Throughout the spring, our Novogratz Bridge Year Admission Ambassadors have been sharing their thoughts and insights on the Bridge Year student experience. In this installment, Kate Macakanja '23, Aneekah Uddin ’24, Svetlana Johnson ’24, Sydney Eck ’24, Isaac Wills ’23, and Nicole Williams ’23, reflect on a range of issues including cross-cultural challenges, language learning, relationship building, and identity during their time abroad.
What aspects of your Bridge Year experience did you personally find most challenging?
Kate: During my Bridge Year interview, I remember being told that life in Senegal could be intense. Little did I realize then how intense it could be: bucket showers in 100 degree heat, fifteen people eating around the same bowl, buses driving by with people hanging out the doors. This intensity could be draining -- and, when the fourth homestay brother barged into my room while I was napping, I started to get cranky. But this intensity is also what I love the most about Senegal: everything is so different and full of life. I didn’t go on Bridge Year in order to replicate my life back home. I went because I wanted something different. My happiest moments on Bridge Year were when I leaned into that difference, and I was fortunate to be helped along by such wonderful groupmates.
Aneekah: I struggled the most with how my identity showed up in different communities. I had barely traveled abroad prior to Bridge Year and never without my family. Going to a country in a group context with people I had never met before under the premise of education and service was completely new to me. I didn’t think to consider how I’d be perceived -- until it was happening to me: all the time, every single day. Someone would always have a reaction to my skin tone, my religious identity, my gender, or all of those identities combined. I didn’t truly learn to manage these conflicts until after I left. I journaled, spoke with friends, and watched America reckon with race and intersectional identities. I eventually found peace within myself by cultivating self-respect and love for my identities and I carry that with me anywhere I go.
Svetlana: The most challenging part of Bridge Year for me was trying to form interpersonal relationships. It was very interesting to not only be in a place where you don't know anybody, but also be in a place where you don't speak the same language as most of the people there. I don't think that I would say that I was ever really in my comfort zone or at least finding my comfort zone took work. What helped me manage my challenges was a lot of self-reflection, reframing, and support from cohort members.
Sydney: I was most challenged by my own ignorance. Even extensive reading, research, and preparation (which you absolutely should do), cannot fully prepare you to understand a wholly new cultural context. It can be disorienting to try to learn and internalize the meanings of the smallest gestures or unspoken social rules. But embracing that sense of discomfort and accepting the fact that it is a challenge existing in a new space was incredibly liberating. When you aren't intimidated by embarrassment, you can learn so much. And you will be surprised by how kind, patient, and helpful people around you can be.
Isaac: Navigating a different cultural context was challenging. I came to recognize that personal space and “alone time” are cultural expectations in the United States that are luxuries or even oddities in many non-Western cultures. In Indonesia, I intentionally worked, read, and hung out in the main room of my house to be physically present with my host family, even if my mind was elsewhere.
What was the process of language learning like for you on Bridge Year?
Svetlana: Language learning was one of the biggest challenges for me on Bridge Year. Even with words I knew, it took my brain a while to register and interpret them. I improved over time but it was definitely a struggle. Despite the challenges, I loved learning the language - understanding the grammar structures and the meanings behind the words and the characters was something that was really engaging to me, which is a big part of why I am pursuing a Chinese language and culture certificate at Princeton.
Sydney: Once we were settled in Udaipur, we had Hindi classes four or five times a week, first thing in the morning before breakfast at the program house. These classes were incredibly important and gave me a chance to ask questions in English or discuss my struggles with other members of my cohort. But the bulk of my language learning occurred at my homestay and practicing my skills out and about in Udaipur. My homestay mother didn't speak any English, so every day in the kitchen I was taught and tested on my shaky language skills. The language proficiency I gained allowed me to navigate life in Udaipur so much more easily. I was able to build relationships with colleagues and extended homestay-family members I would not have otherwise been able to form thanks to the dissolution of our language barrier. These are people I am still in contact with and still impact my life in a major way.
Kate: I came into Bridge Year Senegal planning to focus entirely on French. So few people in the world speak Wolof, it didn’t feel worth learning, at least before I got there.. Then. I arrived, and everyone I wanted to talk to spoke Wolof. Many of them also spoke French, and would translate things for me occasionally, but I couldn’t really be a part of the conversation. And there were a great many people, including a lot of women, that didn’t speak French at all. I quickly became more and more invested in Wolof and in being able to speak to people in their own language.
Isaac: The demands of having to engage my host community in a foreign language were, at times, exhausting. Still, one of my favorite strategies in relating to community members in broken Indonesian was to use a new vocabulary word in each verbal interaction I had. This exercise would often lead to goofy, out-of-place statements, but those moments were opportunities to connect, laugh, and build relationships with those around me.
What advice might you give to prospective students with respect to identity, privilege, positionality, and the building of collaborative, inclusive, and equitable relationships while traveling abroad?
Svetlana: Identity-wise, being a Black woman abroad is an interesting experience. A woman next to me on the plane ride to Kunming touched my hair while I was sleeping, every once in a while a stranger would walk up to me and gesture towards my hair and say something about 非洲（Africa), and there are a few product brands and memes in China that seem a little too close to blackface.
Colorism and racism are real and global, though for me it popped up more like exoticism. Being aware of these things is important not only for yourself but for your cohort members. Cohort members can be one of the biggest support systems but you have to be willing to be open to the various experiences of your group members and understand how they might differ very widely from yours. You have to be willing to listen and be a support. It's hard to be your authentic self when you feel out of place, isolated or unwanted.
Nicole: Don't be afraid to share with your instructors when you have an experience either inside the group or in the local community that makes you uncomfortable, even if you're not sure why. Over communication about where you are is better than trying to figure it out on your own!
Aneekah: Grappling with a sudden shift in privilege on Bridge Year was difficult. I come from a first-generation low-income background. Growing up, I constantly reflected on my privileges: to attend a good public school and live in a nicer neighborhood than some of the surrounding ones. Likewise, I treated Bridge Year as a privilege– how else would I have the means to do extensive travel, cultural immersion, and language study with easy access to healthcare if an emergency happened? Dealing with that sudden shift of privilege– on top of the privileges that come with the Princeton name– was striking. I felt impostor syndrome. I felt like I was becoming “the system.” I felt that I wasn’t giving back as much as I was taking.
It’s tough to move up in a world that systematically oppresses people who look like you or hold your identities. Learning how to deal with that guilt and redirecting it to a source of purpose reminded me of why I came on the trip in the first place. Part of “moving up” was learning how I can continue to stick to my values on this trip and after.