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Signing Up for Bridge Year


Bridge Year is often seen as a magical experience where students are able to take a year off to travel the world on Princeton’s dime. That’s how I saw it. I was convinced about the opportunity to learn and grow by being immersed in the culture. Plus, I wanted to take advantage of a free travel opportunity and get out of the confines of New Jersey, especially after feeling senior year burnout. And part of me desperately needed time to figure out more about who I was– Princeton was offering that opportunity. 

For some students, Bridge Year is the ultimate highlight of their Princeton experience. For others, not so much. Despite its glowing reviews, Bridge Year isn’t always sunshine and happy memories, yet those are the memories often communicated. The expansive and fast-paced nature of the program allows students to focus on the highlights. The program is broken into short-term travel (at the beginning, over Winter break, and the final month) which allows you to rapidly immerse yourself in different cultures and learn more about the history of the place you are in. Our group traveled to Indonesia on the shores of Banyuwangi, through the farms of Flores, up to the peak of Dieng, to the waterfalls of Sumba and more. Then for the majority of the program, my group and I lived in Jogja with our own individual homestay families, interned at an NGO, took language classes, attended speaker events or activities put on by the staff members, and took an extracurricular class that was rooted in some aspect of Indonesian culture (mine was silversmithing). At my NGO, I attended different events surrounding children's rights and assisted with research surrounding sex trafficking— a heavy yet important experience. Beyond all of those activities, I was free to explore the city and myself. 

 

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Sunset from atop boat off the coast of Labuan Bajo

Because of the freedom to explore, many students on the trip face identity conflicts. In all fairness, identity conflict is a part of life. Bridge Year’s program design allows students to have time to reflect deeply on themselves, accelerating identity conflict and growth. Without academic rigor and structure, our brains can run free to think critically and deeply about ourselves. With the right support, this can be healthy. 

For me, I struggled with being visibly brown: I am a first-generation Bangladeshi-American and a Muslim. Growing up, my hometown is known to be “accepting, diverse, and liberal,” but lacked a significant South Asian or Muslim population. As one of the few, I learned to compartmentalize the subtle racism and Islamophobia I faced to keep moving forward. 

 

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Poster board about skin color identity

Bridge Year forced me to unpack all of it.  Every day, I was forced to confront my identity because of other people. Instead of compartmentalizing, I had time to think about it. 

At the start of the trip, whenever someone mentioned Islam, my group turned to me. At first, I was happy to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, but it soon hurt to hear their misconceptions about our traditions and beliefs.

As we settled into our long-term homestays, I felt pressure from the rest of the community. Taxi drivers would always question where I came from, to the point where my group and I had a running joke: to answer with random places around the world. At events, locals would often question my identity– “Is she really American?” and only dropped the subject when my white peers spoke up for me. Sometimes, local Indonesians didn’t bother to include me among my peers. I learned to stand in the middle of the group to avoid being cut off at doors and in lines. Other times, people asked if I was the instructor’s daughter, despite us bearing no resemblance besides our skin tone. Further, I was constantly offered whitening soaps and products. Everyone I interacted with had some opinion on my skin, which took away from my agency in how I viewed my heritage and identity. 

Yet these reactions came with perks. I could blend in more easily than my peers, avoiding scams and harassment– as long as I kept my mouth shut. As a Muslim, I felt another degree of connection to homestay families whenever they had a communal prayer. Despite these benefits, I fixated on the negative experiences, as is natural. Eventually, I grew to hate being brown. 

Seeking help never felt obvious. The advising resources provided by Princeton were in a completely different time zone and I didn’t feel like a real Princeton student or someone who could access those resources. In Indonesia, my instructors could not relate to my specific experience as a non-Indonesian woman of color. Instead, they asked me to bring it up to my group mates in order to find the support I needed, placing an undue burden on the other students, who were each struggling in their own ways to navigate our new environment. 

Near the end of my experience, I read a book entitled, “The Good Immigrant.” After hearing other POC narratives surrounding discrimination in a new environment, I finally felt seen and heard. During a group meeting, I used this book and critical race theory via presentation to explain my experience to my peers. Hours later, we received notice that we were being sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the rush to leave that followed, neither my peers nor I had time to process our thoughts on race. 

