Difference Maker

Abigail Falik wants students to take a year off doing good abroad

Volunteering abroad between high school and college in a 'Global Citizen Year' helps students learn teamwork and leadership skills

By , / Correspondent

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    Abigail Falik went to Brazil in her late teens to help street kids. The program she has since founded has sent more than 40 participants into the field to do similar work.
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If timing is everything, then Abigail Falik timed the launch of her nonprofit Global Citizen Year (GCY) with the precision of an atomic clock.

As America's young adults find themselves in a new global economy and job market, her idea has come to fruition at exactly the right moment.

A graduate of Stanford Uni­ver­sity and Harvard Business School, Ms. Falik spent more than 10 years in the fields of education, international development, and social enterprise before founding her one-of-a-kind, award-winning program in 2008.

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Her goal: Provide idealistic young people with an experience that will help them become a new generation of leaders with an ethic of service.

It is a "vital idea whose time has most definitely come," says Andrew Zolli, executive director of PopTech, a conference and networking group that seeks innovative solutions to world problems.

GCY Fellows are high school graduates who spend a "bridge year" working in a developing country before entering college. They become conversant in the local language and receive social, educational, and cultural training. They also learn leadership skills.

"A growing Global Citizen Year is one of the best investments we can make in the education of Americans to be successful citizens and leaders in this ever-more-interconnected world," says former US Sen. Harris Wofford (D) of Pennsylvania, a cofounder of the Peace Corps and, he says, an "unabashed" supporter of Falik and GCY.

Falik's vision for GCY came in part through lessons she learned as a youth traveling with her family in developing countries and later when she took off a year in the middle of college to travel.

The idealistic 19-year-old went to Brazil to work for a project helping street kids. However, she didn't speak Portuguese and had no formal support system to rely on. The difficulties of navigating a new city and culture on her own made for a steep learning curve and a challenging experience.

Yet the Brazilian endeavor itself seemed worthwhile.

Later, while earning her MBA, Falik combined those hard-earned lessons with cutting-edge research in the field of social entrepreneurship to design the kind of program she would have wanted in place back when she had to go it alone.

In 2008, GCY won first place in the Pitch for Change Competition, sponsored by Harvard Business School. In 2009, Harvard awarded her a social entrepreneurship fellowship.

Other awards and accolades followed. But more important to Falik, over the past two years, 44 fellows have gone through her GCY program, their horizons broadened and lives transformed.

After a year in GCY, says Gaya Morris, she entered college more motivated and with a clearer sense of direction, excited to investigate further the vexing questions she faced abroad. Living in Senegal, she says, helped her understand the complex problems involved in fighting poverty.

Falik envisions a big future for GCY. Young people today, more than any other generation, have to think globally and will need to develop language, social, cultural, and technical skills to address the world's challenges.

Yet only 9 percent of Americans speak a second language; only 22 percent even have a passport. A one-year immersion in another culture provides a great foundation for emerging leaders.

Students outside the United States often take a "gap" year between high school and college. But only recently have US high schools and colleges begun to encourage students to consider this option.

Both parents and educators are realizing the value it brings, frequently including intangible benefits.

"I expect that my daughter will get a lot more out of college now, having a better idea of what direction she'd like to go," says Mike Hess, the father of a current GCY fellow. "The change in her hasn't so much been drastic as it's been a refinement," he says. "Her experience with GCY is not making her a different person so much as it's making her the same great person, only more so.

"Oh, and she can speak French now!"

Falik doesn't take a cookie-cutter approach to selecting the GCY Fellows. She looks for candidates from a wide range of ethnic, economic, and academic backgrounds.

Candidates need to demonstrate outstanding leadership potential and commitment.

The cost of the program is covered in innovative ways tailored to meet the financial needs of each student. Using a combination of financial aid and student participation in fundraising, GCY is able to include students from modest economic circumstances.

While a gap year of service abroad is relatively new to US students, Falik wants to make it commonplace. GCY's current success marks only a beginning, she says.

"Our efforts are designed to plant the idea of a bridge year in American culture," she says. "One day, a year of global immersion before college will become the norm rather than the exception."

The world is growing closer. "We can no longer see global experience and skill as luxuries," Falik says. "They are essential to our country's security and prosperity."

www.globalcitizenyear.org

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