President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Bridging the Globe
April 28, 2010
Last spring, 20 recently admitted members of the Class of 2013 gave new meaning to Princeton’s informal motto by deferring their studies for a year in order to dedicate themselves to community service overseas. In making this collective leap—from rising freshman to international volunteer—they inaugurated Princeton’s Bridge Year Program and, if their “updates from the field” are any guide, confirmed the wisdom of the faculty, staff, and student working group that laid the -foundations for this initiative in the spring of 2008.
The goal of the nine-month Bridge Year Program is to give participants a transformative learning experience that will enhance their global perspective and cultural sensitivity; expose them to the demands and rewards of international public service while making a tangible difference in the lives of others; and, on their return to Princeton, enrich their studies and interactions with their classmates and professors. The program is also designed to offer participants a respite from the increasingly intense competitive pressures of high school, allowing them to refocus their energies in a way that whets their appetites for the academic opportunities awaiting them at Princeton. By living with local families and helping to address local needs, they are able to immerse themselves in an entirely new environment, under the watchful eye of the organizational structure and support provided by our experienced program partners—ProWorld Service Corps, World Learning, and Where There Be Dragons.
As I write, this unique experiment is playing out in Ghana, India, Peru, and Serbia, each of which is hosting five Bridge Year participants. Let me give you just a taste of what these young Princetonians are experiencing—and in their own words, thanks to the wonders of the blogosphere. In Ghana, our future freshmen have divided their time between the capital, Accra, and the little village of Oguaa and its environs, where they are currently serving as junior secondary school teachers. Nick Ricci ’14 describes the strong connection that he and his fellow teachers have formed with their students and the mutual education that has occurred. “It is ironic,” Nick reflects. “We came to Ghana to teach, but it seems that our students are the ones teaching us. If there is one lesson we have learned from teaching it is that education is a journey, not a destination. One never stops learning.”
Thousands of miles to the east, in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, Bridge Year participants are making discoveries of their own, many of which revolve around their community service projects, be it promoting literacy, teaching multiple grades in a village school, helping the disabled, enhancing the lives of orphaned children, or combating sex trafficking. Even the weather has held surprises. As Shaina Watrous ’14 puts it, “You always hear about Indian summers—and for good reason. … But here’s something we certainly weren’t prepared for: Winter is cold. … It’s a cold that none of us had anticipated—but really, on this adventure of ours, the most exciting things are the totally unexpected.”
In Urubamba, Peru, “los chicos de Princeton,” as the Bridge Year contingent is affectionately known, are helping their hosts in a variety of ways, including a group development project for a nearby pre-school in dire need of green space. In the spirit of embracing the unexpected, they have also responded to the punishing rains that led to widespread flooding in January. During their remaining time in Urubamba, notes David Hammer ’14, “we hope to do as much as we can to help enable families … to rebuild their homes and replant their farms, ideally in a way less vulnerable to future floods.”
The Serbian cities of Novi Sad and Niš have also welcomed Bridge Year participants, who have concentrated on projects that address the needs of Serbian youth and the country’s Roma minority. Like their counterparts in Ghana, India, and Peru, they have come to appreciate the distinct character of their host communities and to forge what promises to be a lifelong tie to them. In the words of Mariam Wahed ’14, “We truly have two homes in Serbia: one in the north and one in the south. And I think I can say that we will always love them both and for different reasons.” This is precisely the kind of sensibility that the Bridge Year Program was designed to foster, and I look forward to this fall, when 20 remarkable freshmen build yet another home away from home, this time on our campus.