Admission Ambassador Stories

Navigating Identity/Navigating Challenge

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, Anna Hiltner ’23, Svetlana Johnson ’24, Cody Mui ’23, Leopoldo Solis ’21, and Nicole E. Williams ’23 discuss navigating personal challenges on Bridge Year and provide tips for future Bridge Year students as they prepare for the program.

What were some of the major challenges you faced while on Bridge Year? What are some of the ways you managed those challenges?

Svetlana Johnson: I think that one of the things that is both really difficult and really great about Bridge Year is that you really have a lot of agency over your experiences. What I mean by this is that a lot of what you go through- language learning, IEAs, service placements- you kind of set your own pace for these things. For me this was my first experience really having that amount of control over everything that was going on, and it can be really easy to get overwhelmed or struggle to find the motivation to achieve the goals that you may have originally set out for yourself. What helped me was being willing to move the goalposts, so to speak.

I realized that my expectations going into the program were a lot higher than they should have been because I didn't really know what to expect going into the program. There is so much going on that it really helps to focus on one thing at a time and take some moments to really reflect on where you started and where you've come. It is really important to be kind to yourself and recognize what you have achieved and then reassess how you can challenge yourself. I remember having moments of being a little disappointed with the progress that I had made in my language learning and service assignment and it was really helpful to take a beat and ask myself: How have I improved so far? Where do I notice these improvements? How much effort have I been putting in? What is the next logical step I can take to push myself further? What do I think would be the most meaningful thing for me to put my energy towards? Taking some time to think about what you have done, what you can do, and what you really think you want to do going forward really helps build perspective and focus, and can sometimes be really helpful when you find yourself in moments where you don't feel very motivated.

Cody Mui: At the beginning of the program, I really struggled with homesickness. It was an entirely new living environment, lifestyle – foods that I wasn’t used to. I could not wrap my head around the fact that I was going to be there for another nine months. During the worst moments, I talked with my best friend from high school, who was going into her first year of college, about our own respective challenging transitions. It was really comforting to hear a familiar voice.

During the less severe homesick moments, I made sure to be involved with what we were doing and to talk to my group members because we were all going through similar paths and we were definitely there to support each other. However, I also took the time to be by myself and think while gazing at some of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever seen until then.

Leo Solis: One of the major challenges I faced during Bridge Year was loneliness. Despite having my homestay family and my cohort, I often found it difficult to spend time alone. When I was in high school, I spent so much of my time working that I had little experience sitting alone with myself and my thoughts. At first, this was an overwhelming feeling, exacerbated by being in a new country (Brazil) with relatively little experience speaking the language.

However, it gave me an opportunity to ask myself what I wanted to do. No longer tied down with commitments to my classes or chores, I found the freedom to explore service and culture liberating. In the moments I spent alone, I learned how to play Brazilian songs on guitar (of the Música Popular Brasileira genre). I also began journaling, a practice that allowed me to become better acquainted with myself. Overall, this experience allowed me to better understand myself and gave me the tools to live away from home on Princeton’s campus

Anna Hiltner: In the fall, I struggled to build a relationship with my homestay family. A lot of time during Bridge Year is spent with the homestay family, and feeling uncomfortable in a place I was supposed to call home left me very lonely and homesick. By December, it became clear to me that something had to change in order for me to overcome those feelings. At that point, I made sure to communicate my concerns and needs to on-site staff and was able to move into the homestay I would have for the rest of the program.

Even though living with my first homestay family and then switching was one of the biggest challenges I faced on Bridge Year, I am glad that I got to experience multiple homestays. By doing so, I was exposed to different ways of living and being and learned the importance of standing up for myself. If anything, the challenge at the beginning made the homestay experience all the more transformative for me. And, in the end, I got to know a family that I love and still am in contact with today.

