Due to continued government polices of “zero tolerance” around COVID-19 in China, in addition to continued restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals into China, Bridge Year programming in Kunming has been suspended for 2022-23.

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 participants 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 community-engagement 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, Africa, and the Americas. Dragons is dedicated to inspiring youth leadership and responsible global engagement through community-based service projects and cultural exchange.

Program Details

Program itineraries are subject to change based on conditions that impact local travel logistics, public health, and participant safety.

Arrival and Orientation

Soon after arriving in Kunming, Bridge Year participants 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 Enrichment Program

Participants spend the month of September traveling through the ecologically and ethnically diverse rural landscapes of Yunnan. The experience begins near Lijang, where students meet with members of a Naxi community, while reflecting on the nature of effective and ethical civic participation.  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, students live and work with local families, harvesting tealeaves, peanuts, corn and other local crops. They also hear from community members on current community concerns and provide hands-on support to community projects, as needed. During this time, Bridge Year students 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 participants 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 community organization placements.


Program participants live with families in an area of Kunming surrounding Green Lake and several major universities. The homestay experience provides students with an opportunity to practice language skills, establish deep relationships, and integrate more fully into local society. Participants can expect comfortable but modest accommodations. One student 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 daily intensive Mandarin language training, four to five days each week. 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 community organizations, participants can expect to gain conversational fluency within three to four months.

Placements with Community Organizations

Participants spend 20-30 hours per week llearning with and from  local community organizations. Travel time to and from placements vary by 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 community partners in Kunming and potential activities. This list is not comprehensive but provides examples of the types of assignments in which students might be placed. 

  • 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. Community-engaged learning opportunities depend on the participant's interest and skill set, but may include administrative and logistical support of medical staff both in Kunming and in the field, facilitating 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. Community-engaged learning opportunities depend on the participant's interests and skill set, but 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. Community-engaged learning opportunities depend on the participant'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. Community-engaged learning opportunities include teaching English, computer skills, and handicrafts, as well as simply offering gentle companionship. Bridge Year participants 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. Bridge Year participants collaborate 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. Bridge Year participants at this community 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. Community-engaged learning opportunities 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, Bridge Year participants here would likely engage in administrative tasks, 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 and mentorships on topics such as Chinese calligraphy, Daoism, traditional Chinese medicine, Guzheng (a Chinese string instrument), Chinese cooking, martial arts, and meditation. 

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.

Spring Enrichment Program

In the final months of the program, Bridge Year participants work as a group to plan, organize, and execute a two to three-week excursion. Departing Kunming in late April, 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.