One year later, gap year thrives

At this time last year, Lizzie Martin ’14 was teaching crocheting and English to disabled teenagers and adults in Varanasi, India, a sharp contrast to her current life as a freshman at the University.

As one of 20 participants in the inaugural year of the University’s Bridge Year Program, Martin traveled to India for nine months of working on a service project, an experience she described as “life-changing.”

“It was interesting to see the difference between the things I want and the things that I need,” she said, explaining that the struggle to live without electricity or running water was less severe than she expected, though there were also social differences she had to face.

“I also struggled with the difference of concept of space. In Varanasi, I had much less space physically and emotionally. People ask questions that I don’t answer here very often,” Martin said. “You’re also very close to things like poverty and disease, hardships that we really don’t think about very often … It was a good opportunity to learn about myself.”

One year after the first group of students was sent abroad, many of the students said that the experience was satisfying and positive. The program allows student to suspend matriculation for one year, taking a University-sponsored gap year abroad to engage in service projects around the globe. Princeton is the only school in the country to offer such a program, Martin noted.

“It really shaped my perspective on the world and at Princeton,” said Chhaya Werner ’14, who was also placed in Varanasi last year teaching English and math at a village school. Werner stressed the benefit of the relationships she formed with local residents. “I had a great relationship with my students,” she said. “It was the highlight for me.”

The University has been “very pleased” with the program’s success over the last 18 months, Bridge Year Program director John Luria said in an e-mail. “In that time, we’ve developed strong relationships with our overseas partners, and the students have been simply amazing,” he explained.

Luria noted that one of the successes of the program’s first year and a half has been the manner in which participants have embraced the inevitable challenges of adjusting to a foreign lifestyle with “patience, flexibility, a healthy sense of adventure and, perhaps most importantly, a sincere desire to contribute to the communities where they live.”

Despite the success of the program, however, the University again offered only 20 spots to accepted members of the Class of 2014 — now members of the Class of 2015 — for the current round of the program and in the same four locations: Ghana, Serbia, Peru and India. Though no expansion is yet planned, Luria explained that the University is still considering how any expansion would occur, as only one full program cycle has been completed.

However, several participants in the current cycle said that their experiences have been just as positive as those of last year’s participants. Andres Parrado ’15, who is living in Serbia, said that the program has been wonderful.

“My host family is amazingly caring and welcoming,” he said. “Most of the people I’ve met are eager to know more about my native country, Colombia, and about life in the States.”

Jillian Wilkowski ’15, also in Serbia, is volunteering at a non-governmental organization called Zenski Prostor, or Women’s Space. Her job includes traveling to other cities in South Serbia, attending conferences and working with the public in addition to her daily tasks.

Similar to Parrado, Wilkowski said that one of her most positive experiences so far has been with her host family.

“I think that living with a family is something that makes everyone nervous initially, but it has been a window [into] Serbian people and culture that has been invaluable,” she said.

Living with local residents has been a positive for several other participants in the program as well. Divya Farias ’15 and Brett Diehl ’15 are both in Peru. Like Parrado and Wilkowski, they both said that they have enjoyed creating new relationships with their adopted families and co-workers.

“Much of my social life here has been made easier through a close relationship with my host brother, Jose Luis, which in turn has allowed me to meet many youths my age,” Diehl said. “While the main focus of the Bridge Year Program is service, there is still more than ample time to make meaningful and lasting friendships in the area in which we live and serve.”

Similarly, Farias said that she has been pleasantly surprised by the rapidity with which she has become accustomed to her new life.

“I think my greatest accomplishment is the extent to which I feel culturally adapted,” she said. “I have become really close to many of the Peruvians in my life, and, through these relationships, I’ve become more and more comfortable living in a society with different cultural norms.”

Both students have also become part of the local communities. Diehl plays on the city’s basketball team, La Salle Urubamba, which competes weekly in the city of Cusco. Farias is a member of Son Tumbao, a local salsa band.

“The rhythm of my life here is very steady and predictable,” Diehl said. “I often get so caught up in my daily routine around Urubamba that I forget to look up and admire the towering mountains all around me.”

However, despite the advantages, the program is not without its challenges. Werner said she had particular problems with the food at her temporary home, both because it was so different and because there were different cultural expectations surrounding it. For instance, she explained that people are expected to eat all the food on their plates, a custom with which she struggled.

These challenges, Parrado noted, can be “unexpected and oftentimes frustrating.” For example, he said he struggled to find his place within the organization where he works, though he said the experience has ultimately been rewarding.

“My favorite part is when people approach us and say, ‘I had never met a foreigner before,’” he said. “That means that, through our work, we are broadening the perspectives of people living in our host country.”

Of course, the very decision to spend a year working abroad is a challenge. “Nine months was an inconceivable amount of time to be away from home and traditional learning,” Wilkowski explained. “Serbia was, to me, so far away and unknown it might as well have been on another planet, and I had wanted nothing more than to go to Princeton since I was nine years old.”

“The emphasis on service and the less than luxurious lifestyle could certainly be difficult for some,” Diehl noted.

Ultimately, though, many of the current participants would fully recommend the Bridge Year Program to other students, several of them said. Farias would “advise those considering it to throw their cautions to the wind and apply,” she explained. “I had reservations, too, before I applied, but, as my experiences here in Peru have reinforced, risk-taking often pays off.”

“I now feel like my studies have a greater purpose and my life a clearer direction than either did last September,” Wilkowski said.

The alumni of the program’s first cycle are currently back on campus and finding that their experiences abroad are shaping their time at the University, Martin explained. All five of the students placed in India last year are currently taking Hindi classes, and some are considering certificates in South Asian studies, she said.

“For me, the Bridge Year Program was a really good opportunity to realize … how much potential I have,” Martin said. “It helped me to develop a passion for teaching.” Martin currently tutors students and participates in a prison tutoring program.

The second group of Bridge Year students will return at the end of the academic year and will matriculate as the first 20 members of the Class of 2015. In the meantime, however, they are enjoying the time they have left in their adopted countries.

“I suppose I will return home with a broadened perspective and renewed purpose and all that, but the bottom line is that, right now, I really do dread returning home,” Farias explained. “Here in Peru, I love how simple my life is.”

JENNA MCCARTHY ,The Daily Princetonian

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