Nicole E. Williams: One of the great challenges I faced on Bridge Year was cultivating friendships with those on my program. I believe that I came with an expectation and hope that my Bridge Year peers would be my lifelong friends. As a result, I put unrealistic pressure on myself and others to share and to connect on a "deep level." As I came to this realization over the course of Bridge Year, I challenged myself to let go of those expectations. I learned to accept the fact that maybe these won't be my best friends but I can still enjoy friendship with them in the here and now and learn from their experiences.

How did your identity (or identities) impact your Bridge Year experience? What are some recommendations you have for prospective students in terms of navigating identity challenges?

Svetlana: As a black woman, my experience on Bridge Year overall was one that I really appreciated, but there were definitely some incidents that I dealt with that became pretty commonplace. Mostly, it was assumptions about where I came from, and a lot of interest in my hair. On the last leg of our connecting flight into Kunming, China, I fell asleep on the plane and one of my cohort mates later told me that the woman sitting next to me had started to touch my hair. There were a few incidents when strangers would come and talk to me and, although my Mandarin was not good, I could usually guess the topic because I would almost always here one or both of these words- 非洲(feizhou), which means Africa and 头发(toufa), which means hair.

I personally was not overly bothered by these incidents; for the most part, I think these incidents came from a mix of curiosity and exoticism. But I was also really lucky because I felt really supported by my cohort and onsite directors. My advice is to lean into the support system that is set up for you, on-site staff is really there to help and support you, and for me my cohort relationships were also really helpful.

Cody: Being one of few Asians in Bolivia, I am glad to say that I did not experience any widespread discrimination. The only occurrences were with my homestay brother’s friends. While mostly respectful, there were instances in which they made racist noises or gestures in reference to me being Chinese. I let it slide initially, but as the year went on, I became more assertive in telling them that I didn’t want them to do that. Furthermore, if my homestay mom was present, she would also tell them that it was not okay to do that. Eventually, they did stop. It can be difficult to do so, but my advice for prospective students is to be assertive and to voice your concerns to the relevant people. If need be, seek out people that can help the situation like how my homestay mother did for me.

Leo: Before Bridge Year, I expected that my experience in Brazil would be nearly the same as the experiences I had had growing up. As a young Chicano student from Arizona, I believed that Latin America had a more or less cohesive culture, one which the initiated (myself included) could easily understand. It didn’t take long after arriving in Salvador, Brazil, that I realized how totally wrong I was. For one, speaking Spanish did not equate to speaking Portuguese, and the people I tried to speak to were sure to point this out (kindly, of course).

I also underestimated how different the culture in Brazil was to that of the US Southwest/Mexico. Salvador prided itself on its strong Afro-Brazilian heritage, while Mexico prided itself on its indigenous roots. These changes forced me to nuance my assumptions about my identity and those of people in my host country. Humbled by the difference in our experiences, I learned to put in the work to understand the experiences and histories of communities I am unfamiliar with. This skill has proved invaluable to me years after leaving Salvador, and hopefully it will to all future participants.

Anna: My identity as a woman had a significant impact on my Bridge Year experience. Throughout the nine months, I often found that I was treated differently because of my gender. While those events are not unlike ones that I have experienced in the United States and elsewhere, they left me feeling uncomfortable and frustrated. In order to navigate these challenges, I expressed my concerns to my peers, instructors, and friends and family from home. I also found it helpful to understand that while the dynamics and context of gender identity are different in each country, experiences do not define a society as “worse” or “better” than life in other countries, but simply different, and interesting. And while I sometimes felt challenged as a woman in Bolivia, I also felt empowered as a woman in ways that I had not in the United States.

Nicole: I had the fortunate opportunity of being in one of the most nationality-diverse Bridge Year groups. Only three out of the seven of us were American. As an African American woman however, I never truly considered myself American, I always thought of myself as Black. It wasn't until going abroad and  encountering so many different nationalities (both in my group and in the larger Bridge Year context) that I began to see how "American" I really was. My specific recommendations for American students of color is to be open to the ways in which you will begin to confront your own privilege, even if you come from a low-income background like I did. I learned to see how comparative privilege is, to be ever more grateful for what I had.