At home, I journaled a lot, especially since I had to quarantine. That summer held major events that helped me heal from the trauma of Bridge Year– America reckoned with race, and Never Have I Ever, one of the few TV shows that centers on a brown girl, debuted its first season on Netflix.

 

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Aneekah and two other students sitting atop a mountain after a hike in Java

After two years, I have come to terms with my experience. It was painful to grapple with my identity,  yet my struggles have prepared me for almost all environments. I have run the gamut of different ways in which I, as a brown girl, will be perceived. Further, I have now intentionally cultivated undying self-respect and love for my skin tone, and by extension, my heritage. I am grateful to have had the experience now, to have reckoned with my race and come to an understanding now, rather than have bottled up the insecurity for the future. My experiences on Bridge Year, even the ugly ones, have allowed me to be a much more mature and confident individual in the spaces  I occupy. I am lucky to have that resolve. 

Not everyone will have the same experiences I had, even if you fit the same description of a brown Muslim girl. But I wish I had heard this dialogue before going on the trip so that I knew I wasn’t the only one experiencing it. As a pre-frosh on Bridge Year, it’s daunting to navigate resources, send emails, or speak up about these issues. Thankfully, more avenues to access and promote these resources are being implemented, spearheaded by former students. During the year, there will be Peer Advisors who can connect participants with the correct resources. During the application process, feel free to reach out to a Bridge Year Ambassador with any questions you may have. 

This experience among other ones is what empowered me to become a Bridge Year Ambassador. In that position, I hope to continue to inform the next generation of students about the complex ways in which different students navigate the experience. I hope that I can make the experience more supportive for future students without discouraging them from considering attending.

In sum, Bridge Year isn’t just a magical experience where you travel to the most beautiful places on earth and end up with a glorious Instagram page. It is a complex, challenging, and meaningful life experience that will shape who you are. That’s what you’re signing up for. 


What You Have to Gain Is Wonderful


By the time I submitted my final college application, I was exhausted. I was excited about  college (and excited about Princeton, once I was admitted and later enrolled), but the thought of  another four years of physics equations and research papers made me apprehensive. I started spending a lot of time on the Novogratz Bridge Year website, looking at photos of smiling participants and reading about a year of trekking and service and living abroad.  

When deciding whether or not I wanted to apply to Princeton’s Novogratz Bridge Year program, one of my major hang-ups was about my high school friends. I adored them, and they were all about to go to college — to choose a major, attend dorm parties and bond with roommates— and I wasn’t sure if I could do something so different from them. It would mean that I graduated a year later from them and that I wouldn’t be able to come home for breaks. At some level, it meant that I wouldn’t be able to relate to them and they wouldn’t be able to relate to me.  

I was so worried about this that I almost didn’t apply to the program in Senegal. When I did, and I was accepted, my excitement was tempered slightly by these fears. I spent the summer before I left buying a bug hut, googling Senegalese music, and trying not to feel left out as my friends picked out their classes. I don’t know if my 18-year-old self would be surprised by this or not, but those fears pretty much all came true. I kept missing the group FaceTimes because I was in a different time zone; I cried when I saw photos of all my friends together at Thanksgiving; I had a hard time connecting with them when I came home the following summer.  

 

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A beach in Senegal

I don’t mean to say that I lost my high school friends — I am still incredibly close with many of  them, and I love now being able to trade stories about our professors and our college friends. In  some ways, my friendships with them are stronger than they ever were. Maybe if I hadn’t gone away, we wouldn’t be friends at all now. But choosing to take a gap year separated me from them  in ways that I still haven’t fully moved past. This separation very likely might have happened  anyway, as we all went to different schools and studied different things. But it felt unique to me,  as perhaps it does to everyone. At the very least, I was the first one to separate, and I didn’t get to  ease into it over the course of the semester or the year. Once I left, I was gone.  

