Ashley Vinson '14
Ewing, New Jersey
As an adventurer and free spirit, Ashley Vinson was a participant in the 2009-10 inaugural year of the innovative Bridge Year program, which accepts a small number of admitted students to spend a year doing service work abroad before entering Princeton.
Vinson was assigned to two programs in Serbia – one working directly with Roma (gypsy) school children, the other organizing a human rights film festival about marginalized people and the problems they encounter, including drug abuse and kidnapping. Both gave her a deeper sense of the Roma struggles for dignity and helped her mature in ways she never would have imagined. Along the way, she also learned to speak Serbian.
“Going to another country puts you out of your comfort zone, but also helps you to appreciate people, appreciate life, and appreciate experiences – really living them and wanting to do something,” she says.
The Serbian Bridge Year program partners with an organization called World Learning, a non-governmental organization (NGO) with more than 75 years of fostering change in developing countries. World Learning works in nearly 20 developing countries on community-based projects.
Vinson’s first assignment was in Novi Sad, a city of 230,000 situated on the Danube River between Budapest and Belgrade. There she helped organize the human rights film festival, reaching out to documentary film directors whose permission was necessary to screen their films without compensation.
Her second assignment was in Nis, the largest city in southern Serbia and one of the oldest in the Balkans. Working directly with Roma school children, she developed creative workshops with the intention of giving the students outlets for artistic expression. These included musical workshops, performance, sculpting and mask-making.
“In Serbia, there aren’t a lot of artistic outlets,” she says. “People go to school for the academics and go home.” For Roma children, the creative workshops also were intended to give them breaks from the daily challenges they experience as an oppressed minority. Working one-on-one with students 5 to 19 years old, Vinson says she forged strong relationships with them, as well as with her Serbian colleagues in the sponsoring nonprofit.
When Vinson returned to Princeton for her first academic year, she says she experienced another cultural immersion. “People say it’s wonderful to go abroad because you completely immerse yourself in the experience. I realized I had to have an immersion here as well.”
Her eagerness to experiment with new things took her first to rugby, then to ballroom dance and to an introductory course in painting. She went on a ski safari—small group tours for generally advanced skiers—and became involved in Faith and Action, a student organization that allows students to integrate their faith into daily living.
Vinson says the Bridge Year experience in some ways focused her academic interests, but in other ways opened the lens wider to other possibilities. She anticipates studying cultural anthropology, possibly with a certificate in neuroscience, and to continue studying languages or linguistics. One day she envisions herself running an NGO in this country or abroad.