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When Abigail Falik graduated from high school, she dreamed of joining the Peace Corps but got the standard response: “Go to college first.”

Frustrated but determined, Falik cobbled together a trip to Nicaragua, where she lived with a family in a rural community and learned to make tortillas by hand. She worked in the fields, taught English at a local school and helped build a library. The experience, she says, was so profound that ever since she has been committed to answering the question: “How can we create opportunities for more Americans to have similarly transformative experiences working beyond our borders?”

Today, Falik, 34, runs Global Citizen Year, a 5-year-old nonprofit that seeks to give high school graduates an eye-opening “bridge year” by immersing them in developing countries in the world. Each May, her program picks and trains a diverse group of new grads to live with families in Africa or Latin America, where they work on projects in education, technology, health and the like. At the end of the year, participants go through a re-entry program to transition back to the U.S. and — in the majority of cases — college.

Related: Meet 10 Young Women to Watch in 2014