21 Dec 2018

Bridging the Gap

Global Citizen Year founder Abby Falik on why kids need to find their purpose before freshman year


When Abby Falik was 18 years old and getting ready to graduate from high school, she found herself wanting to stretch. She was hungry for a kind of deep life experience before she headed off to college that would help her figure out who she was—and maybe who she wanted to be.

Falik never did find that outlet, which inspired her to build it herself. She spent her two years at HBS narrowing the vision and the model of an organization that she felt could address this unmet need. The result? Global Citizen Year, a rethinking of the traditional gap-year experience for high school graduates, focused on leadership development and featuring experiential, community-level project work in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

Global Citizen Year has now supported almost 1,000 fellows in its 10 years of existence, and in this episode of Skydeck our associate editor Jen Flint spoke to Falik about why the phrase “gap year” is a misnomer and why we need to stop rushing our children off to college.


Flint: Kids who go to college often have the opportunity to enter study-abroad programs. How is this year different from that experience?

Falik: Traditionally, study abroad has been the experience that we’ve encouraged kids to have to expand their horizons and have a global experience. When we look at the data, though, it’s pretty striking: 80% of kids who participate in study abroad are middle class or upper class, white; two-thirds are still going to western Europe, where typically they are in an enclave of other American students, speaking English, learning from an American professor; and it’s pretty far from the immersive, perspective-changing experience that, frankly, is fundamental to leadership in the world today.

The other trend in study abroad is that those experiences have become shorter and shorter. So, on average, a typical study abroad is between three and six weeks at this point, which is not long enough to sit through your discomfort, to learn a new language, or to reorient your sense of the world and your place in it.

In contrast to traditional study abroad, Global Citizen Year is designed not as a study year, but as an experiential learning year and as a year that’s focused on a deep, immersive experience that places each of our fellows in a community where they have the experience to sit somewhere long enough that they learn to speak to their community in a new language.

They shift their sense of how America is perceived in the world. They walk literally miles and miles in their host sibling’s shoes. But they have the kind of experience that gives them a sense of the different perspectives that can co-exist. Fundamentally, it’s about building empathy. The fact that two-thirds of study abroad is still in western Europe—while 80% of the world’s population is living in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—doesn’t make any sense in today’s world. So, part of what we're after is giving our most promising young leaders firsthand, lived experience in parts of the world that, frankly, too few of us have had direct exposure to, and many, many more of us need to understand firsthand.

Flint: Why have Americans been slower to come around to this idea of students taking a year between high school and college? And where are you starting to see the idea get traction?

Falik: It starts with the language we use. The metaphor of a gap year is exactly the wrong one—this idea that you’re sending your kid into a gaping hole that they might or might not come out of. That there’s sort of an undefined space between two stages of life when what we know is that, when we use this year by design and on purpose, and not by default, it’s the opposite of a gap.

It’s a launch pad, it’s a bridge, it’s a transformative foundational year of life that helps a young person figure out who they are and who they’re becoming. When we look around the world, there’s been a long-standing tradition of recognizing that age 18 is the most formative moment in a young person’s life.

It’s true developmentally—the neuroscience will tell us that. And then we look at cultures and religions that for generations have encouraged young people at that age to do something out of their comfort zone, and in the real world, as a part of their identity formation. Yet, in America, we’ve been in such a hurry to just get kids to and through college, and across some imaginary finish line, that we’re totally overlooking what is a missed opportunity for a young person to figure out their why.

Flint: So, what are you hearing from the students who participate in your program? What is the experience like for them, and what are they coming away with?

Falik: I think some of the most noteworthy observations so far are that our fellows come back and they’ll tell us that they have more confidence, more self-awareness, more conviction around problems that they really feel are worth trying to solve. More clarity of purpose for how they’re going to navigate their higher education.

We see this reflected in their getting through college one year faster than the national average, and we know we can attribute that to the fact that they know why they’re there. They know what questions they’re trying to answer. They know how they want to orient their education around the questions that are driving them.

I see it not unlike how business school used to take you straight out of college. Now, with programs like Two Plus Two, and the national trend that shows students are better prepared when they’ve had experience working in the world, in order to form the questions that then allow them to have agency with their education.

It was absolutely the case for me—the sort of difference between how I approached my undergrad experience and how I approached graduate school, was the opportunity to step back and figure out why I was going to school and how I was going to use my education to further my own goals.

As opposed to the traditional way that we send young people into school—that is, with a checklist and a set of course requirements to slog through and a sense that they’re actually just being dragged through it, and the goal is to cross a finish line without having actually necessarily explored what their authentic interests might be.

Flint: It sounds like there’s a return on investment here for the college education that could be taken into account in this decision.

Falik: I think that the most compelling reason that every young person should take a global year before college is the return on investment. The investment we make in a young person’s higher education is the biggest investment we’re making in their life, and the idea that we would pay a quarter of a million dollars for a student to have an experience, before they know how they want to make use of their education, just doesn’t make sense. And it makes even less sense today than ever before.

There was a recent Gallop poll that showed that 96 percent of college presidents say their graduates are ready for the workforce, and 11 percent of employers agree. We see this all the time on the employment side, which is that the skills that are most crucial in today’s world have very little to do with what’s being taught in a lecture hall. We like to say that the traditional soft skills—empathy, self-awareness, resilience, creativity—are actually the power skills of the future.

So, the best way that we can change the outcomes of the college experience is by changing the inputs. If we can deliver a set of hungry, purposeful learners who are on a mission to chase down their own goals with their education, everything changes from there. And, frankly, it’s the best way that we can improve the return on that college investment.

