Growing up on a small farm in rural southwest Wisconsin, it never crossed my mind that I would someday be living in Senegal, working at Tostan, on an international gap year through Princeton University. During high school, my interest was peaked in international travel and volunteer work, after participating in a few short term service projects in Haiti, Tanzania, and Guatemala. These experiences, however short, gave me a small glimpse into what cultural exchange can look like. I knew that I wanted to incorporate intercultural immersion into my college education, and upon discovering the Princeton Bridge Year Program, I was immediately compelled to participate. After graduating from Kickapoo High School this past spring, I began preparing for my adventure. 

My main reason for choosing to study abroad was to expand my worldly knowledge and to undergo a new kind of personal development. Life is always changing, and it is necessary to be adaptable to the unknown. Spending a year abroad before college is the ultimate learning opportunity for building the capacity to interact in a new environment. With an inside look into life in another country, I am broadening my perspectives on culture, religion and life in general. 

Nine months of living abroad, the Bridge Year Program provides an environment in which students can explore the world of cultural diversity before beginning their studies at Princeton. The program is multifaceted, exposing participants to all aspects of life in Senegal. We live with homestay families, which is the pinnacle of our cultural immersion and offers an inside view of Senegalese life. Additionally we engage in language classes in both French and Wolof, cultural enrichment activities and volunteer partnerships with NGOs. Working with organizations across Dakar gives us a meaningful project to devote the bulk of our time to, and I am ecstatic to have been partnered with Tostan.

When I came to Senegal and learned about Tostan’s holistic approach to community empowerment, I know immediately that it was the kind of NGO I was looking for. Tostan considers all aspects of community wellbeing in the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), which resonates with me personally because I believe true solutions must approach an issue from all angles. My internship with Tostan’s communications department will continue to bring give me greater understanding of development in West Africa, particularly with a development model as successful as Tostan’s, and give me the chance to expand my knowledge of professional skills. With my unique background and young spirit, I bring a new perspective to the office, and I am confident that my service here will be mutually beneficial and further Tostan’s mission of Dignity for All.

Whether it be in my homestay, or around the lunch bowl at Tostan, the personal interactions and experiences I have already had with this cultural immersion are truly compelling reasons to engage in an international exchange. Being exposed to a multitude of cultural differences has stretched the fabric of my understanding to a new capacity. International exchange fosters personal growth and gives one greater cultural awareness. This in turn, creates more open minded and free thinking individuals, who have the confidence and capability to succeed in an ever changing world. I am thankful to have been partnered with Tostan and to have been given this opportunity for experiential learning.

Story by Daniel Shepard, Communications Intern at Tostan International