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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

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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.

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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."


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