Delaying College for a Global Experience

Monday, October 7, 2013

She graduated Oakland Tech in June. But unlike most of her Class of 2013, Rockridge teen Kaitlyn Johnke, who lives down the street from me, will delay going to college.

Instead, Kaitlyn applied for and was accepted into Global Citizen Year, an eight-month program designed to give recent high school graduates a Peace Corps-style experience before they enter college. Her campus: a rural village in Senegal on the west coast of Africa.

"After doing community service (through Oakland Tech), I was passionate about doing something that made a difference," Kaitlyn told me, two days before she was to leave home.

At the same time, she was unclear about what college to attend and what to study. Her interests range from nutrition to writing to environmental science - her AP (Advanced Placement) environmental science teacher at Tech, Josue Diaz, is one of her heroes.

Coincidentally it is another Rockridge resident, Abby Falik, who is giving Kaitlyn an opportunity she, herself, was denied.

When Falik, CEO and founder of Global Citizen Year, tried to enroll in the Peace Corps after graduation from Head-Royce School, she was told she had to wait until she graduated college.

But when she took a year off from Stanford to experience the developing world on her own, she knew she was on the right track. "That year was so deeply formative. I learned so much more than I had in any classroom," she says.

"I thought: 'What would the world look like if every high school graduate immersed themselves in the developing world as a pre-requisite to college?'"

After earning a B.A. and M.Ed. from Stanford, Falik honed her idea of a bridge year for high school students, while she gathered experience with non-profit agencies.

When she entered Harvard's MBA program, her goal was to develop a business plan that she could put into action.

Global Citizen Year began in 2009 with 11 students, placed with families and non-profit organizations in Guatemala and Senegal. This fall, 100 have fanned out to rural villages in Brazil, Ecuador and Senegal, supporting local projects in education, health, environmental sustainability, micro-financing and technology.

"We use the term 'bridge year' instead of the more traditional 'gap year' because the gap year is often perceived as a luxury reserved for privileged kids, or those who are somehow 'off track,'" Falik says.

"The notion of a bridge year conveys an intentional transition from one life stage to the next," she says. The goal is to give young people, regardless of income, a deeper understanding of the world and their role within it.

By combining deep community immersion in the developing world with intensive leadership training, Falik explains, the program seeks to give participants the critical skills and global awareness necessary to become transformative, social impact leaders in college - and beyond.

Falik and her husband, Joel Segre, who works for the Gates Foundation, both grew up in Berkeley and moved from San Francisco to Rockridge last October.

"I grew up near the Claremont Hotel (in the house where her parents Bill Falik and Diana Cohen still live) and was born at Alta Bates," she told me. After living "in a lot of places all over the world, Rockridge seemed like home."

In addition, she moved the headquarters of Global Citizen Year from San Francisco to downtown Oakland.

"They're from all over the country," Falik says, of the 600 applicants who applied for the current Global Citizen Year. Although "there's a strong group from the Bay Area and from California," she says Kaitlyn probably is the first to be accepted from Rockridge.

Although she was nervous, Kaitlyn has travelled abroad without her mom, Beth, and younger sister, Kelsey, before. She spent two weeks in Guatemala in 2009 and in Borneo in 2012 through a program sponsored by the Oakland Zoo.

During those stints, "You help out with the animals," she says. "Now I want a connection with the people and to learn their language."

Growing up and going to public school in the Rockridge area has made her comfortable with diversity. "I expect it," she says. By the time you read this article, she will have completed a week of pre-departure preparation at Stanford and another few weeks of more site-specific training in Senegal's capital city, Dakar.

Now, she's living with a family in Kedougou and apprenticing with an NGO. In an e-mail to her mom, she wrote: "My internship is exactly what I wanted - learning about planting trees and environmental education with an organization started by the Peace Corps."

This spring, she will have a week of post-trip evaluation in northern California before coming home.

"I know there will be things entirely out of my comfort zone," Kaitlyn told me. "But Abby told us to be excited for those moments. I know that's when the real growing experience happens."

I'm thinking that it takes a brave teen and a brave teen's family to go this route. But Falik is out to make the global bridge year routine for high school graduates.

She hopes to help future high school graduates and their parents realize: "It would be crazy to go straight to college."

Judy Berne welcomes your comments and column ideas at For more information on Global Citizen Year, go to