Admission Ambassador Stories

Community engagement & service learning

The Novogratz Bridge Year Program's "Reflections & Connections" series features unique stories from the Bridge Year Admission Ambassadors. Each week, a different group of ambassadors will share their thoughts on a topic related to the Bridge Year experience. This week, Kate Gross Whitaker ’23 and Svetlana Johnson ’24 reflect on the theme of community engagement and service learning.

What did you learn about community and civic engagement on Bridge Year?

Kate Gross Whitaker: While I had long been interested in international NGO work, Bridge Year allowed me the space to critically reflect on the implications and the nuances of this type of work. Through working with my service placement, I learned an incredible amount about the difficulties facing NGOs in China, particularly international and faith-based NGOs like my own. Perhaps even more importantly, through sharing experiences with my Bridge Year cohort, I learned about the wide variety of community organizations and their approaches to improving China’s environment, human rights, healthcare, and education. Along with my peers, I discussed the complex relationship between (often foreign) NGOs and the communities they work to serve, and the roles we played as student volunteers within this system. While these discussions often left me with more questions than answers, they continue to be important elements of my understanding and continuing involvement with civic and community engagement.

Svetlana Johnson: Bridge Year is very big on service learning, which necessitates a lot of reflection on the work you are doing, the value it might provide, the harms it might cause, and how it impacts the community. This approach to service isn’t one that I had really done in high school and it isn’t really one that has been largely promoted for people who seek to do good will. More traditional service work tends to rely on goodwill and intent as a measure of success and may prioritize outsiders’ perspectives on what a community needs as opposed to what the community says they might need. I think that part of Bridge Year is learning how to reframe your service work to be centered and guided by the communities you are trying to assist and being more intentional and thoughtful about the impact of your actions.

What interested you in terms of learning about service as an incoming student? How did Bridge Year support those interests and/or passions?

KGW: I engaged in various local community service projects in high school and knew I was generally interested in continuing to find ways to contribute to my local and global community. I am passionate about working to promote human rights and women’s rights in the long term, and through Bridge Year, I was able to learn from NGOs working to do this type of work in on the ground. Bridge Year provided the opportunity for me to both engage directly in international service work and to discuss these experiences in a critical way. Through language classes and other Bridge Year programming and speakers throughout the year, I was able to better enhance my language skills, develop a deeper understanding of the cultural context and complexities of the communities where I worked, and generally strengthen my ability to support my NGO and the communities it served.

SJ: I was drawn to Bridge Year because I wanted an opportunity for guided service that would also allow me to explore my own ability to contribute. Bridge Year has a lot of resources and an emphasis and commitment to working with and supporting existing community partners. The NGOs that Bridge Year partners with are truly amazing and you will have the opportunity to learn about a lot of different approaches to a lot of issues that impact not just these communities but also others around the world. Learning about these issues on such a local level is really important to building up an understanding in a broader sense.

In what ways do you continue to engage in community concerns and service learning at Princeton?

KGW: After my Freshman year, I joined the Service Focus program, which helps to facilitate critical reflection on service work for students who participate in a service-oriented internship during the summer before Sophomore year. Last summer, I received a COVID-19 Response Grant to fund work for a local NGO in my community. I used it to intern for Oakland Promise, a nonprofit which works to provide mentorship and other services to support low-income Oakland Unified School District students in applying to, attending, and completing college. This year, I have continued engagement with Service Focus through their sophomore cohort program, meeting with a group of sophomores to discuss the complexities of community service and the role of civil society more broadly. I also work to promote awareness of many of the issues our Bridge Year NGOs worked on by planning educational events and speaker series with the Princeton US-China Coalition on US-China relations, China’s human rights abuses, and various other topics.

SJ: This year has been a really weird one for getting involved in general, but Princeton has so many opportunities to extend what you learn about service and to become more involved in community work. For me right now, I have become involved with Matriculate on campus, which is an organization that helps connect low-income students with resources to help navigate the college application process. One of the big things in working with Matriculate as well as on Bridge Year, and what should become a recurring theme in your service learning, is reflection and feedback. Princeton service, in my experience, is really big on taking personal ownership of your contributions, your actions, and the consequences of those actions (good or bad) and learning from them to do better next time or replicate success in the work you do.