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09 Dec 2016 Abby Falik, Founder and President of Global Citizen year, Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Abby Falik, Founder and President of Global Citizen Year, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

 

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Denver: Many of us who went to college look back at those years as some of the best days of our lives. But today, that isn’t necessarily so for many young adults who enter freshmen year: exhausted, stressed out, uncertain about who they are, and what the future will bring. So, we can continue down that road without a second thought, or take a moment and wonder if there might be a better way. That is what my next guest did. And lo and behold!  She may just have found that better way. She is Abby Falik, Founder and President of Global Citizen Year. Good evening, Abby, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Abby: Thank you! Delighted to be here.

Denver: So tell us about your organization, Global Citizen Year, and what it does.

Abby: Global Citizen Year is on a mission to reinvent the “gap year” between high school and college as a launch pad for global citizens.

I found it ironic that we send a million 18-year-olds into military service every year to defend and protect our values overseas.  But where was the civilian opportunity for somebody at my age and life stage to have a deep, immersive experience in another part of the world, with the intent of bringing those perspectives and values back home?

Denver: Now you got this bee in your bonnet to start this organization– or at least something like it– during your senior year of high school.  You wanted to take a year to do something constructive with your life before starting college.  So you started looking. What did you find?

Abby: I finished high school like so many kids today: exhausted, burnt out, and hungry to have experiences outside of the classroom. I remember vividly picking up the phone book and calling the Peace Corps and being told, “Go to college! We’ll see you in four years.”  You needed a college degree to join the Peace Corps, and you still do. And even at that time, I found it ironic that we send a million 18-year-olds into military service every year to defend and protect our values overseas. But where was the civilian opportunity for somebody at my age and life stage to have a deep, immersive experience in another part of the world, with the intent of bringing those perspectives and values back home? I couldn’t find an opportunity like Global Citizen Year, and literally ever since, I have been fixated on what it will take to make this “the new normal” in American education.

High school has become a high-stakes game to get into college, and experimentation and failure and exploration are not on that checklist.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, let’s take a look at some of these high school seniors as they’re heading off to college. What is it like for them? How many of them are going to graduate? How long is it going to take them?

Abby: Today’s kids are exhausted. They are burnt out. They get to college disoriented, many of them never having had an opportunity to figure out who they are or why they’re going on to a higher education in the first place. High school has become a high-stakes game to get into college, and experimentation and failure and exploration are not on that checklist. So, kids arrive, and America today leads the world in college dropout. One-third of college freshmen don’t come back for a second year. On average, kids are taking six years to get through four-year institutions. And if you happen to be low income or first in your family to go to college, just 9% of kids in that demographic will make it through with a degree by the age of 24.

What’s really missing is motivation and a sense of purpose, and an ability to meet a challenge, have a failure or a setback, and know how to pick yourself back up… very few kids are having the opportunity to really exercise that muscle around resilience, purpose, and stick-to-itiveness.

Denver: Why are they having so many struggles? Is it that high school is not adequately preparing them for college?  Or, is it other things as well?

Abby: High school is often preparing kids really well cognitively for the academic rigors of school, though some kids arrive and need some form of remediation. But my perspective on this is: What’s really missing is motivation and a sense of purpose and an ability to meet a challenge, have a failure or a setback, and know how to pick yourself back up. And pretty categorically for kids, whether they’ve grown up in poverty or in privilege in this country, very few kids are having the opportunity to really exercise that muscle around resilience, purpose, and stick-to-itiveness.

So, it’s an opportunity in our language to apprentice to a problem; to learn about something through first-hand experience and exposure; to have an experience that stretches you outside of your comfort zone; that forces you to confront the layers of identity that have been constructed in your first 18 years of life; and to use that information as fuel to guide the questions you want to answer with your higher education.

Denver: Now, taking a look at this bridge year – and I know you call it a “bridge year” and not a “gap year” because we’re not going to be falling through any cracks here. We’re doing a transition, which a bridge does. Is this a year of good works, giving back a year of service?  Or is the objective something altogether different?

Abby: The objective, in our view, is about helping a young person discover who they are, what they care about, and who they want to become. I can share a little bit more about our approach at Global Citizen Year specifically– which is not oriented around the service that an 18-year-old is going to do in another community, but much more around their learning.