Flint: Can you give us an example of a student who’s gone through the program and tell us a little bit about what their apprenticeship was about, and the kind of soft skills they were coming out with?

Falik: I think about Ananda Day, who I just spent a week with in Senegal, actually. We returned 10 years later with a video crew to record the experience that she had had in Senegal and for her to reflect on how that experience at age 18 has been the foundation of everything that’s happened since.

Ananda grew up in a single-father home in North Carolina. She’d gotten into UNC, which she was delighted about, but she was really scared. She looked around and felt like, “Wait a second, I can’t throw away my shot. I can’t move toward this experience until I know that I’m really positioned to make the most of it.” And so Ananda, with all of her bravery and pioneering spirit, applied to our very first cohort of Global Citizen Year fellows, and she joined us.

She ended up spending a year living in a community in Senegal, and she’ll now describe, 10 years out, how it was the experience of staying longer and going deeper that transformed her perspective on her own life and on what she cared about and what she wanted to do, both with her education and with her career, over time. Specifically, she talks about how her host sister—all of our fellows are placed with host families—was exactly her age. So Awa was also 18 when Ananda arrived in this community, and they clicked immediately.

They had the same sense of humor, they had a lot of the same interests. Ananda describes it as feeling like she’d met her mirror. It’s like Awa was the same person, was how she felt. Flash forward eight months, by the time Ananda was getting ready to come back to the US to start college, Awa, her host sister, had dropped out of school, had gotten pregnant, and was now married. Ananda had this experience of seeing how dramatically divergent their life paths were going to be, just because of where and when they happened to have been born.

And so Ananda describes how her life’s mission has become “deleting the randomness” that says where you are born should dictate the opportunities and access you’re going to have in your life. And so she has chased down entrepreneur fellowships in college as she moved through UNC and graduated with high honors. She then found herself a job at a startup in the Silicon Valley, called Carbon 3D, that’s revolutionizing 3D printing.

When I talked to her about that choice of a career move, she describes that underlying it is this deep commitment to figuring out how to return to West Africa and how to use entrepreneurship to help alleviate poverty and create opportunities for people who don’t otherwise have them.

There’s a savvy to how she’s approaching what she’s learned and how she’s contributing, and a clear sense of a north star. She’s driven not by checking things off boxes or adding things to her résumé, but rather this underlying sense of purpose. The world is massive, wildly unequal, and she’s got access to privilege and opportunity that she is absolutely committed to putting to use in the service of creating opportunities for others.

Flint: Not every 18-year-old will thrive in that kind of environment, so what are you looking for? How do you identify good candidates for the program?

Falik: Global Citizen Year is a leadership program, so we are looking each year for the highest-potential young people we can find. We take everyone through a rigorous selection process where we’re not looking at test scores and grades, because we don’t actually think that academic excellence is the only indication that somebody has the potential to lead change over time.

We’re looking for a track record of curiosity, of resilience, of initiative. We want to find kids who have made the most with where they’ve started, who’ve built something from scratch, who’ve persuaded other kids to follow their lead, and who can show that they’ve got the drive and stick-to-itiveness to set a goal and chase it down.

I would also mention that a key part of our selection process is that we’re set up as a need-blind admissions process. We are selecting the highest potential young people we can find, independent of their family’s financial circumstance, and this is part of why we’re set up as a not-for-profit. That’s deliberate, on our side.

Flint: And now you’ve had about a thousand students pass through the program. What metrics or anecdotal evidence do you have that this experience is shaping their lives in a different way or that these kids are choosing a different trajectory?

Falik: So, we’ve been data-crazy from the beginning. It’s one of the things that I think my HBS training taught me. We wanted to approach this work as rigorously as anybody in a startup, for-profit context might. There’s nothing soft about nonprofit work. In many ways, it’s even harder. We’ve been really committed to demonstrating, with the data, the learning outcomes from the year.

We look broadly before and after our fellows’ global citizen year across measures of language development, empathy, global perspective, and a set of skills that have to do with their ability to work across lines of difference—to lead with a global perspective, to feel confident in new situations, to feel comfortable with ambiguity. And what we see is that our fellows, as they come back, report that they have a higher degree of confidence, self-awareness, skills around well-being and how to stay grounded in the midst of the academic challenges that they then encounter when they get to college.

There’s been a lot of study about the role of higher education in setting young people up for success over the course of their lives. And the seminal study, the Gallop Purdue Index, identified that far more important than where you go to college in your life outcome is how you approach the experience.

And, specifically, they found a set of high-impact behaviors that students exhibit as freshmen that are then correlated with—and probably causal to—success in careers and success broadly defined, economically; feeling like you’re being intentional about what you’re pursuing and that you’re pursuing meaningful work, over time. And so we’ve been really interested in that study, because what we can show is that we are helping young people develop the habits around these high-impact practices that include asking for help when you need it.

Developing a relationship with a mentor, blending in-class and out-of-classroom learning, self-designing projects that extend for more than a quarter or a semester. And we see that our alumni are exhibiting those high-impact behaviors at three times the national average—which we take as a really powerful indicator that they’re going to use college very differently, and they’re going to approach their jobs with a sense of agency and purpose and direction that unfortunately has gotten all too rare, where we’ve got an educational system that sets kids up to follow the checklist and add things to their résumé, following in line like excellent sheep. There’s a wonderful book with that title that suggests that we’ve trained a generation of kids to be really exceptional at what they’re doing but with very little idea of why they’re doing it. And, for us, it’s really about the why.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2008, Section E
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