we listen for about the first 15 to 25 seconds and we think we got it. You know what I mean? You can stop, I got the answer. No need to go on. And it’s usually that continuation of listening to really find out where the gold is going to be, but we stop and want to respond. It’s just the way we are.

You have a lot of programs, but I’ve got to tell you one that has got me more excited than any other, and that would be the Take Action Lab. Tell me about it.

Erin: Oh, I’m so excited about this, too. I’m very happy you’re asking me about it. It is our latest innovation, and it’s our hybrid model, and it incorporates all the learning we just talked about. So we have selected a global group of young people for a transformational immersion experience, and we’re starting in Cape Town with plans to add new locations soon.

We are building a worldwide group of young people who will meet in Cape Town, apprentice in one of our 30 partner organizations… learning from leaders, tackling issues related to human rights.

And our curriculum provides a scaffolding to their experience, helping them better understand themselves, how to be in community with folks who are coming from very different backgrounds than their own, and how to see the interrelatedness of our current global challenges. They’re so hungry for it, and our world is desperate for it, and we are really excited. We’re in the week 4 of the program.

Denver: Fantastic. Let me ask you about the heart of your program, which is Gen Z. And they’re, after all,  your customers, and they’re all of our futures, you know?

Erin: Definitely.

Denver: And I never want to try to generalize about a cohort, about a generation along those lines, but are there some things that you can sort of give us guidance on as to what really makes them tick?

Erin: Yes. I find this generation to be absolutely inspirational. And there’s some fundamental pieces that are important to understand and that I’m continuing to understand, so I don’t pretend to be an expert here. But they’re coming of age during challenges that are testing the world at new levels. We have COVID, climate change… all of its impacts, social media, of which the implications are still being understood.

And they have more information at their fingertips than any previous generation. They grew up with this constant influx of information. And that’s actually all they know. I think the challenges of the world, particularly the pandemic and climate change, have them worried. And again, more than past generations, mental health issues are continuing to climb with this generation.

And they’re also… this is what I find most inspirational, is that they’re poised and focused on addressing these challenges. They are activists. They’re active and engaged on levels no generation before them has been.

And I think that, for me, listening to them and listening to one particular piece that they keep saying… and the data keeps showing… is that they feel more than prior generations that the education they receive has to evolve to meet the needs of today.

And they’re particularly looking for experiences to help give them the skills and the perspectives to be able to go out and actually get in the arena and begin working on solutions. But they’re aware they need this education, and they’re also dissatisfied in where to get it and what the options are.

Denver: Yeah. And a little impatient too, I would imagine them wanting to get it, which is an asset.

What concerns do you have about this generation?

Erin: I think the concerns are that we’re not evolving fast enough.

Denver: Yeah.

Erin: I don’t have a concern around the generation. I have a concern around the systems around them really evolving in ways that serve them well and that will help them address these very immediate, demanding, impatient challenges that keep coming toward them.

Can we build systems and shift our institutions and get out of the inertia that our institutions have created to get out of the way and let them find the solutions that we frankly have been unable to find?

Denver: Absolutely. Well, let me ask you about a system or an institution, if we can call it that, and that is the workplace.

So if Gen Z were given the keys to the kingdom, and they were to have the ability to reimagine, redesign, reinvent the American and international workplace, what do you think they would do?

Erin: Well, my first thought is: I would want to ask them first.

Denver: Right. Good thought.

Erin: I’ll say that. Second…

Denver: That’s a very good answer.

Erin: Second is, I think that they are demanding that our workplace has purpose and meaning, and that no matter where they go, that people are building towards a better world, and that that is the focus of business, of government, of the nonprofit sector.

And that I think the second thing, if I were… these are guesses, but the second thing would be that work shouldn’t be the dominating factor in one’s life, and it doesn’t have to be. And can we build a world and imagine a world and then build it where work is not the dominating factor?

Denver: Yeah.

