Students finding their place in the world through Bridge Year Program

Walking the streets of India

"Navigating the maze-like alleyways" in Varanasi, India, said Joe Barrett, is one of the activities that once seemed "daunting and impossible" when he began Princeton's inaugural Bridge Year Program this past fall. After several months in India, he and the other Princeton students are now able to maneuver through the city, "without thought or hesitation." (Front to back) Shaina Watrous, Joe Barrett, Chhaya Werner and Andrew Finkelstein stroll the streets with Christina Rivera, an on-site program facilitator. A total of 20 students have deferred the start of their freshman year at Princeton to spend a tuition-free enrichment period focused on public service in four countries. (Photo: Courtesy of the Bridge Year Program)

"Transformation" was the desire of the 20 students selected for Princeton's inaugural Bridge Year Program. Now, six months into the program, they have experienced just that.

From learning to speak a new language to discovering another culture to building cleaner-burning stoves, these students have been transformed by daily life in another country. Progressing from the first day, when everything was new and different, they now feel that they have a home away from home.

In groups of five, the students are based in Ghana, India, Peru and Serbia. They have deferred the start of their freshman year at Princeton to spend a tuition-free enrichment period abroad focused on public service.

In each location, the students live with host families as they gain first-hand knowledge of their new surroundings and begin to play a meaningful role in the communities in which they live and work.

Each student is engaged in a volunteer assignment organized by on-site partners selected by the University. Projects range from education to health care to environmental conservation and more.

"I’m very pleased with how the Bridge Year Program has been unfolding in these first few months," said John Luria, the program director. "Our first cohort of students is a remarkable group. It’s a challenging experience, and participants seem to be fully embracing the challenge."

Impressions of the students' experiences are posted monthly on the Bridge Year Program website. Brimming with personal discoveries, the accounts suggest that when these students begin their studies as freshmen at Princeton in fall 2010, they will have a world of ideas to share with their classmates.

Luria noted that in an early blog, one of the students, Lizzie Martin, wrote about her "desire to push herself outside of her 'comfort' zone and into a 'learning' zone while in India."

He added, "This is something that we've seen from all of our participants over the past few months -- the desire to be challenged, and the capacity to learn. It's been very rewarding to see the students reflect on the Bridge Year experience and, in the process, gain greater awareness of who they are, their place in the world and their capacity to influence change."

Many of the students' comments focus on settling in, host families, cultural practices, volunteer work and the environs. Below are some excerpts spanning different locations over different time periods:

Meeting with local artisans

Cultural enrichment activities in Ghana include visits to villages famous for their artisans and crafts. A local craftsman (from left) in the village of Ntonso instructs Bridge Year participants Jessica Haley, Cole Freeman, Kathleen Ryan and Aria Miles about adinkra cloth dying. (Photo: Courtesy of the Bridge Year Program)

Culture and environs

"Our group has learned that regardless of the area, whether we have been there or not, chai will be present. Drinking chai is one of the best ways to learn about Varanasi, Hinduism and your surroundings in general. It forces you to slow down, look around and take in what you see. We have sipped chai in the market, on the ghats, in restaurants, on a sandbar and everywhere in between." --Andrew Finkelstein, India, October

"The notes of hip-life music pounding from the nearest 'spot,' the shouts of 'puriwater!' piercing the air, the beeps of passing taxis, the piping notes of morning song birds and the even louder crows of roosters are becoming familiar in our ears. --Kathleen Ryan, Ghana, October

"During our time in Kanda, we have had the opportunity to learn a lot about village life. One of our recent activities was a discussion about the ways that joint families live and operate -- the distribution of power, the roles of various family members, etc." --Lizzie Martin, India, September

David Hammer shoveling dirt into wheelbarrow

David Hammer joins local villagers in Illary, Peru, where Bridge Year participants are working with the community to create a safe space for preschoolers to learn and play. Here Hammer helps to dig a trench for the plumbing necessary to bring water to the preschool's bathrooms. (Photo: Courtesy of Agnes Cho)


"We have all been frustrated in some way by our idealistic notions. Despite this, we have come to realize -- with the help of each other's insight and perspective -- that the impact that we will have on our respective organizations is immeasurable and invaluable. We know that we are 'making a difference': Jessica feels it every time a blind student is able to read the material for a course because she put in the time and effort to Braille it; Nick sees it whenever one of his students uses a word or grammatical construction correctly ... ; and Aria recognizes it when she teaches two-year-olds the difference between 'up' and 'down' using a ball game." --Cole Freeman, Ghana, November