So, it’s an opportunity in our language to apprentice to a problem; to learn about something through first-hand experience and exposure; to have an experience that stretches you outside of your comfort zone;  that forces you to confront the layers of identity that have been constructed in your first 18 years of life; and to use that information as fuel to guide the questions you want to answer with your higher education.

Denver: Very interesting. And this is not intended to pad your resume and your achievements to get into college, correct?

Abby: That’s not the intent. We’re looking to give kids a year – not off, but really on– a year that turns them on to what it means to approach education with hunger and a sense of agency. That said, we have observed that some portion of our fellows each year do end up reapplying to college. Of those who do reapply, 90% get into more selective and better-matched schools– which we used to discourage, but now when we see the outcome of it, it means that kids are landing in schools that are a better fit for their interests. So, at the end of the day, that’s a great outcome because they know themselves better, and they’re making a more informed decision.

What we’re looking for is an indication of a young person who’s been able to take initiative, to make the most of where they’ve started, and to influence others to follow their lead. We look for motivation, grit and drive.

Denver: Yes. No one size fits all. You want to be flexible. And if these things have some advantages you have never even envisioned, you have  to go with it. When you’re looking at your applicant pool for the next class of Global Citizen Year, what exactly are you looking for in a candidate?

Abby: Our application process looks pretty different from a college application. We’re not screening for test scores and grades, or a family’s finances; what we’re looking for is an indication of a young person who’s been able to take initiative, to make the most of where they’ve started, and to influence others to follow their lead. We look for motivation, grit and drive.

Denver: Well, let’s talk about a Global Citizen Year. What is it like? What are these young adults going to experience? I know it all starts with a boot camp on the campus of Stanford University.

Abby: It does. And even before that, we scour the country, recruiting and selecting the highest potential young leaders we can find from a diverse set of backgrounds. They come together for this boot camp training at Stanford, where we introduce them to professors and practitioners, business leaders, social entrepreneurs to set a framework about how they can envision leadership, global development, and social innovation. They then travel in teams to country posts where they live and work on the ground, immersed in local communities for the remainder of the school year.

So the homestay is a critical component because they’re deeply connected to a family on another side of the world that they never would have had the opportunity to meet in another context. And we set them up with what we call an apprenticeship where they may be a teaching assistant in a classroom in India. They might be an extra set of hands in a maternity ward in Senegal, but they’re having the experience of being mentored– watching and observing, while they become part of the daily life in the community, a world away from their own.

Denver: You talked about country outposts around the world. What countries do they go to?

Abby: We have programming today in Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, and India… looking to expand into China and the Middle East in the years ahead.

Denver: Cool. One of the things that we have not been very good about as a nation is foreign language. I think only about 9% of us speak a second language. How do you handle the language issue with these cohorts who are heading off to the Senegals and the Ecuadors?

Abby: It’s actually just 1% of Americans who learn to speak a language in a classroom context.  And those of us who have had experience with language teaching and learning, know that you can only get so far in a classroom, that deep, immersive learning is really the only way to come up that learning curve.

So. we have a partnership with Rosetta Stone. All of our fellows do an online training program to get them up to a baseline proficiency before they join us.  And then over the course of their Global Citizen Year, through deep immersion and ongoing tutorials and training, ninety-four percent of our fellows come back proficient-to-fluent in a language; it may be French, Spanish, Portuguese or Hindi.

And so as a parent, I know that the most important thing we can do is actually learn to let go and give our kids opportunities to fall down, get back up, experiment, learn, discover some sense of passion and some sense of identity– outside of the context of your parents always doing everything for you.

Denver: Let me ask you a question about the parents. Parents today can be pretty protective of their children,  and the idea of sending them far, far away to a remote place of the world is not that easy. How have you found it, dealing with parents with this program?

Abby: Parents are understandably concerned. I am a new mom myself. Immediately upon having kids, I had a whole new respect for the faith and courage that the families who have entrusted us with their kids have demonstrated.

It’s a very scary leap to take. Yet, we know that helicopter parenting and the over-involvement in our kids’ lives– the efforts we’ve made to clear the roadblocks from their path– actually prevent them from having the experience of encountering those roadblocks and moving through them. We see the effects of this when kids get to college: over-prepared in some capacities, wildly under-prepared socially and emotionally.

And so as a parent, I know that the most important thing we can do is actually learn to let go and give our kids opportunities to fall down, get back up, experiment, learn, discover some sense of passion and some sense of identity– outside of the context of your parents always doing everything for you.