Erin: And then I think the last thing I would say is this concept of leadership and who leads, who’s given power, who’s listened to, who’s not, I think they would upend that. In fact, I hope they do. I really hope they do.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Very interesting. Most outstanding leaders I’ve encountered are humble people, but they’re also courageous people. And there is a linkage between humility and courage, and perhaps you found that out firsthand in your own immersive experience in Cape Town when you were younger.

Tell us a little bit about the relationship between courage and humility.

Erin: Yeah, I really appreciate you asking me that. I think it really goes back to a little bit about me. I am from this wonderful blue-collar family in tiny Cedar Flats, Oregon. And my dad is a retired logger. My mom is a retired public school teacher. And I name these because I think being raised in this blue-collar family is really core to me as a person, and it fuels my way in the world.

And growing up in this blue-collar town, I had lots of questions. I wondered: Who made the rules?  And why are the rules like this?  And what are these systems? And I think, for me, I got this incredible opportunity when I was young, and someone paid for me to go have an experience that I could never have had on my own.

So someone took a chance on me and invested in me in a way that gave me a global experience that forever changed my life. And I got this opportunity to go to Cape Town for a year through a program at the University of Oregon. And that program changed my life fundamentally.

I got to live in my first big city, which was Cape Town. I worked in a nonprofit focused on ending domestic violence. I lived in a house with five South African women from all different backgrounds. And this year changed my life fundamentally. And I think this is getting to the piece around humility and courage.

My understanding for how interrelated our challenges are was absolutely cemented. I was connecting dots globally. I was learning and also unlearning at a core visceral level, not just an academic sense. And there was a profound humility that came from that year. I think that humility led to courage. I realized I could do hard things, and they may turn out… they may not, and often may not, and that’s okay. I can still go do more hard things.

And I think those complementary forces around humility and courage led me to the role I’m in now. And I feel very lucky, like no one… most people, not everyone, gets to focus every day on providing young people an opportunity that will change their perspectives and skills, and be able to relate to the shifts and changes a young person is going to experience in such a deep way.

I have this visceral connection to the work that drives my passion and conviction. And I think the world will benefit dramatically from more young people from across all economic spectrums, all different countries, all different races, all different walks of life, having experiences like the ones we provide at Global Citizen Year.

Denver: Yeah. Well, that’s pretty cool to have had a transformational experience and now lead an organization to give others a transformational experience. That is a very, very nice virtuous circle.

You talked about leadership before. Let me ask you about leading remotely. What has that been like? How have you had it change your leadership? What works? What doesn’t work? Everybody that I talk to, they have their hands full with this one.

Erin: This is so challenging. Our challenges are like everyone else, exactly like you said, like we are all dealing with this. What does this feel like? And we are in an experimental phase. We are trying things, and we have a fundamental belief at Global Citizen Year that we are all co-collaborators, co-creators of our organizational culture, and so we’re open for ideas.

So we just piloted a really fun experience. We brought everyone together. While this was an optional experience, we brought everyone who wanted to together, and we worked from the same office for one week. It seems so novel now, but it’s how we used to work.

Denver: Yeah.

Erin: We did it just… this is not a fancy retreat. This is not something where we have a lot of scheduled speakers or anything like that. This is just literally: come to the same office and work together for one week to have a touchpoint, and the team left thrilled, like full of ideas and inspiration and connection.

And I think that’s where we  really focused, is: How do we build connection when we’re in this virtual space?  And so that’s just one example, but we’re doing multiple things like that to bring to life our mission into our work and the connection across the globe because our team is truly global.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting how the office has become the new offsite.

Erin: Right? Exactly. That was exactly what it felt like, and everyone left there on Cloud Nine, just so excited, you know?

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. No, that is really… I think that what we have with this remote work, we have a lot of connection, but it’s very shallow. It’s like snacking, it’s social snacking. It’s like having a nibble here.

And very rarely do you have a good nutritious meal like you did in that one week together, where you got a chance to really dig a little bit deeper into each other and spend some time together. And it’s probably a good thing to do periodically.

