Learning to change the world on a gap year


Cross-posted on the ONE Campaign blog HERE.

Recently, everyone from Seth Godin to Thomas Friedman has taken a dig at higher education. It’s a familiar argument these days as the traditional model becomes simultaneously more expensive and less relevant in preparing students to tackle the challenges of the 21st century  – let alone, to simply get a job.

So – what would a real world education for someone who wants to change the world look like?

I work for Global Citizen Year (GCY), a non-profit social venture that is redefining the path to global leadership by embedding high school graduates in developing nations during a bridge year before college.

Before we send our Fellows abroad, we host a US Training Institute that exposes our students to the theory behind economic development, leadership, and social innovation. We bring in Stanford Professors, Social Entrepreneurs, and business leaders.  It’s the workshop of all workshops.

But, theory is different than practice. Ian Zimmermann, a GCY Fellow who recently returned from the highlands of Guatemala where he was working in education, will tell you that real-world learning takes time and patience.  First, he says, it was about learning a common language and taking in the culture, building a new identity and creating trusting relationships. Only then was he able to understand the cultural history of the community and begin to identify what he could provide to the students of his school.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend with our first class of Fellows as they returned from the field speaking new languages, discussing how they earned the respect of their host communities, and describing how they carved out a role for themselves at their organizations.

Throughout our re-entry sessions, when our Fellows considered larger questions about poverty and development, their insights were nuanced and specific to the places in which they lived – with a newfound understanding that there really are no silver bullets in overcoming poverty.

After four days of discussion and reflection, there was a clear consensus: Immersion abroad is a pre-requisite for exploration and deeper understanding of any of our global challenges. To get at the root of any social problem you must first understand it through the eyes of the community.

The takeaway here?  As our Fellows approach college, they are doing so on a base of personal experience and curiosity.  The prospect of more schooling no longer feels like a drag – instead, it has come to feel exciting and practical.

I can’t help but think that this is the type of real world education that could prepare the next generation to take on the complexity of the global challenges we face.