This story is from the 2019 Access Magazine: Innovation for All. Explore more from this issue
Abby Falik smiling

How 18-Year-Olds Are Leading the Charge to Change the World

The founder and CEO of social educational enterprise Global Citizen Year shares how a rite of passage can spur an important transformation.

Abby Falik smiling

In the decade since its inception, Global Citizen Year has launched nearly 1,000 new leaders. The heart of the experience for these leaders — 18-year-olds who’ve just graduated from high school — is a deep immersion in communities across India, Brazil, Senegal and Ecuador, where fellows work on the front lines of local projects in education, health and climate. Why is connecting 18-year-olds with the developing world so important? Access connected with Abby Falik, the organization’s founder and CEO, to find out.

Throughout history, cultures and religions around the world have pinpointed age 18 as a developmental sweet spot.

Abby Falik
Founder and CEO, Global Citizen Year

Let’s start with the first question you’re probably always asked: Why 18?

Throughout history, cultures and religions around the world have pinpointed age 18 as a developmental sweet spot — it’s the moment when a young person has matured enough to be independent but hasn’t yet solidified their values or identity. When I finished high school, at age 18, I had a nagging sense that there was more to life than what I was learning in classrooms. I called the Peace Corps but was told I needed a college degree to participate, and all of the other programs I could find were short-term, homogenous and prohibitively expensive. Ever since, I’ve been fixated on a single question: How can we make a formative, global experience between high school and college the new normal? Answering this question has become my life’s work.

By “all backgrounds,” do you mean from across the socioeconomic spectrum?

Effectively addressing today’s global challenges — from migration and climate change to pandemics and poverty — requires a generation of leaders who better reflect and represent our diversity. Unlike many for-profit travel operators, we’re deliberately designed as a 501(c)(3), which allows us to focus on impact as our bottom line. Our admissions process is need-blind, and this allows us to find the most promising young leaders regardless of their family’s ability to pay. This structure also allows us to raise money toward our annual scholarship fund, which gave away more than $3 million last year alone! Our team is especially proud of our commitment to access and inclusion — we provide more financial aid than all other gap-year and travel programs combined.

From there, what does the fellowship entail?

Once selected, our fellows enroll in a 10-month leadership accelerator that starts with an intensive “boot camp” at Stanford University. From there, fellows travel in teams to their country posts, where they become part of a host family and learn to make a meaningful contribution. They stay long enough to learn the local language and to make the critical transition from “they” to “we.” Ultimately, fellows return home with resilience, confidence and courage — the foundations for lifelong leadership and impact.

How, exactly, do those perspectives take shape?

Spending a year so far out of your comfort zone — where everything is foreign and nothing is comfortable — is, by definition, transformative. For some, it’s the experience of leaving their bubble or privilege. For others, it may be exposure to dramatically different worldviews. I’m a huge believer in the power of bringing young people together across lines of difference. By sharing this experience, our fellows learn firsthand about equity and inclusion — and about working across lines of difference to advance progress for everybody.

Do these experiences essentially combine learning and volunteering?

We believe the best education happens when we put experience at the center and wrap instruction around it. Rather than focusing on “service” or “voluntourism,” we call our placements “apprenticeships,” and the focus is on what our fellows can learn. Their job is to carefully observe what’s needed, what’s worth trying and what solutions might already exist. Of course, over time, they can’t help but find ways to make a meaningful impact in their host communities, but fundamentally the year is about learning first-hand that humility, empathy and adaptability are the foundations for effective leadership. Longer term, we like to think we’re preparing not just problem solvers but solution accelerants.

Can you share a favorite story about a fellow?

After 10 years and nearly a thousand fellows, we have thousands of stories. But here are two that are fresh in my mind.

In September, I had the privilege of traveling to Senegal with Ananda Day, an alumna from the first class of Global Citizen Year fellows. Ananda introduced me to her host sister, Awa. They were both 18 when Ananda first arrived in Senegal. “We had so much in common,” Ananda told me. “It was like we were the same person but happened to be born in different places.” And yet, eight months later, when Ananda had returned to the U.S. to attend the University of North Carolina, Awa had dropped out of school and was pregnant with her first child. Today, Ananda works for [3D-printing start-up] Carbon, where she’s pioneering solutions to create economic opportunity — and she traces her motivation directly back to Awa. Ultimately, her goal is to use technology and entrepreneurship to ensure that where you’re born doesn’t determine your future opportunities.

Another fellow, Barker Carlock, grew up in a gated, conservative and very wealthy community in Texas. He now serves as one of our board members, works at Tesla and talks about his experience in Senegal as the foundation for his professional and personal success. When Barker first came back from his time in Senegal, I asked what he’d learned from the experience, and he told me the greatest gift was learning to ask a really good question. Barker is trained as an engineer, and as he rises through the corporate ranks, he credits the fact that he’s an empathetic listener who realizes that true strength is in humility and in not knowing all the answers.

$3 million

Amount of scholarship money given to Global Citizen Year fellows in 2017

Speaking of strength, how do you measure the program’s success?

We’ve been data-oriented from the beginning, doing everything we can to assess our fellows’ learning and growth during their year with us — and how they’re applying that learning in college and beyond. Our data shows that our alumni return with a sense of purpose that drives their education and shapes their career. They get through college one year faster than the national average, and 95 percent of them feel their first job is meaningful and is making a difference in others’ lives. Colleges have started to provide preferred admission, course credit and financial aid for our fellows, and our alumni are receiving recognition as Fulbright Scholars, Gates Millennium Scholars and National Geographic Young Explorers. And we’re just getting started!

What’s next?

A recent Gallup Poll stated that 96 percent of college presidents think kids are ready for the workforce when they graduate but only 11 percent of employers agree. These data points should stop us all in our tracks. The way we teach and learn is still optimized for an information economy, but the “power skills” of the innovation economy — skills like self-awareness, resilience and creativity — cannot be developed in a classroom alone. Global Citizen Year has a model for cultivating these skills at scale. In the coming years, we’ll use our model as a proof of concept, partnering with colleges, companies and policymakers to ensure that one day, a “global immersion year” becomes a new rite of passage and a hallmark of higher education. Given what we’re up against, we can’t afford not to.


  1. Sounds like a great organization with an excellent vision and mission. It appears that many colleges should share the vision and embrace the innovative program.

    Billy F. February 10, 2019

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