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Building Bridges through Global Service

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This article is featured in the September 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, Sara Ivry speaks with Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Yearan award-winning, non-profit social enterprise on a mission to make it normal to choose a bridge year​ after high school. 

When you imagine a student of Harvard Business School, you likely conjure someone single-minded, bottom line-focused and aspiring to climb the corporate ladder. Abby Falik upends that stereotype. The 37-year-old founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year pursued an MBA for one reason: to move forward with her plan—one she started hatching at 18—to make our increasingly interconnected world a better place.

How? By creating opportunities for high school graduates to live and work in communities around the world during a ‘bridge year’ before college. Inaugurated six years ago with a group of just eleven young people, Global Citizen Year does just that.

“The world is global,” Falik explained over the phone from her office in Oakland. “The most significant challenges facing humanity – climate change, poverty, disease, migration -- transcend countries and cultures.  And, yet, Americans remain precariously insular. Just 1% of Americans will learn to speak a second language in school, compared to 50% of our European peers. One third of Americans have passports, compared to three-quarters of peers in other developed countries. And virtually none of us will ever live and work alongside the majority of the world’s inhabitants who still struggle to survive in situations of extreme material poverty.”

Her passion for cross-cultural understanding was instilled early in a secular, Jewish household and community in Berkeley, California. “There was a clear emphasis on social justice and giving back,” she said, citing the principles of tikkun olam and tzedakah. “It was just part of what we saw our parents do and part of who we knew we were.”

The family traveled to Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Southern Africa, and Falik was transformed by the realizations about disparities between her and peers she met overseas. “Just as randomly as I’d been born in one context, they’d been born somewhere else and it didn’t matter how much ambition or talent they might have, they were just never going to have the same opportunities. It was very unsettling and I think in a lot of ways that unsettledness has fueled everything I’ve done since,” she said.

When Falik finished high school, she “desperately wanted a break before college,” she said. “I really felt like I didn’t want to just continue blindly along the treadmill without pausing to consider why I was going to college.” She contacted the Peace Corps but was turned down, since she didn’t have a college degree. Falik was confused: “We send 1 million young people into military service each year to defend and promote American ideals abroad, but where was the civilian opportunity to learn others’ values and perspectives and bring them home?”

“Ever since then I’ve been fixated on making a year of global immersion between high school and college the new normal in American culture,” she said. In college, she took a year off to live and work in Latin America. When she returned to school, she petitioned to have that year count for credit, since it was so much more influential in her development than what she found in the classroom. Global Citizen Year strives to enable and support such experiences at scale. “There is a missed opportunity in not helping students decompress and align themselves with a sense of purpose before they begin their college experience,” she said.

After college, Falik worked for a year as a counselor for a high-end, international travel company; and then, for five years, at the now defunct non-profit NetAid. The former gave her leadership training—she took a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to pretending she knew about fine wine and driving a stick-shift so she wouldn’t disillusion trip guests who expected a sophisticated leader—and the latter taught her about social entrepreneurship and what pitfalls to avoid when building a financially viable non-profit.

So far, so good. Since its inception, 500 high school graduates have taken part in Global Citizen Year and Falik is just getting started. “Five years from now I’d love to have 1000 kids annually, and that’s a way station on our way to thousands and tens of thousands of kids,” she said.  

To do that, Falik and her colleagues are working on new partnerships in the countries where they operate. “We have an exciting pilot in India right now,” she said. “We are working with Teach for India, which is the country’s Teach for America equivalent. Our fellows are placed as teaching assistants and are in high demand because of how helpful they can be to a teacher in an overcrowded and under resourced classroom. Teach for India is already in 1000 schools.  What if we could place our Fellows in schools across their network?  And what if we looked beyond India to the 40 other countries with Teach for All programs? The experiment helps us think about new pathways to scale.”

They benefit from other types of partnerships, as well. Thanks to support from the Jewish Federation in San Francisco, Jewish participants in Global Citizen Year participate in a series of activities that correspond to the Jewish holidays and encourage them to explore questions of identity and purpose.

Part of the greater challenge Global Citizen Year faces is demystifying and rebranding the “interim year” not as a gap, but as a bridge year or a launch pad. Moreover, she and her team want to change the perception that this kind of experience is only for children of privilege, nor should it be seen as a “Plan B” if someone doesn’t get into college.

“Malia Obama announcing that she’s going to take a year off before Harvard goes such a long way in changing the narrative to make this truly aspirational,” she said.

The final piece of her puzzle is achieving financial sustainability and continuing to make the program available to kids who can’t afford to participate. To date, 80 percent of participants get need-based aid, and one third receive a full scholarship sponsored by individuals, companies and colleges.  For low-income kids who haven’t had opportunities to travel, such assistance can change not only their perspective, but their life trajectory.

“So much of this process is about rebuilding your identity in the context of being somewhere where nobody knows you,” she said. “Nothing’s expected of you and you have the opportunity—often for the first time—to decide who you want to be and what you care about.”

“We’ve had kids from Greenwich, Connecticut who are heading to Harvard to kids who grew up in West Oakland who may be the first in their family to go to college. Whether someone has grown up in privilege or poverty, the experience is life-changing—and the impact is magnified by bringing kids together from such different backgrounds.  She continued. “When kids from dramatically different backgrounds are living in the same region in Senegal and learning from each other’s life stories and recognizing that they each have an enormous amount to teach and to learn, it breaks down stereotypes about race and class in a powerful way.”

Falik is adamant that this is her life’s work, but she noted that her goals and focus have evolved over time. While her initial motivation was to give young Americans an opportunity to experience the world, she’s now equally interested in helping kids map their “inner landscape”.  She’s building a curriculum that’s focused on “mindfulness and introspection and reflection as tools to explore who you are when you’re out of your comfort zone. What are your values and what do you care about and what does it look like to craft a meaningful life?”

She continued: “We were initially focused on building a pipeline of international development change-makers, which I still believe we will do. But today I’m even more compelled by the opportunity to build a generation of self-aware, grounded, compassionate humans who know the difference between real good and feel good, and who are going to commit themselves to creating high-impact social change.” 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.