Name: Abby Falik
Position: Founder, Global Citizen Year
J.: You’re a local, right? What was your childhood like?
Abby Falik: I grew up in Berkeley and went to Head Royce School in Oakland. I had parents who believed that the most important part of raising their kids was travel and education, and those were the things they prioritized and invested in [Falik’s father is a law professor at U.C. Berkeley]. So those are the experiences that I would say were most formative for me: My siblings and I went to South Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America as kids, and that really changed my perspective on the world.
J.: What happened after high school? When did you know you wanted to make a life and career out of helping other young people travel?
AF: When I was graduating from high school, I called the Peace Corps. I wanted to do something outside of the classroom, that would challenge me in ways other than school had. But, of course, the Peace Corps said “Go to college first.” And I remember the frustration in not being able to find an opportunity at that age. So I’ve been focused since then on helping other young people to learn about the world, and on figuring out what it will take in America for this to become a common opportunity.
And sure enough, your organization, Global Citizen Year, now helps young adults from all backgrounds take a gap year overseas after high school. How did it all come together?
AF: I like to describe it as a slow cook. These seeds were planted when I was 18, and then it was just germinating for a long time. I went to Stanford and studied international relations and education, and when I got out I was working in organizations to improve college access and opportunity for under-served young people. But working in the nonprofit sector, I always felt like I was coming up against limits and being frustrated that there wasn’t better financial planning or entrepreneurial leadership, so I went to Harvard Business School, which is the last place I ever thought I’d be!
Why do you think gap years haven’t really caught on in the U.S.? In Europe and elsewhere, it’s standard for teens to take a year for travel and work between high school and college.
AF: I think in the U.S., in general, we have a history of being really insular. We don’t teach other languages very well in school. In the U.S., it’s not an expectation that people will spend any time abroad — the way it is if you grow up in Europe speaking three languages and traveling. We’re also really focused on efficiency here. It’s always this race to the end line: Get through high school, go to college, go out and get a job as fast as you can afterward.
How do you define what it means to be a global citizen? What do you think young people are missing out on?
AF: Being a global citizen means feeling that your primary identity is connected to people you may have never met, all around the world: there’s a sense of shared experience, shared hopes for the future, shared responsibility for addressing all of the challenges that cross borders and affect us all. It’s not just about “I’m American” or “I’m only Jewish” — the sense that there’s a global community that I have a responsibility to participate in.
What would you like to see your organization accomplish?
AF: I think [a bridge year] could be a new rite of passage. I often think about kids in Israel, who do their military service and then go to college. And when those kids get to university, they’re adults — they’re purposeful, they know why they’re there. Which is such a dramatic contrast to what happens in American colleges! (Laughs.) Another big part of the goal is to reframe the conversation around gap years, make it something that’s open to kids from different backgrounds, something that people don’t only associate with privilege.
Did you grow up with Judaism as a big part of your life?
AF: We went to Temple Beth-El in Berkeley, and I definitely had a strong group of friends there, but I’m more culturally Jewish than anything. I’ve always loved the rhythm of the holidays and the music in temple. It’s interesting, though: I recently took this personality test that helps you choose jobs you’re best suited for, and the top things that came up were a high school principal, a small-town mayor or a rabbi — which has nothing to do with my Judaism and everything to do with the role I like to play in organizations. But I loved that. I kind of try to combine all three.
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