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Mind the Gap Year: Global Citizen Year Turns 18-Year-Olds into Future Leaders

Abby Falik wants a year abroad between high school and college to be as mainstream a pursuit as Teach for America.

While a gap year between high school and college may be popular among young people abroad, especially in the United Kingdom, the idea is far from the norm in the United States. That's a shame, given the importance of honing an international perspective in today's global economy. "It's still the case that the only opportunity for an 18-year-old to do global service in this country is through the military," says Abby Falik, who was turned away by the Peace Corps when she tried to serve after high school. "You need a college degree typically to join."


Falik went on to design her own custom year abroad, working with community groups in Brazil and Nicaragua. The experience was so rewarding that ever since, she's been "totally fixated" on creating a program to provide similar opportunities to other young Americans. In 2009, Falik launched Global Citizen Year, a post-high-school program for college-bound students in search of leadership skills and life experience in emerging economies.

Falik hopes to send 100 fellows in next year's Global Citizen Year class to Ecuador, Brazil, and Senegal, where they'll take advantage of skills that many young people may never have taken advantage of: fluency in English, technology, and connecting with young people. If you were born in the 1990s in the United States, "chances are you are more tech-savvy than virtually anyone in the rest of the world," says Falik. Fellows may spend their time teaching English or translating it, assisting farmers with educational internet resources, or working with local teachers to use Google or Wikipedia for lesson planning, for example. Global Citizen Year's training emphasizes mentoring local girls, "which is consistent with what we know about good development," Falik adds.

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"We're not a feel good operation," says Falik, nor a chance for privileged kids to engage in do-gooder tourism. "We're here to do something that we think will make a measurable difference in our fellows' lives and their trajectory as leaders, and over time in the communities" they serve. The fellows "are not there to help or save anybody. They're there to collaborate and come home and prepare themselves to be leaders." The organization will measure its success based on what kind of leadership positions alumni occupy 10 or 20 years down the road.

Applications for next year's cohort remain open until February. "We're looking for kids who are self-starting and resilient and who are curious about the world," says Falik, "kids for whom this opportunity will just blow open their sense of themselves in the world and set them on a track to know how much is possible." The price tag—$28,500 for the year—may be steep, but thanks to funds raised through scholarships and grants, more than 80 percent of fellows receive financial aid.

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