Dear Malia Obama, Thank You for Taking a Gap Year Before College
When you announced your decision last spring to take a “gap year” before attending Harvard University I was impressed and excited. It’s not easy to make a choice that goes directly against the prevailing norm, but you did. The momentum of the K-16 conveyor belt that shuttles kids from high school directly to college is a powerful force; it takes courage to step off this path, and even more so to do it publicly.
I don’t know the specific reasons you are taking a year “off” (or, more appropriately, a year “on”), but whether or not you realize it, your decision has already influenced the way parents, teachers and kids are relating to this important idea. Your decision flipped the script from a gap year being a plan B for someone who didn’t get into college to it being something to aspire to, and something that’s…well, cool. With growing interest in the question of how to make college count, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine the gap year as a “launch pad” for leadership; and with thanks to you, we’re now on the cusp of this becoming so.
A gap year, when infused with a sense of purpose, is anything but a gap. In fact, I think we should start calling it a “bridge year” to better reflect it’s potential.
I admire the way you’re using your year to stand up for what you believe in, and to be an active member of our democracy. It was great to see you making your voice heard at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest a couple weeks ago in one of your first public appearances since your family left the White House.
When I read that you spent the first part of your gap year traveling in Bolivia last fall, I was even more impressed by your decision to postpone college. Amidst the unprecedented political circus of the 2016 presidential election, you made a courageous choice while managing to fly quietly below the media’s radar: you went abroad.
Citizen Diplomacy, a term coined during the Cold War, is the idea that individuals have the right — and responsibility — to help shape U.S. foreign relations. As you and I and the rest of the country wait to see what kind of president Donald Trump will be, one thing is already clear:
citizen diplomacy is more critical now than at any other moment in our lifetimes.
In his inaugural address, Donald Trump set the stage for a presidency based on “America First.” And yet we know that the greatest challenges facing humanity — climate change, poverty, disease, migration — are all global in nature. None of these challenges can be solved by a single country, and we need leaders who understand this. In short, our fates our entwined, but our experiences are not.
It is too easy to hate and fear what we don’t know. When you live with, and learn to love, a person from another culture or religion, fear recedes and respect, understanding and collaboration fill the void.
Global experiences — like yours in Bolivia, and what we are providing hundreds of students through Global Citizen Year — can no longer be considered luxuries; they have quickly become essential. For me, it was my early experiences living and working in communities in Central and South America that made me a better American, a better leader and a better person. And I hope your time abroad will prove similarly formative.
Today, with so much uncertainty about America’s role in the world, it’s essential that more young people follow in your footsteps and travel beyond our borders.
By immersing ourselves in foreign languages and cultures, worlds away from the comforts of home, not only do we share the values and spirit of American idealism, optimism and inclusion, we also prepare ourselves to bring home the values and perspectives of others. In this sense, I’ve come to believe that traveling abroad is the most patriotic thing we can do.
Malia, I hope you keep traveling. And even more importantly, I hope you continue to use your platform to set an example for how we can all be involved — not just as citizens of our country, but as citizens of the world.
This letter by Abby Falik was originally published by Bright, Medium’s publication about innovation in education.