Arriving at El Alto, Bolivia, the highest international airport in the world, I was quite literally left breathless. Here, tourists seemed to be more abundant than the oxygen in the air. It was the crack of dawn, and my groupmates and I were experiencing many emotions ranging from the excitement of our first day in Bolivia to uncertainty about the next nine months. When a trufi, a Bolivian taxi, picked us up from the airport, all of our thoughts and feelings were eventually channeled into a deep sleep until we arrived at our hostel in a beautiful village called Coroico. When we hopped off the trufi, we rubbed our groggy eyes only to stare in amazement at the vantage point the hostel offered of the nearby breathtaking mountain range.
Prior to the start of her first year on campus, Coley Martin ‘23, now a third-year student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, traveled to Tiquipaya, Bolviia, as part of the Novogratz Bridge Year Program.
As a Bridge Year Admission Ambassador, Coley is eager to tell prospective students about her Bridge Year experience, so we asked her to share a bit more with us about her time on Bridge Year.
What did community-engagement look like for you on Bridge Year?
I worked at a non-profit organization called Infante, which is a therapy center for women and children affected by violence. As a volunteer there, my primary role, was to assist with the organization of group therapy sessions, so that might include a session with yoga or a session that had to do with arts and crafts. Having the opportunity to work there as a young adult was very empowering for me, and I hope it was for the people who came to the sessions as well. I had the opportunity to see a glimpse of their process of recovery and healing and I got to work with some amazing young women, as difficult as some of their stories were.
I worked at Infante every weekday for three hours in the morning, and I felt so grateful to my mentors Maria and Gabriella. They were so patient with me throughout my time at the organization. When I first got to Bolivia, my Spanish was not exactly the best, and in spite of this, they gave me very fulfilling work as opposed to just busy work. I felt I was doing something that was really focused on the organization’s mission, which to help people heal after experiencing violence.
One of my biggest takeaways from Bridge Year is that, at its core, community service is about connecting with people. You need to develop relationships of empathy, trust and empowerment with those around you. The relationships I developed within the Tiquipaya community are what I really remember and value from my time abroad.
At Infante, I was working with young women who were around 13 or 14 years old, and sometimes I had to--not act like a 13 year old--but I was definitely trying to understand what their interests were and what motivated them. I remember there were many of the girls I worked with who were really into K-Pop, so I learned a little bit more about that. We all watched the very corny teenage movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” together. I was consistently trying my best to understand and relate to them. That helped me build a relationship with them based on mutual trust and working together.
Were there any other community relationships that were important to you?
My relationship to my homestay family was one of the most significant and meaningful connections I had while on Bridge Year. My homestay family was made up of Jackie, my homestay mom, Deyvi my homestay dad, and then two young homestay sisters, Rose Fernanda and Abby. Rose Fernanda was seven and Abby was two. It was an amazing experience to have two little sisters, because growing up, I was always the youngest, so on Bridge Year I had the opportunity to be the older sister. I think especially my relationship with the two little sisters was one of the most memorable aspects of Bridge Year.
Abby and Rose Fernanda made a huge impact on me. They would often come into my room to watch Moana, as I was working on my computer on certaintasks related to my service site or my Spanish class, and the next thing I knew Abby was climbing on the back of my chair and repeating ‘Moana?’ She was trying to get me to play some YouTube clips from Moana songs. To be a part of their lives at such a young age, I think made a mark on them as well, because Abby remembers and misses me even now. Jackie would tell me, after I left Bolivia, that Abby would ask ‘Donde esta Nicole?’ (Where is Coley?), and that is very sweet.
One of the biggest lessons in terms of building relationships and understanding differences for me, was knowing when to go with the flow and also knowing when to stick up for myself. I think, especially with the former, I was very appreciative of Jackie and Deyvi for hosting me in their home, and so as a result I wanted to be flexible with their schedules and when they wanted to spend time with me—even if that meant giving up my time to watch Moana over and over!
The group of fellow Princeton students I traveled with to Bolivia are also a significant part of my life. I walked into my Bridge Year experience with seven strangers, and I left with the foundation for what would constitute my Princeton community. I interacted with my groupmates on a daily basis through Spanish or Quechua classes, interactive activities our instructors planned to enrich our knowledge on Bolivia and the world around us, and group time we organized ourselves. My groupmates became my rock in Bolivia. We entertained each other's late-night-pseudo-philosophical questions. We laughed breathlessly at our never-ending inside jokes. We moved through Bolivia together, and now we move through Princeton together.
What advice do you have for students who might be interested in applying to Bridge Year?
Throughout the program, and even before you decide to apply to the program, it is important to reflect on the questions--What are some of the reasons I want to go? Moreover, what motivates me at my core to go into another country and participate in service activities? I feel like those questions really help you through some of the more difficult moments of Bridge Year, some of those moments of challenge. Having these questions at the forefront of your mind, will allow you to reflect on the things that you are grateful for in life, and that gratitude will help you to keep moving forward. Good luck with the process, and I am excited to meet you soon!