Grounding Liberal Arts Education in Real-World Experience

David Van Zandt — President, The New School


This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.


When his peers were doubleparked at their new dormitories and navigating dizzying rounds of freshman orientation, Alan De Leon, a first-year student enrolled at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, was finding his way around rural Brazil — namely the town of Palmerias, where he is spending the year collaborating with local citizens engaged in environmental conservation in this fragile, historically significant region in the southern state of Bahia. De Leon, who hails from South Houston, Texas, is one of three Lang students experiencing their freshman year abroad under the auspices of a new joint program between The New School and Global Citizen Year.

It is not news to assert that learning happens beyond the classroom. First jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities all have the power to reinforce, contextualize or even call into question a student’s academic experience. By providing a full academic year’s work on a project in the developing world, The New School/Global Citizen Year program gives new students an opportunity to develop maturity and focus, changing the tenor of the conversation in the classroom and enriching their collegiate education.

While popular in Europe, a year of overseas travel right after high school is far from the norm in the United States. Students and parents feel pressure not to lose time in an ever-more competitive educational environment. By bringing the experience within an academic framework, The New School and Global Citizen Year provide the benefits of a gap year without postponing undergraduate education. The term “bridge year” is a more apt description of the experience of Global Citizen Year Fellows. They are transitioning from one phase of life to another while spanning cultures, but the experience is so intensely educational that it can hardly be considered “a year off.”

This fall, The New School’s Eugene Lang College and Global Citizen Year launched this unique academic pathway in which students work with non-governmental organizations in the developing world. At the same time, they are engaged in coursework created by Lang faculty and overseen directly by Lang Dean Stephanie Browner, to place their work in a larger context. When their year in the field is over, students receive a full year of college credit and arrive on campus with sophomore standing.

In addition to Alan De Leon, Lang freshman Amalia Rowan, from North Carolina, is apprenticing with agriculture organization Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais, also in Brazil, where she is learning about small-producer agricultural practices. Emma Anderson, from Oregon, is spending her year in Senegal, teaching English to primary and middle school students at the College Elementaire et Moyen, Imam Mbaye Seye, and working after classes to get the student council up and running again.

Parents and students expect real results from the four-year undergraduate curriculum. This is not unreasonable. Scholarly studies have shown that programs like Global Citizen Year do deliver real educational outcomes. In a paper published in Teaching in Higher Education last year, Joseph O’Shea looked at the participants in a large gap year program in the United Kingdom and found that the experience “fuses civic engagement with significant personal, moral, civic and intellectual development.”

In a 2010 Journal of Education Psychology study, Andrew J. Martin found that gap year students emerge more academically motivated and with less post-school uncertainty than their peers who proceed directly from high school to college. Further, gap years give students an edge upon graduation, serving as “an important means of gaining distinction over peers,” according to a study published in the British Journal of Sociological Education. This last bit is far from trivial — students increasingly rely on differences in their personal experiences to get an edge over their competition.

For me, though, the most convincing reason to consider a bridge year is the imperative to gain field experience in a globalized world that values international experience more than ever. By participating, students get the kind of practical, international experience that lifts them from the parochialism that sometimes characterizes undergraduate education. Particularly at a place like The New School, where students and faculty are devoted to solving problems creatively and contributing to the public good, we expect Lang students — and any graduate of The New School — to leave us already familiar with the world outside of our doors.