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Getting young adults out of their comfort zone can reveal what they really care about

For today's high school students, perfect records are valued more than authentic exploration, says Abby Falik. But the founder of the nonprofit Global Citizen Year sees firsthand the benefit of taking kids out of their comfort zone by giving them a gap year in an international setting. Falk offers her Brief but Spectacular take on preparing a new generation of leaders.

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  • William Brangham:

    Now we turn to another installment of our weekly Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people about their passions.

    Abby Falik is the founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, a nonprofit in Oakland, California, that recruits and trains a diverse group of American high school students to work abroad before they head off to college.

  • Abby Falik:

    When I graduated from high school, I was exhausted. I was like one of those excellent sheep.

    I was really good at playing the school game. I was good at what I was doing. But I was hungry for the why.

    I called the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. And I said, hey, here I am. Will you take me now? They said, little girl, go to college. We will see you in four years.

    And I remember how frustrating it was when I was 18 to have enthusiasm and time and an interest in doing something outside of my comfort zone, but not being able to find a way.

    The pressures on today's high school students is unprecedented. The orientation around getting into a selective college means that perfect records are valued more than authentic exploration, risk-taking, failure, reflection.

    So it's really hard to get out of high school today and actually know what you genuinely care about. And when kids get to college, what we're seeing are record levels of stress and anxiety. And we see that a third of college freshmen don't come back for a second year. And, on average, kids are taking six years to get through four-year colleges.

    What happens when you take a young person out of their comfort zone and out away from the people who have defined who they are, the social media profile they have invented for themselves, the expectations that their family and community might have for them, that removal from that context forces you to see yourself in a completely new light.

    We work with a dean who likes to say, well, everyone takes a gap year. It's called freshman year. It's kind of funny, and it's kind of not, because somebody is making the biggest single investment in this young person's education, whether it's a parent or the government through some kind of Pell Grants or federal loan.

    At Global Citizen, your experience is a deep community immersion. You live with a host family. You work as what we call an apprentice, supporting a local project; 95 percent of our alums are in college and on track to graduate in four years or less. And that same percentage holds for the proportion of our kids who are low-income.

    Colleges love to brag about the numbers of kids who are studying abroad, and that's definitely on the rise. But when you actually look at the data, what we're seeing is that the vast majority of kids go to Western Europe, live with other Americans, are often speaking English.

    We want young people to be humbled, to sit with the discomfort of not yet being able to speak to people in their own language, to recognize that they're not there to problem-solve. They're there to explore what the local solutions might actually be.

    My name is Abby Falik. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on preparing a new generation of leaders.

  • William Brangham:

    You can find additional episodes of Brief But Spectacular on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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