Annie Sprogell could have started her freshman year at Princeton last fall as a member of the Class of 2012. But the demands of high school had been unrelenting: the pressure to ace her exams and papers, her spot on the varsity tennis team, and a slate of other activities — piano lessons, horseback-riding, and meetings of Amnesty International and an environmental-awareness group that she co-founded. When it all ended successfully, Sprogell realized, she needed a break. She didn’t want time off simply to relax or backpack from place to place; instead, she hoped to force herself out of her comfort zone to experience “something totally different from anything I’ve seen before,” she says.
So Sprogell, shy but determined, spent almost four months last fall teaching seventh grade in Muguluka, Uganda, before heading to France this semester for a study-abroad program. She wanted to imbue her time in Africa with a purpose that was deeper than casual travel, to experience day-to-day life as a Ugandan would. Her living conditions were “a bit daunting” at first, says Sprogell, who lived with three young British women teaching in the same service-abroad program, in a house a short walk from the school. “There were cockroaches in the outhouse, no running water, bats in the kitchen” and in her bedroom, she says. Electricity “might or might not come on at night.” She taught one 80-minute class each day to 70 students in a large, cement room crammed with as many long benches as could fit. Sometimes she taught outside, under a tent. With virtually no teaching experience, she sometimes wondered if the students were learning anything.
Still, Sprogell plowed on, and despite the challenges she faced as a new teacher in a new culture, she adapted. She believes she has grown in ways she might not have if she had jumped right into Princeton: She learned to rely on herself, to sleep through squeaking bats, that “the cockroaches won’t bother you if you don’t bother them, you don’t really need electricity until night anyway, and running water isn’t really necessary when you have a pump in the ground.” She’s become more outgoing. “It took me a really long time to get involved in things at my old school because I was too afraid to try new things or take risks, but that’s all this trip has been,” she says. Without the gap year, “I might have sat in my [Princeton] dorm the first few months with my nose in a book, avoiding chances to meet new people and try new things.”
Each year about 25 to 30 students delay their matriculation to Princeton, according to Janet Rapelye, the dean of admission. A small number of them spend their year off traveling, working, studying, or volunteering abroad or in the United States; others use the time to recover from illness or injury, care for family members, serve in the military, or perform as artists. Rapelye understands the intensity of the senior year of high school — a period that offers few opportunities for reflection. When a student asks for a year off, she grants it.
Now, the University is making it easier for students who want to delay matriculation specifically to do community service abroad by piloting a bridge-year program, believed to be the first of its kind among U.S. colleges and universities. The program will allow 20 students admitted to Princeton this spring to immerse themselves in another culture for nine months starting in the fall. In the future, that number might grow to 100 students per year, though expansion might have to wait until the economy — and Princeton’s budget — improves. (The pilot program is being funded by targeted contributions.) A working group charged with developing the program last year found that students who have taken such “gap” or “bridge” years have a “clearer sense of purpose” and use their time on campus more effectively, says comparative literature professor Sandra Bermann, who was the group’s chairwoman. “Nine months of cross-cultural living should begin to transform [bridge-year students] into more self-reflective citizens who will make service a part of their long-term goals,” she says. Proponents of the program believe that such a transformation won’t stop with the individuals — that the students will infuse the campus with their new interests and experiences.