Program Overview

From its home base in the city of Kunming, the bustling capital of Yunnan province, the Novogratz Bridge Year Program in China introduces students to both modern and traditional aspects of Chinese society.  Kunming has experienced significant and rapid development under China's recent modernization efforts and, along with that development, has been a dramatic growth in civil society organizations. Bridge Year volunteers in China have an opportunity to explore this societal change through work with organizations that address issues of public health, education, social equality, and environmental protection.  At the same time, short-term group service projects in rural villages and various excursions to ethnic minority areas acquaint students with the vitality of traditional cultural practices. Through these experiences and other cultural enrichment activities, participants gain a deep understanding of China’s unique history and culture. Students also learn conversational Mandarin and visit some of China’s most stunning attractions and natural landmarks.

In China, Princeton University partners with Where There Be Dragons, an organization specializing in overseas experiential education. Since their founding in 1993, Dragons has managed hundreds of unique small-group service learning programs in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Dragons is dedicated to inspiring youth leadership and responsible global citizenship through community-based service projects and cultural exchange.

Program Details

Arrival and Orientation

Soon after arriving in Kunming, Bridge Year volunteers travel by overnight bus to the tranquil mountain temple of Shibaoshan for an immediate and full immersion into ethnic Bai culture. After two days of living in the temple, participants descend through the valley to the village of Shaxi for a five-day orientation to the program. Shaxi, formerly a bustling hub on the Ancient Tea Horse Road, provides a glimpse into daily life in rural China while offering comfortable facilities, cool temperatures, and panoramic mountain views. In between orientation activities and workshops, participants explore historic sites, barter for items at the local market, search for matsutake mushrooms with local residents, take bike rides through the valley, and hike to remote mountain villages.

Fall Cultural and Service Learning Experience

Participants spend the month of September traveling through the ecologically and ethnically diverse rural landscapes of Yunnan. The experience begins near Lijang, where students engage with members of a Naxi community, while reflecting on the nature of effective and ethical community service.  The group then treks across Laojunshan National Park or the breathtaking Tiger Leaping Gorge, before making their way to Lincang. The month culminates in a two-week rural homestay in the tea growing mountain communities of Lincang. Here, volunteers live and work with local families, harvesting tealeaves, peanuts, corn and other local crops. They also work with local community members on a basic infrastructure project, such as building a latrine, animal corral, or water filtration system. During this time, Bridge Year volunteers begin Mandarin instruction and participate in a variety of discussions and presentations on themes related to village life in China, the rural/urban divide, sustainable development, and civic engagement.

Arrival in Kunming

Bridge Year volunteers return to Kunming in early October and begin another five-day orientation designed to help participants navigate their new environment. Orientation provides students with a thorough introduction to the city and all that it has to offer, as well as the practical skills required to find their way around, integrate themselves into local culture, and thrive in their homestays and volunteer service placements.


Program participants live with families in an area of Kunming surrounding Green Lake and several major universities.The homestay experience provides students with a unique opportunity to practice language skills, establish deep relationships, and integrate more fully into local society. Participants can expect comfortable but modest accommodations. One volunteer is placed in each home, generally within a small close-knit family unit. Each participant can expect to have their own bedroom, furnished with a twin bed, a desk, a chair, and a place to store clothing. Most meals are prepared by and shared with the homestay family. 

Language Instruction

In October and November, Bridge Year participants receive two to three hours of intensive Mandarin language training each day. Classes are taught by university-trained language instructors in small, individualized classes. One-on-one tutoring is also available to anyone in need of extra attention. From December through March, language classes continue but with fewer classroom hours. Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to learn; however, with hard work, support from Bridge Year staff, and extensive immersion into host families and service organizations, participants can expect to gain conversational fluency within three to four months.

Community Service Placements

Participants spend six to eight hours per day, four to five days per week, at their service assignment. Travel to and from the service site depends on the assignment, but can range from a 15-minute walk to an hour-long bus ride. Many participants choose to make this commute on bicycle, enjoying Kunming's beautiful weather and bustling street life. On-site staff orient students to their respective assignments and provide continuous support throughout the program. Below is a list of host organizations in Kunming and potential service assignments. 