The other challenge that leaders are having… and you’ve done a lot of this here, but I’d like to get your philosophy on it, is change. Change is so hard, and everything is changing. Organizations are changing; the world is changing, how we deal with things.

And when I ask most leaders what’s their biggest challenge, along with leading remotely, they’ll say change management. This is so hard, so difficult. What’s your philosophy about that?

Erin: Well, I would agree that it’s very challenging, and I think what we’ve tried to do at Global Citizen Year is build a very resilient organizational culture. And we talk about how this is… we put the challenge in front of us. We say that our students come first. So are we listening to them? What are they asking for?

If they’re asking for shifts and changes, how are we working with those requests? And how are we meeting the moment as an organization? And I think when you center the impact first, when you center the young people you’re trying to serve first as the goal of what you’re doing, and you keep that forefront, then making the change is for this greater purpose.

It’s seen… there’s a why behind it. We try to keep that at the forefront, and we ask ourselves these hard questions: Is this change in service of serving more young people, in service of serving more young people better? And if the answer to that is: yes, then we can collectively get behind it and move. And I can’t even express to you how incredible this team is that I get to work with every day.

We built something that we ran for 10 years that was essentially, you know, we tweaked it at the margins, but it’s essentially the same. We completely built something new, ran that for a few years during a pandemic, and now we’ve completely built the newest innovation that incorporates all those learnings. And the team is just on fire. They’re so excited.

Denver: Oh, great!

Erin: When we launched this, we had 7,000 young people begin the application. And I think that type of response to what we’re building fuels the idea of: we got to stay relevant; we got to stay in the space where we are at the cutting edge of what young people are asking for and wanting, which requires us to be outside of our comfort zone as well. It requires us to be in our stretch zone.

Denver: Yeah, no, I think what you say about centering the young people as your North Star is really key. There’s an organization I spoke to, Population Services International, and they’re about 9- 10,000 people strong. They’re in 50 countries, and they’re into work with women and family planning and stuff like that.

But what they do is they have an archetype, and her name is Sara. And what they try to do is that every morning when they wake up– and you can say, “Sara” pretty easily in every language– every single one of their people is thinking of Sara because they don’t want to be serving the demographic; they want to be serving an individual woman.

And by keeping that center and having all your decisions around Sara or around the persons/people you’re helping, it makes decision making in so many ways so much easier, but more importantly, it makes it so much better.

Finally, Erin, there’s some studies out indicating that just 3% of students report having a transformative experience while in college, and that is incredibly disappointing. What Global Citizen Year is pioneering is a new educational pathway to launch the next generation of changemakers.

Talk a little bit about that current educational paradigm, how it needs to be upended, and the role that Global Citizen Year is doing in that.

Erin: This gets back to talking about how we… are we changing fast enough to serve this generation in ways they’re demanding to be served; and can we change fast enough? And Global Citizen Year exists to serve thousands of young people who have then had this transformational experience that makes them think about themselves differently and what they’re capable of.

Makes them think about the world differently and what’s possible, and really demonstrates the power of connections across the globe– deep, real, true connections across the globe that make you understand how connected we are, and how nuanced and different in beautiful ways we are. Those types of experiences in a young person’s education, like you said, are few and far between.

And if we can serve as a model for that, and then work within higher education across the world to take our programming and what we’ve learned and share it, then we can actually have this moment where we push higher ed into a place of serving the needs now in ways that help build this next generation’s capacity to truly meet our global challenges with solutions that have longevity, and keep solving… the next set of problems.

Denver: Mm-hmm. And every single one of those people who gets through your program becomes an ambassador for that very message.

Erin: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Denver: Erin, how do people get in touch with Global Citizen Year, whether it’s to apply for one of these programs or financially support this work?

Erin: Oh, thank you so much for asking. Yes, you can go to our website, That’s the best place to get us, and we are excited to have you come check us out.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Erin, for being here today. It was an absolute delight to have you on the program.

Erin: Thanks, Denver. I appreciate you.

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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.