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Greetings Bridge Year India 11.0!

Namaste, Bridge Year 11.0-

Yes, you read that right! You are the 11th reincarnation of this phenomenon called Bridge Year India – and we can’t wait to meet you!

My name is Sarah.  I’m a member of this year’s leadership team, which includes Neerav Yadav and Lauren Cain, that will be with you in India for the next nine months.

I hope this finds you enjoying your days of summer and treasuring moments shared with family, friends, and loved ones before we embark on our year together. Nine months is a long time, and indeed so much learning and growth await you in India.

I’m writing to you from your future program house in Udaipur: outside, the magenta hibiscus flowers and climbs over the gate, the guavas ripen and fall from the trees, and the monsoon clouds gather but yield no rain. This year, the lake levels are low, and the land is thirsty for water, which we hope will come soon: in these days of changing climate, our region—your future home, Rajasthan—registers the effects. Still, what little rain has fallen this monsoon season yields muskmelon, gram, karela, and other short-season crops. When you arrive in India, the hills will likely be verdant shades of green, the last of the lingering monsoon clouds will shift through the valleys, and you might detect a deeper resonance of energy and awakening as growing fruits ripen after a long dry spell. I’m counting the days until we can experience this together!

Let me take a step back, though. I want to say congratulations: you made the brave decision to postpone your matriculation to Princeton for an entire year. This is no small feat. It takes courage to step off a defined path and dive into an ocean of uncertainty. Perhaps some of you have faced questions from curious or wary family members and friends who wonder why you would elect to defer from Princeton and come instead to India—a place many of you have never been before. Perhaps you catch yourself wondering the same.

This is normal.

It’s true you have chosen a brave path that’s outside the norm, and without wanting to sound patronizing, we’re proud of you for taking this courageous step!

Let me tell you a bit more about how I got into this adventure. I’m from southern California, and spent most of my childhood in the chaparral-covered San Gabriel mountains, occasionally scrambling the rocky Sierra Nevada peaks, and exploring the tidal zone of the Pacific coast. The first time I traveled to a country outside of the United States, I went to the Amazon rainforest in Peru with a science group from my high school to learn more about rainforest ecology. To say that this journey changed the course of my life would be an understatement. Since that time, I resolved to travel—not simply to check countries off a bucket list—but to travel as a practice, whether exploring my own neighborhood or walking on a mountain trail, as a way to experience and interpret the world. By travel, I refer not only to moving over geographic space, although that can be one aspect of travel. I also mean the inner journey, the path we take that is replete with questions, a search for meaning, an unpacking of the literal and figurative baggage we carry, an act of radical imagination, a willingness to move from one perspective to another, even one way of being to another.

The writer Madhushree Ghosh asks, “What does it mean to travel? What is ‘the journey’? Can it be one inside our hearts? In our minds? From our armchairs? Or trekking through mountains in Peru? Or through rain forests in Guatemala? Is it a combination of all these?”

I am of the mind that travel is indeed all these things, and more. We will be asking the question repeatedly over the course of the year, and I invite you to begin wrestling with it now [as an aside: check out the above link to Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel to read Ghosh and other insightful writers who are interrogating what it means to “travel”].

After high school, I studied at Dartmouth College. I have worked in multiple fields since then: as an environmental educator in Vermont, an organic farmer in New Hampshire, a community agriculture and food security farmer in rural Rwanda with Partners In Health, as a chaplain in a hospital, and eventually, in the field of international education. Several years ago, I completed a Master of Divinity at Princeton Seminary: as part of my studies, I received a grant to research seed saving practices in India. I resolved to return again after that study, and have been living almost full time in India for the past seven years. I’ve led  semester programs in India and Nepal with Where There Be Dragons, as well as a number of shorter courses in India, Peru, Tanzania, and Rwanda (the latter three with Putney Student Travel and National Geographic Student Expeditions). I was a Bridge Year assistant director for a couple of years before serving as a director (this will be my third year in the role). Why do I list these positions? For me, this litany of courses serves as a reminder of the immense gratification and appreciation I have to be able to walk with students like you on your journey as we encounter the new and unexpected in ourselves, one another, and those we meet on our way. It is the privilege of a lifetime to learn with you.