  • Operation Smile is an international charity providing surgical services to underserved communities. Since 1982, Operation Smile has provided more than two million patient evaluations and over 200,000 free surgeries for children and young adults born with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities. Projects depend on the volunteer's interest and skill set, but activities may include administrative and logistical support of medical staff both in Kunming and in the field, creating awareness programs in schools, and conducting research. 
  • Pesticide Eco-Alternatives Center (PEAC) is a small, environmental advocacy organization staffed by Chinese locals. It brings rural farmers, urban residents, and government officials together to spread awareness of the risks that chemical pesticides pose to personal health and the environment. Projects depend on the volunteer's interests and skill set, and might include teaching English to staff, outreach to local children on environmental topics, translation, website maintenance, work in rural minority villages, and policy advocacy. 
  • Daytop is a residential drug treatment center in Kunming that uses the North American model of “therapeutic community” treatment. In addition to treating drug addiction, Daytop provides outpatient needle exchange, methadone therapy, peer education, HIV testing, and counseling. Projects depend on the volunteer's interest and skill set, but may include English language training for Daytop staff, interaction with Daytop residents in workshops and group therapy, and administrative support. 
  • Xin Tiandi works to provide services and teach life skills to people in Kunming with intellectual disabilities and to demonstrate that people with developmental challenges can successfully participate in society through education, employment, and other social activities. Xin Tiandi offers people with developmental concerns opportunities to participate in improving their own health by working and socializing together in a safe and welcoming environment. . Specific volunteer opportunities include teaching English, computer skills, and handicrafts, as well as simply offering gentle companionship. Volunteers are encouraged to bring their own energy and individual passions to their interactions with community members.
  • Village Progress (VP) is a non-profit organization that serves both rural and urban communities through participatory development programs focusing on education, health, and environmental conservation. Working closely with migrant children and their families in Kunming, VP serves as a gateway for migrant children to adjust to urban life. VP also works with a number of NGOs and schools in the region, offering various educational activities and projects for children. Volunteers work mainly on after-school and youth mentorship programs, website development, and/or outreach.
  • Concordia Welfare and Education Foundation (CWEF) is a faith based non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of rural communities in Asia. In China, CWEF focuses primarily on education and health projects, working directly with villages to identify sources of poverty and implement sustainable programs. Volunteers at this site placement collaboratively engage with project managers, performing tasks based on their specific skill set. 
  • Eco-Women is a rapidly growing environmental NGO that works to support and empower women in rural Chinese villages. The organization’s main area of focus is to bring about a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides by teaching female farmers about organic farming methods and by helping them to sell their organic goods directly to urban consumers. Eco-Women also works with female village leaders to preserve traditional forms of knowledge, as well as to raise community awareness of domestic violence and provide survivor support. Work depends on the interests of volunteers and can include translation, fundraising, teaching, and researching environmental and women’s issues. 
  • Green Watershed is an environmental NGO that promotes participatory and integrated river basin management in China.  Established in 2002, it is one of the longest running NGOs in Yunnan province. It is also one of the few NGOs working to address the environmental and social impacts of large hydropower dams and other infrastructure projects along the Mekong and Salween rivers. Green Watershed does research, advocacy, training, and field project management. Though work may vary, a volunteer here would likely do office work, translation, or research. 

Cultural Enrichment Activities

Over the course of the program, local experts and other guest lecturers are invited to discuss diverse topics including Chinese history, philosophy, cultural identity, migration, economics, gender, biodiversity, and current events.

Bridge Year participants also take part in at least four program-sponsored excursions outside of Kunming. Destinations depend on a variety of factors including schedule, student interest, weather, and relevance to the overall program. Possible destinations include the Meili Xue Shan mountain range on the Yunnan-Tibet border, the Dia autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna, the spectacular 1,300 year old Yuanyang rice terraces, Weibao Shan's Buddhist grottoes near Shaxi, the Nujiang Valley, and the renowned tea-growing regions around Pu'er. To the greatest extent possible, participants are given ownership over the research, planning, and management of logistics for these group expeditions.

Finally, Bridge Year participants have the opportunity to engage in independent projects or mentorships on topics such as Chinese calligraphy, Daoism, traditional Chinese medicine, Guzheng (a Chinese string instrument), Chinese cooking, martial arts, and meditation. The activity may directly enrich the participant’s service assignment or serve to enhance an understanding and appreciation of China and Chinese culture.

Mid-year Retreat

The midpoint of the program roughly corresponds with China’s most important holiday, the Chinese New Year, when families across China return to their ancestral villages. Accompanied by Bridge Year staff, participants travel to a community outside of Lijiang to experience holiday traditions with families of the Naxi ethnic minority. After the festivities, the group takes advantage of the idyllic environment to reflect on the first half of the program, while also looking forward to the activities and opportunities still to come.

Student-led Spring Excursion

In the final months of the program, Bridge Year participants work as a group to plan, organize, and execute a three-week excursion. Departing Kunming in early May, the excursion offers opportunities for rural homestays, service learning experiences, meetings with local organizations, and trekking. Where in China students choose to go is dependent on the interests of the group, but past cohorts have spent time in Sichuan, Gansu, Guizhou, Guangxi, Qinghai, and Xinjiang provinces.

Program Wrap-up

The final week of the Novogratz Bridge Year Program in China takes place in a retreat center on the Tibetan Plateau. Here, participants engage in a “Transference Workshop” to examine lessons learned from their Bridge Year experience and reflect on their return home, their goals for the future, and the ways in which they can best integrate their experience into daily life at Princeton.

Fast Facts

  • Program Location: Kunming, China 
  • Country Name:  中华人民共和国 (Chinese); Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó (Pinyin)
  • Population: 1,419,339,815 (China); 3,855,346 (Kunming) 
  • National Symbol: giant panda
  • Languages: Standard Mandarin Chinese (official), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghainese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, and other minority languages.
  • Religions: unaffiliated 52.2%, folk religion 21.9%, Buddhism 18.2%, Christianity 5.1%, Islam 1.8%, Hinduism less than 0.1%, Judaism less than 0.1%, other 0.7% (includes Daoism/Taoism)
  • Currency: Renminbi (人民币), aslo referred to as yuan (元)
  • Fast Fact: Whether you call it soccer, fútbol, or football, historians believe that the Chinese invented the sport in 1000 B.C.