President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Princeton in the Service of All Nations—the Bridge Year Program
November 19, 2008
A Princeton education is usually conceived of as four intense and rewarding years of intellectual, artistic, athletic, and social engagement on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. Beginning next fall, we will have to revise this definition to include an optional fifth year and a learning environment far removed from our University. A new — and uniquely Princeton — “bridge year” program will give incoming freshmen an opportunity to defer their studies for a year in order to devote themselves to public service in a foreign country.
Working with a number of still-to-be-determined partner organizations, we will enable participants to immerse themselves in the life of their host countries by arranging for them to live with local families and to work with hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other entities committed to public service. We expect that as many as 100 students a year will ultimately take advantage of this opportunity, which will be largely funded by Princeton. Need-based financial aid will be available to cover incidental costs, ensuring that participation is based entirely on the interest and commitment of our applicants, who will apply for the program in May, after they accept our offer of admission to the University.
The idea for this program has been percolating for several years, but it began to take concrete form in the spring semester of last year, thanks to the thoughtful analysis of a 14-member faculty, staff, and student working group led by Sandra Bermann, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature. The working group assessed the challenges and benefits of mounting such a program and concluded that its educational value far outweighed the administrative and financial obligations we would incur. Through this once-in-a-lifetime experience, we believe that four important goals will be achieved.
The first is to help our students develop a truly international perspective, something that is critical in our increasingly interdependent world. Everyone who graduates from Princeton should have what Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel calls “global competence,” including a practical ability to live and work in other cultures with a nuanced understanding of human differences. A bridge year will substantially increase the range of international experiences available to students, especially those who may not want to leave our campus for an extended period in the midst of their formal studies.
The program we envision will also help us to serve all nations, giving concrete expression to our informal motto and reminding students from the outset that the ends of higher education should be directed outward. Students will undertake projects that are both appropriate to their age and experience and sensitive to the needs and capacities of their host communities, creating a mutually rewarding partnership.
Another — and perhaps less obvious — benefit of our program is the respite it offers students who have poured themselves into their high school studies and are now, to be blunt, burned out. I am concerned that many incoming freshmen have come to see the pursuit of knowledge as a labor of Hercules rather than a labor of love. A year abroad will give these students a chance to catch their breath and cleanse their palate. Our hope is that they will return to Princeton refreshed and ready to embrace its myriad opportunities with gusto.
Participants will also return with a new maturity and a set of experiences that will influence in a very positive way their studies and their interactions with their classmates. A bridge year will therefore enhance the undergraduate experience of all Princetonians.
I am happy to say that the initial response to our program has been enthusiastic, both on our campus and around the world. When I visited the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore last March, the first questions I was asked concerned our bridge year initiative. We have much to do between now and May, when a pilot group of approximately 20 students will be selected, but under the leadership of newly appointed director John Luria, a veteran administrator of international study programs, we are confident that we can hit the ground running, building intellectual and cultural bridges that will span not just a year but a lifetime.