Admission Ambassador Stories

Throughout the spring, our Novogratz Bridge Year Admission Ambassadors will share thoughts and insights on the Bridge Year student experience. In this installment, Aneekah Uddin ’24, Nicole Williams ’23, Sydney Eck ’24, Svetlana Johnson ’24, Isaac Wills ’23, and Miguel Gracia-Zhang ’23 reflect on their community engagement efforts during their time abroad.

How would you describe your interest in community engagement as an incoming college student? How did Bridge Year help support those interests?

Nicole Williams (NW): As a student activist in high school, I was very interested in exploring issues of injustice outside of my local and national context. Through Bridge Year, I was challenged to further grapple with the complexities of how injustice is often institutionalized and embedded with the history of nations and people themselves.

Sydney Eck (SE): Service was a large part of my high school experience, particularly advocacy work around women’s rights and sexual assault education and resources. Bridge Year introduced me to a new facets of these concerns and opened my eyes to issues I had never considered. The experience allowed me to clarify my beliefs and better understand the ways that I can make positive change with my current skills, as well as gave me the motivation to continue learning how to do more informed and skillful work in the future.

Aneekah Uddin (AU): I am driven by a sense of justice and giving back to the communities that have nurtured me to become the person I am today. As I moved into higher education, a privilege many people do not have, I wanted to keep those values at the forefront of my mind. Bridge Year broadened the communities I was part of to offer me a much more global perspective.

Svetlana Johnson (SJ): Most of my service experience was local and in communities that I had been a part of for most of my life. In pursuing Bridge Year, I was interested in exploring service in ways that pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me a more conscious global citizen. I think that in this respect Bridge Year definitely creates that awareness of the larger world around you and pushes you to try new things even if you are not sure if you are ready for them. At the same time, I think having the support system from on-site directors and cohort mates, makes the experience slightly less scary.

Tell us about the specific roles you played in supporting the work of community organizations at your Bridge Year location

AU: As an intern at Yayasan SAMIN, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, I helped with research, facilitating activities surrounding children's rights and youth activism, and web development. My research was focused on child trafficking and prostitution, specifically on the media's response to related news events across Indonesia. I spent a lot of time poring through newspaper archives, translating the articles, and synthesizing the information for discussion. I helped facilitate a few workshop weekends at local high schools. There SAMIN worked with local branches of Forum Anak Nasional, which focused on presenting to youth about their rights and how to organize to create change and advocate to the government. Further, I helped proofread English documents and worked on strengthening the organization's English language materials. 

SE: While I was in Udaipur, India, I worked at Shikshantar, a community based sustainability and alternative education NGO. My responsibilities were very fluid and I wore many different hats. I helped with the everyday operation of the space (working in the garden, cooking meals, entertaining young kids, etc). I also designed and led workshops (primarily musical and with up-cycling and other sustainability practices) and helped plan conferences and festivals. I worked closely with the NGO founder, and helped design education materials such as an online interactive dance curriculum that was shared with our global alternative education network.

Miguel Gracia-Zhang (MGZ): During my time at Kusi Kuna Escuela Eco-Activa, in Tiquipaya, Bolivia, I held many roles, but spent most of my time teaching English classes. I also led some science-related workshops and tried to teach some Chinese (the former was semi-successful and the latter not as much).  Outside of teaching English, I chaperoned sports events, and served as an assistant to other teachers at the school.

What were some of your main takeaways from Bridge Year in terms of your community engagement efforts?

NW: During my time in Dakar, working at the YMCA, I learned that community partnerships are key for any hope of deep and meaningful community impact.  Community members are strategically positioned and  have a better understanding of the needs and the complexities of their community. Because the YMCA cultivated relationships with the community – and, more precisely, relationships with community members who were most affected by the injustices that the YMCA aimed to address  –  positive change becomes possible.

SJ: While I was in Kunming, China, I learned a lot about the different forms that service can take, and the importance of being intentional and thoughtful in your actions. For me, doing service work in the United States feels very different because, most often, you work within the communities in which you were born and grew up.  In my own community, I feel more comfortable taking charge and offering my perspective. Going abroad to do service, the communities we engage with are new to us.  Because of that, I became more aware of the importance of listening to the perspectives of others.  Ultimately, the actions that we take need to respond to the needs of those most directly affected. 

Isaac Wills (IW): During my time working with Rifka Annisa Women's Crisis Center, I learned to represent my home community by being a learning servant to my host community. That is, the best way to engage a foreign community is to be primarily a learner. Demonstrating an interest in understanding a new context - culturally, socially, professionally, etc. - is the first imperative in nourishing cross-contextual relationships. It is important to remember that foreign countries are not abstractions; they are socio-political entities led by communities of other human beings with real desires, needs, and personalities. The guiding principle of such an approach is empathy. The intentional, on-the-ground work of conversing and cohabiting with members of a different culture helps broaden the moral imagination and goes a long way toward building international relationships and understanding.

In what ways do you participate in community life today, as a Princeton undergraduate student? 

MGZ: In my first semester at Princeton, I worked at the Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC), an alternative learning environment for homeschooled kids. In some ways, it felt like a continuation of themes that I explored in Kusi Kuna, and it was both challenging and rewarding to try to teach and tutor students in an unstructured setting.

Other than working at the PLC, I've most engaged with service learning through my summer internships. After my first year, I received the Bogle Fellowship in Civic Service, which gave me funding to work in my hometown newspaper, The Mendocino Voice. As I worked in local news, I also participated in a Service Focus cohort centered on food and agriculture led by Professor Tessa Desmond. In the summer after my sophomore year, I worked in The Goldin Institute in Chicago, this time funded by the Office of Religious Life. There, I got to assist with their Chicago Peace Fellows program — a network of grassroots leaders that they convene every year to work on peace-building and violence reduction.

IW: At Princeton, I have become actively involved in various programs and projects sponsored or run by the Office of Religious Life (ORL). Following an ORL-sponsored interfaith trip to Muscat, Oman in the Fall of 2019, I joined the Religious Life Council (RLC), which is the ecumenical, student branch of the ORL. In RLC, where I have served in a leadership role, I have organized and participated in interfaith programs geared towards fostering dialogue across religious/spiritual differences on Princeton's campus. The lessons of active listening and empathy that I learned on Bridge Year have undoubtedly informed my work with RLC. One of the other ORL projects that I have participated in is the Princeton Asylum Project, for which student researchers write condition reports about the countries of origin of community members who are seeking asylum in the United States. This project certainly puts an emphasis on the learning aspect of service learning, but it has also given me an opportunity to connect with those in marginalized communities outside of Princeton University.

SE: I am an editor for the Features section of the Daily Princetonian (aka the ‘Prince’).  In this role, I work with Features reporters to diversify our coverage and shed light on important community concerns in an effort to inspire effective change. We have reported on shortcomings in sexual assault survivor support at Princeton, inequities in student experiences, and incidents of faculty misconduct. I am also a member of the Prince's accessibility working group, where we strive to make our content accessible to all potential audience members through audio versions of our articles and options for different reading formats.

Outside of the Prince, I am part of Natives at Princeton and the Indigenous Advocacy Coalition to support and highlight Native student issues on campus and in the nation. I have also interned for the US Senate, working with on Commerce Committee issues to expand equitable access to 5G coverage, safe space junk maintenance, and the support of Colorado small businesses and research groups during the ongoing pandemic.