Expanded Bridge-Year program brings larger student community together

Sophomore and 1+4 alumna Elaine Harris speaks to prospective students on Oct. 13. (Alexis Serino / The Tufts Daily)

“A couple of years ago we got this idea that maybe there’s a better way to prepare students for college,” Alan Solomont, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, said at a Tufts 1+4 Bridge-Year alumni presentation last Friday. “Maybe [after] a bridge year during which they can go live and work in a new community, try to solve real problems, and push themselves outside of their comfort zone, they may come to college better prepared … for the next four years. And they’ll come here with more self-confidence, greater sense of purpose — knowing themselves better and knowing the world better.”

At the time of this speech, the Tufts 1+4 Bridge-Year Service Learning Program had three generations of cohorts. According to its website, the 1+4 program allows accepted Tufts students to apply for a gap year, or bridge year, of full-time community service in various international and domestic destinations. The second cohort of 1+4 fellows came to campus as first-years this year after nine months abroad. Last Friday, at the start of Parents and Family Weekend, they shared their experiences with their family and friends, members of the Tisch College and a few members of the inaugural 1+4 cohort. Members of the third cohort are currently active at their service locations.

While only in its third year, various changes have been implemented within the program as each generation of 1+4 alumni come back with their perspectives and the 1+4 program becomes more of an established institution on campus.

Returning as a Jumbo

The second cohort, returning from its bridge year, consists of 12 students serving in three locations — the same ones as the first cohort: Spain, Nicaragua and BrazilThe third cohort has 24 students active in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Brazil, as well as Washington, D.C. and New York City. During the presentation last Friday, Solomont attested to the growing popularity of the program.

“We’ve gotten the largest number of applications for this year — over 50 and we have 24 students who are doing 1+4 this year,” he said. “And a lot of that is the result of our 1+4 alumni for being able to talk to incoming students about the value of this experience.”

The returning 1+4 fellows shared their stories about living abroad, an experience that proved to be life-changing for some and an opportunity to grow for all who spoke.

First-year Rebeca Becdach worked at a foster home in Madrid during her bridge year, and spoke about how one young girl’s ability to open up to Becdach helped her feel at home and give more meaning to her experience.

“After an English class where we learned the names of family members, she started calling me her big sister. And the meaning of that changed my experience. As big sister, I had to give advice from my life experience,” she said. “Ana sometimes would mix up the words, and she would call me her little sister on accident, but that also had some truth in it, because I learned a lot from these girls as well.”

For first-year Mateo Gómez, having both a warm host family and his father’s side of the family in Nicaragua played a key role in the cultural immersion he experienced while on his bridge year. He described meeting his father’s side of the family in Nicaragua and the insight it offered in understanding his own family’s dynamic as well as the value of family — host families or otherwise — toward feeling like a part of the community rather than a tourist.

“I think it’s really hard to talk about cultural immersion, especially in the context of Latin America without talking about family,” he said. “It’s a huge part of the culture.”

First-year Jordyn Voss, a 1+4 fellow stationed in Brazil, credits her host family for playing an integral role in her personal growth during the bridge year. As a self-professed overachiever, Voss described her bridge year as an opportunity to understand who she was outside of her traditional social roles.

“I was so emotionally vulnerable the whole year because I started to realize that I was a really open person,” Voss said. “And that was something totally new to me, something I wasn’t really afforded in the United States.”

The program even helped 1+4 fellow Maya Stone, a current first-year who worked in Nicaragua, re-evaluate courses at Tufts.

“Now I know I want to work more in international development, and probably be a PJS major rather than IR,” Stone said. “I also know a lot more about community service, and that will definitely help me in the future because now I know, don’t come in with the idea of being a savior, you have to work with the community and the community has to be able to work to save their lives.”

As a part of Parents and Family Weekend, many of the returning 1+4 fellows’ families were present at the event. Stone’s mother, Ritu Nayyar, recognized the risks and concerns parents have about sending their children on a gap year outside of the country. However, she emphasized the value of the experience in terms of personal growth.

