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Princeton opens ‘bridge year’ program

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  • Princeton created service abroad program for incoming freshman
  • Students take year off to pursue volunteer activities in service organizations
  • Programs provide students with maturity, international perspective and break from academic pressures
  • Program would be tuition free and will offer financial support

While most high school graduates pack their parents' minivans for college, a growing number pack suitcases for a year abroad kayaking through the rivers of Belize or distributing medicine in Africa.

For students wishing to take a year off, Princeton University launched a new "bridge year" program, allowing 10 percent of incoming students to pursue a year of service abroad, according to a university press release. Students must apply in order to participate in the program.

The program would appeal to students who plan on studying abroad or those who want to focus on service, said Cass Cliatt, director of media relations at Princeton, in an e-mail.

Students may work in international service organizations or work on a farm, she said. North American students are encouraged to study outside North America, the press release said.

The initiative will provide students with an international perspective, more maturity and a hiatus from academics, said Sandra Bermann, head of the working group that is developing the program.

"It's a pause on this treadmill and a break from this system," Bermann said. "It gives you a sense of the world in which you live and allows us to reflect on our own culture."

About 40 percent of Princeton students study abroad, and the program is expected to generate significant interest, Cliatt said.

The program is open to all income levels, she said. It's tuition free and financial support will be offered. It has not been decided whether college credit will be available, Bermann said.

Princeton's initiative is proof of the growth in students participating in a year abroad, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Large numbers of high school graduates also increases participation in such programs.

Students who aren't ready for college academics, want to travel or go into volunteer work are all inclined to participate in the gap year, he said. Popular programs include Doctors Without Borders and other vocational opportunities.

Students gain a sense of maturity and self-confidence from studying abroad before college, said Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president at the Institute of International Education in New York.

"The idea of adjusting to a new town or school is a lot less daunting when you've already adjusted to a new culture or new language," Blumenthal said.

Although some educators worry about new high school graduates in foreign countries, Blumenthal said Princeton's working group is tackling the process slowly.

"To be going on a program that is coordinated through this college (rather) than going on one's own is a win-win for parents and students," Blumenthal said.

The working group, made up of 14 student, faculty and staff members, is still deciding details of the program, the release said.

"The possibilities are enormous and we'll just have to see," Bermann said.

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