If I can give you one piece of advice for the year ahead, it’s this: let go of your expectations. Let go of the need to know, to have it all figured out ahead of time. Trust me: we never will.

In a recent Ted Talk, the writer Pico Iyer posits that the “secret point of travel” is this: “to take a plunge: to go inwardly—as well as outwardly—to places you’d never go otherwise. To venture into uncertainty, ambiguity, even fear.”

Venturing into uncertainty, ambiguity and fear? That’s easier said than done.

But to release our expectations—again and again—and be willing to be receptive to the new, to that which is unknown: this is a profound, if difficult, practice that eventually yields the gifts of travel: humility, gratitude, insight, new perspective, new commitments to justice, new love (to name a few). For Iyer, this posture is so important that he calls it the “First Law of Travel” or, “You’re only as strong as your readiness to surrender.”

In the coming days, you’ll be hearing from the other members of your instructor team, Neerav and Lauren. We’ve been plotting away about our coming year together, and there’s so much we’re excited to share with you! The cedar-clad mountains of Uttarakhand, your first cup of chai, overnight railroad rides, old desert forts in the sand dunes of Rajasthan, the struggles and joys of learning a new language, the daily routines of cleaning out barns and feeding cows await you. History and politics, new art forms and artisans, cultural codes and insight. New skills. New family members.

In the next week, we also want each of you to post an introduction about yourself so we can start to get to know each other. No need for perfection here: this is just a simple way for us to learn a little more about one another before we meet in person. This Yak Board is a way for us to share reflections and insights throughout the program, and the earlier we begin to learn about each other as unique individuals, the sooner we will build a learning community in which we feel open to challenge ourselves and others, knowing that we are supported every step of the way. This is a first and important step to create a healthy and safe group culture. After all we will be spending nine months together!

In your introductory “Yak” we would love for you to share the following:

  • Your name and your hometown (or wherever it is that you live and call home these days –we recognize this can be a complex question). Tell us something about the place/s you come from.
  • How is it that you play at home? Do you like sports? Games? Books? What are some of your favorite ways to relax?
  • What are some of your passions? What do you find yourself reading about in your free time? What organizations do you volunteer with? Debate over?
  • Please share one thing that you are doing to prepare yourself to move to India. It could be a cool article or book that you’ve read and want to share, a Bollywood movie you watched on Netflix or Youtube, a travel tip you learned from a friend or from previous travels, etc. etc.
  • Any other fun fact you want us to know about yourself!

Here’s a fun tidbit about me: I’m into birdwatching and can identify a number of birds in the U.S. both visually and by their song! I’m still working on my Indian birds, but have improved in the past few years. I love the Hindi film “The Lunchbox” (we’ll watch it together), a recent favorite book is Remnants of a Separation by Anchal Malhotra about the Partition of India and Pakistan, and I love to walk through the mountains and forests of northern India. So what about you? What do you geek out about? What inspires you?

In addition, please post any general questions you have to this Yak Board. Chances are that if you have a question, someone else has it too! Neerav, Lauren and I will be sharing resources and notes with you in the weeks before your arrival in Princeton, so please start checking this forum regularly. I will also be calling each of you soon: expect to hear from me by email regarding a call!

If you have a specific question or would like to check in outside of this forum, you can always email me ([email protected]).

Now, back to the art of surrender. One of my favorite poets from India is Kabir, a 15th century Indian mystic and saint. He wrote a lot about letting go and surrendering to the unknown places within, an act which often yield the greatest treasure.

So I leave you with this treasure from the poet:

The pearl is in the oyster

And the oyster is at the bottom of the sea:

Dive deep!

-Kabir

With great anticipation-

Sarah