Tilghman names working group to explore creation of international 'bridge year' program

Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman has appointed a working group to explore the creation of a "bridge year" program that would allow newly admitted undergraduates to spend a year of public service abroad before beginning their freshman year. The program would enable students to pursue a tuition-free, pre-collegiate enrichment year outside their home country with support from the University.  

The proposal was among several international engagement efforts outlined in the "Princeton in the World" initiative announced by Tilghman and Provost Christopher Eisgruber last October. The newly formed working group, appointed by Tilghman, Eisgruber and Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, is led by Sandra Bermann, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature.

"This bridge year initiative lies at the intersection of two high priorities of Princeton," Tilghman said. "One is to increase the international perspective of all students, which this program would do both through the direct experiences of those who participate and the insights they share with other students when they arrive on campus. The second priority is to expand Princeton's commitment to the service of all nations by encouraging students to spend time abroad engaged in meaningful service activities to which they can devote their full energies."

In their charge to the working group, Tilghman, Eisgruber and Malkiel said a successful bridge year program would benefit students in four ways:

  1. It would enable them to develop an international perspective;
  2. It would provide an opportunity to support the University's unofficial motto of being "in the nation's service and in the service of all nations";
  3. It would give students a break from the academic pressure that now dominates the lives of successful high school students; and
  4. It would prepare students for a more meaningful Princeton experience.  

The proposal is to create an international opportunity that would be open to any admitted student regardless of his or her financial circumstances, with an expectation that somewhere in the range of 100 students, or about 10 percent of each class, might participate. The working group will explore the costs that will need to be covered, including program fees, living expenses and travel, and what levels of financial aid will be necessary to ensure that admission to the program can be provided on a fully need-blind basis. No students would be charged tuition during their bridge year.

"In the world that Princeton's graduates will enter over the next decade, international perspectives and experiences will be more important than ever before," Eisgruber explained. "A new bridge year program would help our students thrive as citizens and leaders in that world, and increase their ability to appreciate all of the elements of a Princeton education."

According to the charge document outlining the working group's responsibilities, a successfully conceived program would benefit the Princeton community by yielding "a cadre of more experienced, mature students who will add special perspectives to campus life," and by distinguishing Princeton as "a University that is especially attractive to, and welcoming of, students who care about public service in an international context."

The proposed program would be open to undergraduate students who accept Princeton's offer of admission and then apply to participate in a public service activity in a foreign country before enrolling. North American students would be expected to spend their year outside North America, and international students from outside North America would agree to spend their bridge year away from their home country.

Students would participate in approved programs with partner organizations that offer international service opportunities. The organizations might include current Princeton partners, such as Princeton in Asia, or other established organizations that could be identified as meeting the goals of the program. Study abroad or other programs with an academic focus would not be included.  

As stated in the charge document, "It would be counterproductive if students in the program were to spend time overseas doing class work with the goal of doing better at Princeton." The nonacademic provision supports the goal of giving students a break from striving for academic recognition.

"This innovative program would, we expect, bring to the University a group of entering students with enhanced experience of the world -- experience that would enrich their academic work and their engagement with the many nonacademic opportunities that are so central to undergraduate education at Princeton," Malkiel said.

The working group will explore the number of students that would benefit from a bridge year program, in addition to considering questions related to selection criteria, organizational partners, student security, student access to campus while abroad, logistical support, and general staffing and administration issues, including student costs, financial aid and program funding.

The table of needs for the University's current fundraising campaign establishes fundraising goals for initiatives supporting "Citizenship and the World," which would be the likely funding source for a bridge year program.

Students who wish to spend a bridge year at home or pursuing other opportunities that do not fit within the University's program would be encouraged to do so, but only applicants meeting the international and service criteria would be supported through the University's program.

"The bridge year initiative would engage students at an early stage of their educations, and heighten their awareness of the importance of international perspectives -- both in their college years and later -- in their eventual roles as world citizens and leaders," Bermann said. "At the same time, these students would add the special perspectives gained in service abroad to campus life here. This would enrich the Princeton experience for us all."

The working group hopes to deliver a recommendation about the feasibility of the program early this summer, Bermann said.

The working group is made up of 14 faculty, student and staff members: Bermann; Eisgruber; Kofi Agawu, professor of music; Alison Boden, dean of religious life; sophomore Karolina Brook; Dimitri Gondicas, executive director of the Program in Hellenic Studies; Gene Grossman, the Jacob Viner Professor of International Economics and director of the International Economics Section; Laurel Harvey, general manager for safety and administration; sophomore Colton Heward-Mills; Nancy Kanach, associate dean of the college; Clarence Rowley, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Sankar Suryanarayan, university counsel in the Office of the General Counsel; Anastasia Vrachnos, executive director of Princeton in Asia; and Deborah Yashar, professor of politics and international affairs and director of the Program in Latin American Studies.