“It was just a great experience because you’re on your own, you have to mature, you have to just grow up, fend for yourself and figure out who you are,” Nayyar said. “And we see it as very good for her. So I think if your child is at all interested or slightly motivated, I would encourage parents to just let them go and do this.”

Changes to the 1+4 program

According to Jessye Crowe-Rothstein, the program administrator for Tufts 1+4, this year’s cohorts have the added location of Ecuador and next year’s cohorts will have the option of working in India as well. Hyderabad, the capital of Southern India’s Telangana state, became a service location after Tisch College board member Vikram Akula (LA ’90) reached out to the 1+4 program. According to Crowe-Rothstein, Akula has been both a great supporter of the 1+4 program as well as the new Tisch Summer Fellows program in India.

The process for choosing a new service location requires a well-informed decision, including site visits. According to Crowe-Rothstein, the decision to expand to Ecuador was a way to expand on the relationships the school has with one of its current partners, AMIGOS.

“For AMIGOS, Nicaragua was their only gap year program. They were thinking about expanding, so we were talking to them about a couple of different places that they were [at] already for their high school summer programs and what would be the best fit,” she said.

Crowe-Rothstein also explained that the program removed Spain as one of the service locations starting with this year’s cohorts. She explained that the decision to remove Spain as a service location reflected a more focused mission for the 1+4 experience.

“As we were thinking about expanding, we felt like diminishing our number of partners — we had three partners in three countries,” she said. “So every one of those is a kind of different program, and it’s just hard to make the experience as seamless and equal among all the different fellows. We’re looking for one 1+4 Tufts experience, but it’s so different depending on which provider you’re with. So it felt like it really made sense to kind of streamline and go down in terms of number of partners.”

Additionally, Crowe-Rothstein cited that she wanted to focus on the issues the students were learning about in Brazil and Nicaragua, further enhancing the program to better focus the student experience.

“Being in Brazil and Nicaragua, we saw a lot [of] students really learning about international development and these types of themes that weren’t as relevant in Spain,” she said. “It felt like streamlining to be in more countries that would fit those themes.”

Further developing the program, Crowe-Rothstein is excited about offering the online writing course all fellows are required to participate in as part of the Department of English. The course was originally part of the ExCollege, which made it difficult for engineering students to transfer the credit, according to Crowe-Rothstein. This year, the class is taught by Grace Talusan, a part-time lecturer in the English department who has attended the 1+4 orientation every year to offer a writing workshop with the fellows, according to Crowe-Rothstein.

A major change to the student’s experience occurred with last year’s cohorts. According to Crowe-Rothstein, last year’s cohort started the standard of having all 1+4 fellows live with host families.

“We just saw what an impact host families can have on students,” she said. “So we really wanted to give everyone that opportunity.”

Sophomore Justin Mejía, who was part of the inaugural 1+4 cohort, was happy to hear that future cohorts will live with host families. During his bridge year in Madrid, Mejía lived with the three other Madrid fellows in an apartment.

“During my bridge year, I didn’t have a host family,” he said. “So knowing that all the fellows in the subsequent years are going to have host families, it’s kind of interesting to know that their experiences will be so different.”

Building a 1+4 community

As attendants of the 1+4 Alumni Presentation, Mejía described the new mentorship role that he and other 1+4 alumni had for the returning 1+4 fellows that are current freshmen.

“I think all of us, coming from the same program … had a natural bond to each other, and so that just allowed us to be friends,” Mejía said. “Through natural conversation, whether it’s about academics or anything social, that’s how we can help, because we’ve been here a year and they just came in.”

Abigail Barton, another sophomore and inaugural 1+4 fellow, enjoys seeing more 1+4 fellows on campus and is excited to see how the future generations contribute to the 1+4 program becoming a larger community.

The returning 1+4 cohort is grateful for the previous alumni and the growing community as well. Mikel Quintana, a current first-year who worked in Madrid for his bridge year, thanked the previous cohort members for acting as mentors and hopes that he and his 1+4 cohort can continue the responsibility.

“Having [the previous cohort] is amazing — asking about classes, asking about social life, about so many things,” Quintana said. “They have also made it a lot easier, so hopefully we can do the same thing for the [cohort active] this year.”