Despite this loss — and it does still feel in many ways like a loss, as grateful as I am for my  continued friendships — I wouldn’t change my decision for the world. Before I left for Senegal I was so focused on what I stood to lose that I had a hard time picturing what I had to gain. That makes sense: what you might lose is real and tangible, while what you might gain is abstract and largely unknown. It wasn’t until I was there that I realized that the choice I had made was worth it.

Now, I wouldn’t trade any of it: picking up my little homestay brother from school, or making  pancakes on top of a mountain for my friend’s birthday, or running along the beach and through  the waves, or drinking cold bissap after finishing some hot ceebujen, or reading in the backseat of long and dusty bus rides, or carving watermelons for Halloween with my homestay family, or  eating beignets and oranges on the side of the road with my friends, or hiking past baobab trees, or returning to hold my godchildren for the first time. I wouldn’t trade a single one of those things.  

 

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Kate making faces with 4 children and adult

I spent that year living a life very different than the one I had grown used to. I worked at an  organization called Empire des Enfants, a shelter for boys who had been living and begging on  the streets, and learned how I could live a life of service even when I wasn’t “doing service.” I  spent my days taking the bus to work and then coming home for lunch before heading off to  language class. On the weekends, I swam to beautiful islands with my group and watched tv with  my little brothers. Slowly, I was able to make new friends and form new communities. They  looked different than the ones I had before, but I began to feel at home in a new place. I promise  you, what you have to gain is wonderful.

 

Returning from Bridge Year


One of the characteristics of the Bridge Year Program that surprises many people is that there isn't any formal academic coursework (besides language training). It is a year away from learning in the classroom and instead is focused on its core value of experiential service learning. This is a really valuable thing to do, but some people have asked me if this year away from academics makes it hard to return to school in the fall as a first-year student.

My experience in Brazil, a former Bridge Year location, was just the opposite. Far from making it harder to adapt back to academic study, I was excited to get back into the classroom! The senior year grind of college applications had left me a little cynical about my studies, but a gap year totally dissipated that feeling. A year away from homework and tests, was spent focusing on the real world. It gave me context and meaning to the work I am doing at Princeton. On top of that, with less time and high school curricula restrictions, I was free to read about and research topics during my Bridge Year that I was naturally drawn towards — which gave a lot of clarity to my thought about course selection when I finally arrived on campus.

Bridge Year is definitely not a vacation — we worked hard and learned a lot. But we were learning about the world and about ourselves. These lessons proved to be incredibly helpful when I arrived on campus. Far from making it hard to return to the classroom, my gap year experience greatly improved the quality of my academic work and life in my first year at Princeton.


Committing to Princeton


Toward the end of my senior year in high school, I skyped my mom from my school in Norway and teasingly said, "I’m going to spend next year in China!" It was a joke, I wanted to scare her a bit and see how she yelled that I was not going to be so far away from home again. Moving away from home when I was just 16 years old and studying in a boarding school in Norway had been a great adventure, yet it had also been hard to leave my family behind when I was so young. It was this distance and fear of forever being away that was making my decision to pick a university so hard. I did not know where to go. I knew my mom was also afraid that we would gradually grow more distant, so going to China was, in all seriousness, a complete joke. Instead, she was ecstatic when she heard my false news. She soon started telling me about all her adventures in China when she had lived there before I was born. She asked me a million questions and grew more excited as I mumbled and tried to satisfy her curiosity by reading the information in the pamphlet I held in my hand.

I had gotten my Princeton acceptance packet a few days earlier. Inside it, I had found a brochure about the University’s Bridge Year Program. At first, I ignored it; taking a gap year was not a thing people did in Spain, and it felt more like something high school students in Hollywood movies would do. And it did sound really movie-like: "a tuition-free program that allows a select number of incoming freshmen to begin their Princeton experience by engaging in nine months of University-sponsored service at one of five international locations." Why would the University want its students to start off their degree by going away? I read over it and glanced at the pictures, never actually thinking that months later it would be me who would be standing on a mountain in Yunnan. The five locations offered that year were India, China, Peru, Senegal and Brazil; China felt both the furthest and coolest.

