Going abroad before college | Lindsey Pollak's Blog

Going abroad before college

Check out this recent story in The New York Times, “Princeton Plans for an Early Year Abroad.” Princeton has become the first university to offer its newly admitted students a year of social service work in a foreign country before freshman year. 

Princeton’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman (selected by Newsweek as one of America’s best leaders), explained the “bridge year” as “cleansing the palate of high school, giving [students] a year to regroup.” The program will begin with a small group and will eventually include 10 percent of admitted freshmen. It will be optional to participate and financial aid will be offered.

I think this is a great idea and a response to some important trends. Students today are globally aware and socially conscious. I’ve also noticed an increase in students taking a “gap year” between high school and college. I noted in my book that Goucher College in Maryland is the first college to require study abroad for a degree, and I think Princeton is taking a step in a similar direction.

My positive response to this program is personal, too. I spent two years between college and the “real world” in Australia and it changed my life. I think every young American should have the experience of living in another country.

What do you think?

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  1. Tiara says:

    I love this idea. Too many young people rush into university without really knowing what they are getting themselves into. I wonder how many students would rearrange their plans after the service trip!

  2. April says:

    I’m not so psyched about this move, actually, especially because it muddles travel abroad and community service. As great as a gap year is, and as great as going abroad is (I think the latter is an opportunity every student should take), they’re for personal enrichment. Community service certainly has personal benefits, but it shouldn’t be primarily about self-gain. I have trouble with using other people’s challenges as a backdrop in order to “find yourself.” While I did discover interesting facets of my personality when I went abroad, I wasn’t on a service mission, nor was I there to “cleanse my palate” (as Princeton’s president was quoted in the NYT article), nor to discover my identity. And from my experience in college, students who go on service trips abroad often get a lopsided, sometimes romanticized portrait of people from other cultures as “victims” that isn’t accurate (hence the banal observation that we “have it so well here”).

    Moreover, Princeton students really don’t have to go far to find communities in great need of service, and while I’m sure current students already do local community service projects, what better way to immerse incoming students into the community than to get them involved even earlier? They’d probably have even greater ties to both the Princeton campus and nearby community as a result, even well after they graduate.

    Going abroad and taking a gap year can be amazing experiences, but the whole “service” veneer often amounts to a pat on the back that may be just a little smug. The formal university sponsorship adds to this problem, I think. I’m sure you’re aware of the Ivies’ campaigns to outdo each other’s financial aid offers and service commitments; I know they want to serve their students, but much of this is about PR. I think the investment in this project would be better spent on making sure students of all income ranges can go abroad — whether during the term, in the summer, or even during a gap year — rather than organizing a vanity service project.

  3. @ April – Thanks for sharing your perspective. I think your points are valid and important to explore. My opinion tends to fall on the side of offering lots of options regarding study abroad, community service, arts, etc., so that it’s possible for as many students as possible to particpate, depending on the right timing and program set-up for their needs. Agreed about watching out for PR spin from universities — that’s something we all need to be aware of when reading articles like this. I hope you’ll comment again in the future.

  4. @ Tiara – Thanks for commenting. My hope is that this kind of opportunity might appeal to students who wouldn’t otherwise participate in community service or study abroad. I’ll be sure to keep track of it!

  5. Jazmin Hupp says:

    I took a year off before college and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I took the money that I had been given to help pay for college and spent 8 months traversing 11 European countries instead. Taking a year to breath, after 13 years of continuos education, meant that I started college fresh and ready to hit the ground running. Plus months in shared hostel bedrooms, made tiny dorm rooms and noisy roommates easier to take in stride. I don’t know how Princeton is handling their program but I’m glad that they are promoting a “gap year” in the US.

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