Bridge work: Brunswick grad takes year off to go global in Senegal

I distinctly remember the afternoon last spring when I shocked my guidance counselor by marching into his office and announcing that I would not be attending university in the fall. I was opting instead, I told him, to join a young program called Global Citizen Year. That conversation seemed a long time ago as I adjusted an intravenous perfusion by the light of my cell phone in a dark room at the Poste de Sante in Sangalkam, Senegal several nights ago.

I live and work in a village in West Africa, where I am slowly becoming conversant in Wolof, the most common local language, and French, the remnant of a painful history there.

When I wake up in the morning, I bring the day’s water to the latrine. Around the mosque’s call for timis, the Muslim evening prayer time, I fill that same bucket to go wash. By the time I crawl under my mosquito net at night, my head is swirling with observations about the ever-surprising culture and ideas about the fulfilling but often frustrating work in the public health sector.

It was a conscious choice — decidedly not an easy one — to sign and send the letter to my future undergraduate institution begging permission to defer my Class of 2014 admission. I had literally jumped into the air when I was accepted as a Global Citizen Year Fellow, but at summer’s end I had my doubts about the wisdom — or naïvete — that had motivated this bridge year while my friends organized their college duffels and I threw malaria prophylaxes and anti-diarrheal pills into a backpack.

Now I cannot imagine what my life would be like had I chosen otherwise. During my Global Citizen Year, I, an 18-year-old from Cos Cob, former Math team member and Model United Nations delegate, am an integrated member of a community an ocean away from my physical and psychological home. I am learning international development from the ground up, medicine through empiricism and languages through immersion. Perhaps most importantly, I am discovering how effortlessly I can break through what I thought were my personal limits. I wonder what special ingredient they put in the ceebu djen here.

To any students considering taking a bridge year, this paragraph is for you: sometimes the adventures will be grand. I have slept on floors among pilgrims, walked across wastelands and accompanied freestyle Wolof rappers on guitar. Sometimes you will not realize the adventures are adventures at all. I have been laughed at and taunted, had unruly children left in my care, and dealt with the unexpected frustrations of a much slower, more unpredictable pace of life than the breakneck race of the tristate region. Either way, I often reflect on the day by thinking, “I cannot believe that happened.” If you do not take the leap, you may never know what you missed. I promise you it is worth it.

To any parents of students considering taking a Global Citizen Year, this paragraph is for you: if there was one class that put all others to shame, would you encourage your child to take it? It is not an easy course, but the diploma consists of far more than cultural, linguistic and professional proficiency. When, by sheer coincidence, I recently found myself in conversation with a USAID official, I was the one being asked about the agency’s local impact, rather than the other way around — an entertaining and somewhat dark irony in retrospect. But it is the ill-defined human element, or perhaps the understanding and compassion which we call “maturity,” joined with self-reliance and initiative in the teenage form, that is the most valuable outcome, unteachable in a classroom. When I return to Connecticut, not only will I remember how to do calculus, but I will also be able to do much more.

There are 15 Global Citizen Year Fellows in various placements across Senegal, and we meet once each month to compare our lives, offer support, study issues of development and poverty, speak some English and relax.

The questions are always the same: “How are you?” “What would folks at home say if they could see you now?–” and it is an impossible struggle to summarize the multitude of experiences that saturate every moment. Still, we look at one another and recognize that although we are the same people at the core, something new is emerging in us.

My friends are leaders and global citizens, passionate and determined. I tremble to imagine what they will accomplish in our remaining time in-country, and in the university days to come. There’s an unsettling focus and confirmed independence brewing in my peers. Freshman year had better watch out!

This article was featured in the Greenwich Citizen: