Where Are They Now: Abby Gellman '17

In this series, our assistant director, Matt Lynn, connects with Novogratz Bridge Year alumni to see where life has taken them after Princeton.  In this installment, Matt speaks with Abigail Gellman, Class of 2017. In 2012-13, Abby traveled with Bridge Year to Dakar, Senegal, where she collaborated with Taxawu Suñuy Xalés (TSX), an organization that, until 2014, provided meals, basic first aid, and educational programming for Talibé in Yoff, Dakar.

The following includes excerpts from their conversation: 

Matt Lynn (ML): Hi Abby! Thanks for chatting with me. What are you up to these days?

Abby Gellman (AG): Hey Matt, great to meet you! I’m living in Seattle right now, and I am in my first year of law school at the University of Washington.

ML: Wow, congratulations. Would you tell me more about what led you to study law?

AG: At Princeton, I majored in history and I got a concentration in African American Studies. Through my academic work and involvement in volunteer and advocacy groups (The Petey Greene Program and Students for Prison Education, Abolition and Reform (SPEAR)), I became focused on addressing racial inequality and the enormous injustice of mass incarceration. My senior thesis documented two lesser-known prison uprisings in New Jersey that happened in the wake of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971.

After I graduated in 2017, I went to work at The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting racial injustice and excessive punishment. Their Justice Fellowship was a dream job for me. I provided direct support, working with formerly incarcerated clients, and I managed incoming requests for legal assistance and did research related to EJI’s efforts to oppose the death penalty and to raise awareness about America’s enduring legacy of racism.

Following two years with EJI, I was not yet ready to return to school, so I sought out another professional experience and worked for the Federal Defenders of New York. Working as a paralegal gave me invaluable exposure to trial-level criminal defense from the time of arrest to conviction or acquittal. Two years there confirmed my desire to pursue a JD and practice public defense.

I am now in my first year (1L) of law school at the University of Washington as part of their Gates Public Service Law Scholarship, which asks students to work in public interest law for at least five years following graduation. I am so fortunate to be a part of this program, because I intend to spend my career in public interest law.

ML: Thanks for sharing; I am really inspired by your dedication. Are there any skills you developed on Bridge Year that have helped you along the way?

AG: Absolutely. I think that approaching any type of public service, especially when coming from a place of privilege, as I do, it is important to foreground the perspective of those people on behalf of whom you are working. Bridge Year played a large role in shaping my perspective on how important this is and instilled self-awareness, empathy, a sense of humor, and humility in working with diverse communities.

These social, emotional skills first developed during Bridge Year have helped me to recognize my limitations and preconceptions and to continually reassess what it means to work to support marginalized clients, which I think is crucial for any kind of social justice work.

Abby Gellman portrait photograph

Abby Gellman '17

Also, the Bridge Year alumni on campus shaped my interests in college and beyond. I looked up to many of the Bridge Year upperclassmen when I was a first-year student, and seeing how some of them furthered their interest in service while at Princeton played a significant role in guiding me where I am now.

ML: Do you have any final thoughts about Bridge Year that you think prospective students might find useful?

AG: I would just stress that it is such an incredibly rare opportunity. Sometimes I look back and cannot believe I got to immerse to that extent in a totally new environment. My year in Senegal was by far the most meaningful and formative year of my life. It shaped who I am, and it was such a stimulating and interesting period that only enhanced my undergraduate experience afterward.

I would also say, I recognize it may seem daunting to spend lengthy time away from family and friends. But for anybody who might have qualms, the community that Bridge Year inherently provides—through the other students and the on-site staff—is so, so supportive.

Now strikes me as a particularly meaningful time to participate in Bridge Year. Building cross-cultural relationships and exploring new places is a potent antidote to the disconnectedness and isolation so many of us have experienced during the pandemic.