Denver: And I would imagine technology is making it a lot easier. The fact that they can  text back and forth, or skype every week has to make that separation anxiety a little  less extreme than it would’ve been a generation ago.

Abby: Absolutely. I don’t think we could’ve been doing this a generation ago. At the same time, it’s double-edged. I think a lot of our fellows join us because they’re hungry to unplug from technology and social media. They’re really looking to plug in to real life, to a slower pace of life, to a different way of learning outside of the realm of all of the technological influences that have made their lives feel so speedy… and often very superficial.

When you change a young person’s trajectory by one degree, the impact over a lifetime is immeasurable.

Denver: Give us a little idea of the kind of transformation that takes place during this Global Citizen Year, and how these freshmen will differ, let’s say, from your typical freshmen going directly from high school into college.

Abby: Our fellows join us exhausted, depleted, and honestly, I would describe them as “kids” on arrival. And a year later, they come back confident, humbled, on fire about problems they’ve encountered in other parts of the world, and inspired by the opportunity to use their education to develop themselves in a way that prepares them to really engage in a way that the world needs most.

The transformation is clear to us; it’s clear to parents; it’s clear to professors when they get to college and are engaging in a very different way in college discussions. When you change a young person’s trajectory by one degree, the impact over a lifetime is immeasurable.  And to change that trajectory at a younger age! For us the developmental sweet spot is in this transition between these two life stages– the transition that we’ve widely overlooked as an actual transition. If we can use this as a rite of passage, everything changes.

Denver: Yes. And speaking of humbling, as you said a moment ago… I’ll tell you one thing that really humbles you is not being able to speak the language effectively or fluently. You also get a whole new level of empathy and have to use other resources to try to communicate, not just depend on the spoken word. Well, give us a story or two about some of your fellows and some of those transformations that you may have seen.

Abby: I think about Ananda Day. Grew up in a single-father household. There were five of them in the house in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ananda had never been on a plane, didn’t have a passport, and was able to participate with Global Citizen Year through a fully-funded scholarship that we gave her. She spent a year living and working on a turtle farm in rural Senegal, and it just blew open her world view. She had the opportunity to interact with kids her age, who she wouldn’t have otherwise met, and people around the world. And when you fall in love with people you couldn’t have imagined encountering and become outraged by the material poverty that holds them back, something shifts; something is convicted and committed.

So she went on to UNC Chapel Hill, and from the moment she arrived on campus, she was a doer. She held leadership roles. She was rallying her peers to action. And just to watch her move with such grace and confidence and sense of focus through college, and then into the first steps of her career.  She now works at a 3D printing startup in the Bay Area. When she took the job, I remember asking her how that connected to her interest in public health in West Africa, and she said, “Don’t you see it? The dots connect so clearly.” She said, “Public health is one of the most important issues that we can address globally. 3D printing is going to be part of the solution, and I want to be at the interface of that.” And she describes how she got jobs that were aspirational to the other kids who were coming out of her college class, and that her resume got her the interview, but her experience got her the job. She was able to talk not just about the “what” of what she wanted to do with herself, but the” why.”

Denver: Yes. That’s the big difference. That’s a great story. Well, talking about making the bridge year the norm, a real positive step in that direction was with one of your partners. Tell us what Tufts has done.

Abby: Tufts has really taken the lead in encouraging their incoming freshmen to take this year before they arrive on campus. Now, there are other schools that have begun to offer preferred admissions, financial aid, course credit for students who take this bridge year before they arrive.  And the schools are doing this because they know they get better students: students who are more mature on arrival, less likely to binge drink or engage in so many of the behaviors that often make the headline news. And so Tufts, in its admissions packets, sends a note that encourages all of its incoming students to consider taking this year, and they provide financial aid for kids who need it.

Denver: That is big! Tell us about the size of your program. I know you started this back in 2010. You had about 10 fellows at the time. How has it grown since then?

Abby: Since 2010, we’ve grown our program tenfold. We’re excited about the opportunity to grow from 100 to 1,000, and to 10,000 from there. We envision a core the size and force of a Teach for America, and we’re on track to get there.

Denver: That’s a big ambition. I know you’re a social enterprise, Abby, with some of your money coming from philanthropy, some of it coming from earned revenue. How does that all break down?  And who are some of your partners?

Abby: I like to say that 501(c)(3) is our tax status, but it’s not our approach to leadership or management.  But I also went to business school, and with my MBA hat on, I recognized that what we were offering was an educational opportunity that some families were in the position to pay for– and, in fact, excited to pay for– because they see it as a downpayment on making sure that the college investment actually pays off.

