Young Americans: This Is Your Chance To Make History

College can wait. In fact, it should.


Dear High School Seniors,

As you approach your next steps after high school, consider this: college can wait. In fact, it should.

Let’s be real. At age 18, should you already know what ideas ignite your soul? Which burning questions will drive your higher education? What sense of purpose will fuel your life’s work?

Most likely, you’ve spent much of your life in a traditional classroom. Some of you may feel like you’re stuck on a conveyor-belt-to-college, running on a treadmill with no end in sight, or being dragged by your education.

taking a gap year
Jeff Pham (Global Citizen Year 2016, University of Nevada Las Vegas 2020) teaching English at a primary school in India.

Right now, many of you are writing and submitting applications in hope of being accepted by a select few in the spring. Regardless of the cards you’re dealt, I’m writing to tell you that in the midst of the college admissions madness, you have the opportunity — and obligation — to take matters into your own hands. Why? Because there’s another, potentially better path.

Here’s my advice: leave the country. Immerse yourself in a new culture and community. When you come back you’ll bring the experience and perspectives that will guide your education, shape your character, inform your leadership, and impact the way you work with people whose backgrounds and life stories differ from yours.

taking a gap year
Isaac King, Global Citizen Year Fellow (’15) in Brazil.

The world looks strikingly different than it did for the classes that came before you. This time last year, high school seniors marched off to college in a climate that was far more stable and secure. The elections last November highlighted the stark divisions in our country. Today, a contagious fear threatens to deepen our divides at home and abroad and has paralyzed our ability to listen to each other and learn from our differences.

We know that the greatest threats facing humanity — migration, climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, poverty and disease — are all global, and yet, America is retreating from the world. More than ever, we need you, our young leaders, to engage in our global community instead of withdrawing from it. We need you to represent America’s highest ideals of inclusion, freedom and opportunity — and to invest in yourself, and our shared future, by becoming a global citizen.

Taking a gap year
Shaquerra Blackwell, Global Citizen Year Fellow (’15) at her school in Ecuador.

The year I spent outside the classroom, living and working in Brazil and Nicaragua, was the most formative part of my education. I learned to speak to people in their own language, and to see the world — and our country — through their eyes. The experience unlocked the question I’ve been on a mission to answer ever since: What if every young person had the opportunity to build the human bridges that withstand the winds of political change?

Global Citizen Year, the organization I founded and lead, is forging a new educational pathway to ensure that an immersive, global experience before college is not a luxury — but a defining part of an education.

taking a gap year
Madeleine Balchan (Global Citizen Year 2011, Washington University in St. Louis 2015) with her host mom in Senegal.

Each year Global Citizen Year sends a select group of high school graduates to live abroad before college on a school year long immersion in communities in Ecuador, India, Senegal and Brazil. Our Fellows live with families and apprentice to local projects in education, health, the environment, and more. Our Fellows stay longer and go deeper, becoming an integral part of a local family. Ultimately, they shift from “they” to “we”; realizing that hopes and dreams know no borders, and that optimism is as contagious as fear.

So, as the college application deadline approaches, here’s my challenge to you: Step off the treadmill, leave your comfort zone, explore your values, and test your assumptions.

taking a gap year
Chloe Stoddard (Global Citizen Year 2017, Stanford University 2021) getting to know Indian culture and dance during program launch.

This unprecedented moment calls for unprecedented courage. Figure out what gets you out of bed when there’s no alarm clock. Practice becoming your best self when you’re a world away from home. Figure out how to make college count. And, most importantly, develop the empathy, insights and conviction that prepare you to bridge the divisions within America, and between us and the world.