In 2009, Laura Keaton was a high school senior and an ad on Facebook caught her attention. “I wasn’t excited about going to college, so I think that’s why I clicked it,” she recalled.
The ad was for a new program called Global Citizen Year, which invited high school graduates to take a gap year before college to work in a Third World country. One click led to another, and Laura decided to fill out the application.
Laura was chosen, along with 10 other students from around the country, to participate in the first Global Citizen Year. They were selected because of their active roles in strengthening their communities and the bright ideas they’ve used to improve the world around them, according to Abigail Falik, founder and CEO of the organization.
Falik founded GCY after searching for Third World service opportunities for high school students but finding that almost all such programs were based in developed countries, she said.
She later brought her idea to Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit whose mission is to “dramatically improve public education for underserved students by empowering education entrepreneurs to develop or expand transformative education initiatives,” according to its website.
Falik explained that she wanted to design a program where students would become more globally involved. She was concerned by the fact that only 9 percent of Americans speak a second language, compared to 54 percent of Europeans. “So we got to start there,” she said. “If we can’t even talk to people, we’re in trouble.”
Mind Trust agreed to fund the project starting in 2009. Students learned late in the spring if they were selected for the program. If funding was needed (the program costs $26,300 all-inclusive), students were expected to think of innovative ways to raise it. Financial aid also was available.
In September, the first 11 “fellows” went to California for a month to learn leadership skills and where they would be posted, along with a quick course in the customs and languages of their new country.
The fellows then spent seven months using their new skills to improve their overseas communities. Laura, from Raleigh, N.C., headed to Guatemala to volunteer in several secondary schools. She also helped distribute medical supplies to the needy.
“It’s just a time for you to get to know more about your world, challenge yourself,” she said earlier this summer in an interview from Pastores, Guatemala. “I would say it’s a year to give back to the world and also learn a lot.”
Victoria Tran-Trinh, from Roxbury, Mass., also was among the first Global Citizen fellows. She was assigned to a semi-rural preschool in Senegal where “there were 150 kids. I was just teaching preschool things — numbers, shapes, colors, that kind of stuff.”
Victoria, interviewed from Sebikotane, said she was surprised by the warmth of the Senegalese people and the work ethic of the youth. “In the U.S., you go out with your friends and stuff, and in Senegal, all the youth are too busy to do stuff like that, either studying or helping out around the house,” she said.
Though she did respect many of the customs of the Senegalese, she tried to change some of their teaching methods. “They would just yell and beat the children with sticks, and that’s not an effective way, in my opinion, for children to learn,” she explained.
Both fellows spoke about the difficulties and benefits of living in a foreign country. Victoria, for instance, didn’t speak the native language, which is French, or the local language, Wolof. “Now I can get by without any issues in both French and Wolof,” she said.
Similarly, Laura knew nothing about Guatemala before GCY and had to adapt to unfamiliar food and lifestyles. “In Guatemala their sense of time is, ‘Oh well, don’t worry, don’t rush, we’ll do it later,’” she said. “I grew up always thinking about a deadline.”
However, she was familiar with the Spanish language (though she said she made “a lot of errors”) and quickly took to village life. “I learned a lot about the current culture, you know, their celebrations, their food, their social interactions just by living here. You know, I spent Christmas here, spent Easter here, I spent my birthday here.”
Laura did have trouble with one part of Guatemalan life — the widespread littering. “The municipality would put trash cans on the corners for people to put their trash in, and people would steal the trash cans,” she said.
Part of Falik’s expectations of the fellows is that they act as “citizen journalists,” informing others of their experiences. To that end they posted blogs about their activities and observations while in their host countries.
After seven months, the fellows returned to the United States. Their next job was to find new ways to spread the word about what Global Citizen Year has meant to them. Many of them have described their experiences to classes at their high schools and to people in their hometowns. Some also continued to blog.
GCY has helped Laura on many levels, but primarily because it’s given her a direction. She has decided to study journalism at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington because she discovered that her voice can be the voice of the less privileged.
Among the pivotal experiences for her was learning to lead a classroom. “Teaching English to a classroom with 30 first graders or 30 sixth graders can be really scary — and speaking in a different language,” she said. “I feel like I’ve challenged myself in so many ways that I never ever would have at home, and I actually did OK. So I feel like I just have the confidence now to be a leader.”
For Victoria, the experience made her more independent and a better listener. “Since I wasn’t that good at speaking, I did a lot of listening,” she explained.
Now she feels more introspective and patient. “It’s easier for me to focus on what I want to do. I’ve always known I wanted to do international social work and actually doing it taught me what I like, what I don’t like.” She is attending Pace University in New York.
Falik believes Global Citizen Year builds character and spreads knowledge about life outside the U.S. The first fellows worked with women, children in need and on farms. In coming years, Falik expects to expand experiences and countries.
The fellows have learned more about who they are, what they can do, and who they wish to become. As Laura said, “It’s made me realize that I’m a lot more capable than I thought I was.”
Contributing to this story were Rebekah Taft, 19; Pete Shirley, 16; Hrishi Deshpande, 15; and Charlie Osborne, 14.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press