Our target is that a third of our fellows are participating on a fully-funded scholarship;  these are low-income kids, often never been on a plane or left home.  A third of our kids receive a partial scholarship.  And a third are paying full freight. So what this means for us is that about half of our revenue comes from earned revenue streams– both tuition, and then partner revenue from colleges and others. And the other half comes from philanthropy. So we’ve been very fortunate to benefit from support from the Ford Foundation, the Nike Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and then a whole host of individuals who’ve invested either in the scholarship fund, or in the big idea that American education needs to be reinvented.

Denver: Yes. Let’s stick with the costs for a minute. That’s been one of the criticisms of this program.  Although you have financial aid, we’re talking about this on a much larger scale as it becomes the norm in the country. This can cost 25-, 50-, $75,000 a year!  What do you say to people who are going to have a devil of a time paying for college, as is?  How do you add this on top of all of that?

Abby:  It is such a reasonable concern. But my greater concern is the cost of notdoing this. Somebody is making an enormous investment in a student’s college education, whether it’s a family, whether it’s the government, whether it’s the colleges themselves. And if on average, kids are taking two extra years to get through college, somebody is paying for that. So, in that context, this actually ends up being a very cost-effective way to make sure that kids know what they’re doing when they arrive, and they’re on a mission to make college count.

Denver: One of our favorite topics that we discuss on The Business of Giving is corporate culture, the organizational culture of a place. And it is particularly interesting for me to speak to somebody who is the founder of a relatively new organization and has really been able to shape that organization. Tell us about your philosophy as it relates to the corporate culture, and the kind of place that you’re trying to create for the people who work there.

Abby: I’m very, very proud of the organization that we’re building and the culture we’ve developed, that allows people to bring their whole selves to work. So much of what we do is to model what we call “Global Citizen behavior.” We’re in the business of shaping young humans through our core fellowship program, and so everyone on our staff has to be a role model to the students that we work with.

We’ve taken a couple of cues from the Netflix playbook about HR. So we have a flexible time- off policy. We don’t count vacation days or track them. We allow people to take time off when and how they need it. And we encourage people to pursue interests and passions and curiosities. We provide a travel sabbatical stipend for employees after a certain number of years at the organization. And all of this comes together to create a work-hard, play-hard, bring-your-whole-human-to-work kind of spirit that I haven’t found anywhere else.

Denver: Yes. That’s great. It’s interesting…They say that the stronger the culture is within an organization, the smaller the employee handbook…because people know how to behave.  And it sounds like that’s the kind of place that you’re trying to create.

Abby: That’s right. Exactly.

Denver: Let me close with this. Movements like yours take hold very, very slowly… and then all at once catch fire– like an “overnight sensation” who has been toiling away in clubs for 20 years.  Do you see that moment happening for the “bridge year” concept?  And if you do, what do you think might be the catalyst for it?

Abby: I have been fixated on this idea for almost two decades. In May, when the President’s daughter announced publicly that she was going to take a gap year before going to Harvard, suddenly the conversation changed. What has been seen as sort of a luxury for privileged kids– or remedial because you didn’t get into college, our traditional concept of a gap year as a whole… that kids might fall into between one stage of life and the next… suddenly becomes the most aspirational thing.

Malia Obama has made this cool. Literally overnight, interest in our work increased tenfold. Our applications are up 2X from where they were at this time last year.  And we’re seeing growing interest from the media, from public policy makers, from colleges, all lining up to say, “This is crazy. Kids should not come straight to college.” And some day, college admissions will go the way of graduate school admissions. I remember when business schools used to take you straight out of college.  Now, they never would because they know they get better students when you’ve had experience in the workforce. And there will come a time when colleges won’t take you until you can demonstrate that you have learned about yourself, and you’re coming to college ready to declare a major and a mission.

Denver: The power of celebrity lives. Well, Abby Falik, the Founder and President of Global Citizen Year, thanks so much for coming by this evening. If listeners want more information– perhaps your child who’s in high school may be contemplating a bridge year– or to financially support the work of your organization, what is your website?  And what are they going to find there?

Abby: Globalcitizenyear.org will show you everything you need to know, both about the application process for students, and other ways to get involved in our work.

Denver: Great! It was a real pleasure, Abby, to have you on the program.

Abby: Thank you so much.

falik

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