 

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Host Family Dinner

 

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My NGO placement

After that Skype call, I reread the brochure, I researched the program and read blog entries from current and past participants. Suddenly, spending a year in China seemed more exciting. I also wanted to befriend the taxi drivers of Kunming and learn how to cook Chinese dishes like the past participants said they had done. I wanted to learn Mandarin and hike around Western China, learn more about community-based initiatives and how to appreciate a new culture. So I decided to apply.

In order to start my application and be able to do the program, I first had to be a Princeton student, so I quickly accepted the University offer. Ironically, it was this possibility of a bridge year in China that made my college decision so easy. Looking back now, I find it funny; I could very easily not have selected to participate in the Bridge Year Program. But I think it was more the fact that Princeton was offering that opportunity to its admitted students, that it saw the many benefits of spending time abroad, of experiential learning and highlighted the importance of multicultural understanding that made me pick the University. I had a great high school experience where I had learned to view education as much more than classes and textbooks, and it seemed that Princeton also thought being outside of the classroom could bring many benefits.

That year in China has defined not only my Princeton experience but also my identity in more ways that I could possibly describe. It made me passionate about so many things that are now vital to me, it made me a more adventurous and confident person, it completely altered my worldview and deepened my interest in a whole new region. It even brought me closer to my family, as I was able to share a similar experience to the one that my mom had living in China when she was in her thirties. It was this - a joke about a brochure - that made it possible for me to be writing this blog post from my room on Princeton’s campus, yet I still think that imagining oneself participating in the opportunities that each University offers, and thinking about which ones can make one grow most might be a great way of making this college decision. Good luck, everyone!

 

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BYP China Participants

Bridge Year in Bolivia


Cochabamba is a city in Bolivia known for its water. Ever since the 2001 Water War, the struggle for fair access to water enveloped the city in a brutal back and forth between national police and citizen brigades. In fact, Cochabamba’s Water War is one of the only examples of a united populace forcing the de-privatization of a public good since the 1980s, when global institutions started enforcing neoliberal policies in developing countries. Fundación Abril, an organization that fights for water and sanitization for all, was both birthed from the Water War and named for it — Abril meaning April as that was the last month of fighting in 2001 before the water was given back to the people. Oscar Olivera founded the Fundación after serving as the face and voice of the popular revolt. This context has been key to my experience volunteering for Oscar and Fundación Abril.

Fundación Abril’s main goals are to increase access to clean water as a common good and to collectively support labor and community. This mission takes many shapes, from rainwater catchment in schools without running water to urban gardens and workshops on organic farming. As a volunteer, I have been lucky enough to work on a variety of the small projects that make up the Fundación’s larger vision: I have helped students harvest vegetables in their own school garden, poured cement for water tank construction and translated grant applications from Spanish to English. No day is average; I enjoy running around to different parts of the city. I have been able to meet incredible people and discover a new set of passions because I have such a diverse portfolio of responsibilities. I think the breadth of Fundación Abril’s vision comes from its origins. After the Water War, how could one separate a community’s connection to the land from their resistance to foreign corporate interest? The Water War brought seemingly disparate issues into scope as part of the same wider conflict.

Having studied the Water War, working with Oscar has felt like working alongside a piece of history. But the vibe in our office has always been one of equal partnership. I am just a volunteer, but the staff at Fundación Abril has made me feel included from the beginning. On my first day, I walked in on a meeting with Fundación’s leadership,  so I asked if I should sit outside until it was over. They told me to pull up a chair and listen. Everyone there understands that we need to work side by side in order to achieve the organization’s ambitious goals.

My time at Fundación Abril has taught me that the mission and intention of who I work for is more important than organizational resources or size. It’s a question of values, and I finally understand where my values lie. I will always choose listening before speaking, local activists before foreign NGOs, and on-the-ground solutions before worldwide plans. I guess I can add that to the long list of things I am taking away from my Bridge Year experience. At Princeton, I will be sure to incorporate what I learned from Oscar and Fundación Abril into what I choose to study and pursue.

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Jason Seavey


Bridge Year!!


And the next September, instead of beginning my first year at Princeton, I embarked on the most amazing experience of my life.