"Our experience building cleaner-burning stoves on the Inca Trail gave us a sense of the kind of impact we might make in our time in Peru. While we knew that the stoves that we constructed would reduce the amount of firewood used by the family and decrease the amount of smoke inhaled by family members in the home, we learned of a more immediate impact that our work was having. The local community, accustomed only to foreign tourists hiking their way to Machu Picchu, commented on how shocked they were to see foreigners, especially young foreigners, doing physical labor, mixing barro, or mud, and carrying bricks. We walked away from the experience knowing that we had on some level influenced the local community’s perceptions of foreigners." --Leah Bushin, Peru, October 

Students at a street vendor

Volunteering, living with host families, practicing the local language and partaking in a variety of cultural enrichment activities are some of the ways Bridge Year students engage with local society in their host countries. Tasting new foods from street vendors is a favorite pastime, as demonstrated here by (from left) Lizzie Martin, Chhaya Werner, Andrew Finkelstein and Joe Barrett at a lassi (yogurt-based drink) shop in Ram Nagar, India. (Photo: Courtesy of the Bridge Year Program)

Settling in

"More and more I notice us seizing opportunities or creating them where they don’t exist, often shaping our experiences rather than only letting them come to us. I’m so impressed and proud of how far we have come and what we have made of ourselves and the opportunities afforded to us by the Bridge Year. It just keeps getting better and better." --Brian Reilly, Peru, January

"With our increasing language dexterity and growing grasp of the subjunctive tenses, we’ve all struck up conversations with Ricardo, the man we fondly call 'Churro Hombre,' who sells the best deep fried dough with caramel filling on the market street every evening." --Agnes Cho, Peru, November

"Now, activities such as navigating the maze-like alleyways, buying the foods for breakfast (each from a different street vendor), arguing with rickshaw wallas, or biking on the massively congested streets, that at first seemed daunting and impossible, are completed without thought or hesitation." --Joe Barrett, India, November 

Students with host family in Serbia

Though program participants live with different host families and work separately, they find many opportunities to spend time with each other as a group. (From left) Ashley Vinson, Alex Rafter, Katherine Mount, Mariam Wahed and Lelabari Giwa-Ojuri share their experiences over a home-cooked meal in Novi Sad, Serbia. (Photo: Courtesy of Lelabari Giwa-Ojuri)

Host families

"After we moved from the stage of always asking what we could do to help, we were able to see what needed doing and do it to the best of our abilities. Whether it was washing dishes or cooking, sweeping the house or keeping an eye on a baby, helping younger siblings with their homework or helping customers at the family store, we became accustomed to our families’ lifestyles." --Aria Miles, Ghana, January

"My host mother, Nada, has busied herself for the last month with preparing food for winter, a process that, in my mind, only exists in fairy tales and a long-ago time before refrigerators or supermarkets. Nada asked if families in the United States are making the same preparations, and I had to admit that no, I didn’t know of any families that buy 200 pounds of peppers to pickle and/or freeze, or pick 12 crates full of apples and quince (a funky furry fruit that looks like an apple, but is hard and tart) to make into juice. This process may seem a bit antiquated because in both Serbia and the U.S. we have access to peppers and apples year round, but it is an excellent illustration of the importance of food, family and tradition." --Katherine Mount, Serbia, November

"The homestay experience remains one of the most valuable and tangible aspects of our Bridge Year experience. For many of us, the companionship of our host siblings provides an extra layer of care and comfort." --Lelabari Giwa-Ojuri, Serbia, December 

Jessica Haley teaching math

During the second half of their program, Bridge Year participants in Ghana support local teachers in rural junior secondary schools. In Seniagya, Jessica Haley teaches math class to first-year students and supports other teachers when needed. (Photo: Courtesy of the Bridge Year Program)

Challenges and learning

"It is about sharing our cultures. Yes, we will come up against many differences, and we will sometimes miss the ways which we are used to, but these differences are part of the reason that we decided to come to a foreign country rather than staying in our familiar surroundings at home." --Ashley Vinson, Serbia, January

"When we first arrived in Peru it was as if we did not know anything. Everything was totally different to us; not just the culture, but also the daily routines. At first, we did what we were told. …However, November came with a wind of change. We were no longer trying to get accustomed to our lives in Urubamba, but we were starting to shape it. We had enough time to observe and discover, and it was time to make changes of our own will." --Tugce Tunalilar, Peru, November

"We were five 'Obronis' -- foreigners -- placed in a world much different from our own. We looked different, spoke a different language, ate different food and dressed differently. However, the genuine graciousness and humility that the Ghanaian people showed us allowed our initial feelings of isolation and culture shock to quickly subside." --Nick Ricci, Ghana, September

Students standing on a Peruvian mountain

Many rural communities in the Peruvian Andes are difficult to access, requiring long treks up steep slopes. (From left) Tugce Tunalilar, David Hammer, on-site program facilitator Javier Saldivar Durand, Brian Reilly, Leah Bushin and Agnes Cho stop on their way to work with the people of Ch'uru, a village high above the town of Huaran, Peru. (Photo: Courtesy of Agnes Cho)