ALUMNI Update from Chhaya Werner '14, India
Where Bridge Year Can Take You
When I decided to participate in the Bridge Year program, I knew that in those nine months I would go to a variety of places in India. And indeed, as well as living for seven months in the river-bound city of Varanasi, we travelled to the deserts of Rajastan, the holy city of Ujane, and the marble-crowned tombs in Agra. I also found myself in a range of places within these cities: standing at the front of a classroom packed with elementary-school students, crouched over a pot of rice on the floor of my homestay family’s kitchen, spinning in circles to Bollywood music on the roof with friends. I pressed into an underground temple crammed with worshippers from all over the country, and I sat alone on the steps of the ghats staring out across the Ganga River. I entered monumental stone forts and tiny mud houses, and everywhere I went I found bright colors and strong scents mixed with enduring strength and open-hearted welcome.
My bridge year also challenged me to explore thoughts and emotions I’d never experienced before. Encountering harsh poverty, subjugation of women, and failing education systems forced me to come to terms with my limited ability to make right all the wrongs spread before me. Some days I felt like a complete failure, and every day made the choice to continue working anyway. I was devastated by grief, and uplifted by joy. I constantly experienced things that challenged my views and made me wonder, about the world and about myself. This is where my time in India took me: inside and outside of myself, as observer and participant and student.
What I did not guess when I chose to apply to the program was where my bridge year would take me after I left India. Freshman year, my positive experience on Bridge Year motivated me to take on a completely different kind of challenge: the Integrated Science Program, an intensive two-year course that covers material from physics, chemistry, orgo, biochemistry, and genetics using mathematics and computer science. Through this course, Bridge Year brought me to midnight problem set sessions in the lobby of Icahn, lab benches set up to videotape the movement of small worms in petridishes, and twenty-person lectures with highly influential scientists. The summer after my sophomore year, my interest in international experiences that was fostered by Bridge Year led me to a summer research internship at a field station in Costa Rican rainforest. Ankle-deep in mud, surrounded by giant canopy trees and listening to the bellowing territorial calls of howler monkeys: this is where an international interest has taken me.
In India I was deeply motivated by the problems facing the people of the world. During my time studying biology at Princeton, my focus has shifted to include the problems facing the world we live in, as I feel that the wellbeing of people is strongly bound up by the health of our environment. Because of this, I’ve focused my studies on ecology, and I’m particularly interested in local solutions to global issues that take into account the impact people have on their environment and the impact environmental decisions will have on local people.
Right now I’m in Panama, spending my junior spring semester taking field-intensive classes that travel around the country. I’ve studied (and been bitten by) ants in three different national parks. I spent a week looking at fungus growing on cacao trees and inoculating cacao leaves with pathogens to quantify the range of susceptibility. My three hours of class time this morning were spent snorkeling in ocean reefs, looking at animals that ranged from labyrinthine brain corals to colorful King Angelfish, and taking data on the relationship between coral, algae, and sea urchin presence.
This coming summer I’m going to be in the temperate rainforest of Washington state's Olympic National Park, studying the impacts of a large-scale dam removal on the composition of the surrounding vegetation, and determining which plants recolonize the newly available area. After that, I don’t know what I will be doing or where I will be, but I’m confident that, like everywhere else Bridge Year has led me to be, it will be amazing.