Conversations For Our Future With Abby Falik

Welcome to the ninth edition of Conversations For Our Future! In this interview series we’ll be hearing from a diverse set of voices on how we can harness the pandemic to build a new global normal. I’ll be asking each interviewee the same three questions:

  • What one aspect within your sector have you seen transformed due to the pandemic?
  • In your opinion, has/will the pandemic change how we function as a society? If so, how?
  • How do you hope to personally harness the pandemic to create positive change?

My guest today is Abby Falik, Founder & CEO of Global Citizen Year. Abby offers fascinating insight into the pandemic’s effect on education, and discusses the remarkable launch of Global Citizen Year Academy.

The Academy is a first-of-its-kind leadership experience (delivered virtually) that equips students from 80+ countries worldwide to find their purpose, their people, and their power to make an impact. The Chronicle of Higher Ed recognizes it as one of the most innovative “pandemic pivots” in higher ed.

The interview has been edited for clarity.


About Abby Falik

Abby Falik is the Founder & CEO of Global Citizen Year, an award-winning social entrepreneur, and an expert on the changing landscape of education. She is a frequent speaker and writer, and has been featured in prominent forums and news outlets including the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Fast Company Innovation Festival, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and NPR.


What one aspect within your sector have you seen transformed due to the pandemic?

Abby: I work in education – always have and always will. Everything has been reimagined: we no longer assume that education, learning and school all need to be the same thing. There’s a separation occurring, an unbundling of learning from the school-based paradigm which I believe will free young people up to develop their own learning journeys in ways that are more empowering, more relevant, more cost effective, more accessible. So I don’t think we’ll ever go back to what was – which was not actually a system that was serving us well.

Gabby: That’s really interesting. One reason why I loved the Academy so much was its emphasis on teaching students how to cultivate purpose, passion and meaning in life. I find it quite surprising that these skills aren’t taught in a conventional education when they are so integral to a young person’s growth.

Abby: Me too – and I hope that that becomes a part of the new normal, that a holistic education and preparation for a young person before they enter adulthood includes a focus on learning themselves, and identifying their sense of purpose.

Gabby: Another aspect I am curious about is the global nature of the Academy. Do you think that the development of the ‘online classroom’ and especially the lessening of those geographical constraints of learning along with that will have a lasting effect on education?

Abby: Absolutely – if people take advantage of it. So in our experience, the global dimension of the Academy cohort changed everything. We will never go back to a primarily US based group of students because we recognise that if what we are trying to do is to create global citizens, then we need young people who have deep and meaningful connections with others from around the world. I think there are many ways that we’ve all been constrained by the pandemic: we’ve not been able to travel, we haven’t been able to run the programs that we traditionally do which are about in person, lived experience in communities that aren’t your own. But, technology has opened up a world of new possibilities that include being able to support students from [around the world]. So we’ve had students from 85 countries in the Academy this year. This will absolutely be central to how we grow.

In your opinion, has/will the pandemic change how we function as a global society? If so, how?

Abby: I’m an optimist – by wiring and constitution – so I can only imagine the future that I believe is possible, but I know that it’s not inevitable. I believe that we will look back at this experience of inhabiting one planet where a virus doesn’t care about the boundaries of a community or a country that gives us a sense that we are all in this together. And even right now, where there are effective vaccination campaigns in the US where I am – clearly the virus is still out of control in all parts of the world, where it’s going to take months if not years to figure out how to get ahead of it which is the strongest indicator that our fates are interconnected. I think that the climate crisis shows us that as well: with rising temperatures and more extreme weather events everywhere in the world, we’re beginning to have this sense that if the existential threats that we’re facing cross borders and boundaries our solutions have to do the same.

Gabby: I definitely agree, and I think that to be unwaveringly optimistic in the face of these crises is so important, less we get bogged down in cynicism and the awfulness of the situation we face. Optimism empowers us to create positive change.

Abby: Fully agree!

How do you hope to personally harness the pandemic to create positive change?

Abby: The pandemic created an opportunity for us at Global Citizen Year to let go of everything we had planned and everything we thought we knew about the model, and to try something we would not have given ourselves permission to try if we hadn’t been forced to. The Academy represents everything we’ve learned over the last decade about how to meet a young person on the cusp of adulthood with an experience that shapes values and perspectives. This year, we’ve built a platform that we intend to grow five, ten, a hundred times in the coming years. The vision is to create a critical mass of new global citizens, of changemakers who feel a sense of responsibility and obligation to a global community. And we’re just getting started, but this year has really laid the foundation.

Gabby: I love the philosophy of Global Citizen Year – how you’ve taken in and adapted to this tremendous situation we’ve found ourselves all in, and I really do think that other sectors can learn from that. That ability to almost drop everything and acknowledge that “this isn’t working right now – we need to do something else” is really admiring.

Abby: Exactly – and we were forced to, so I’ve learned a lot about leadership, also, in terms of how do I let go, how do I listen for the cues that something might need to change even before the moment when – you know, we have these very forced constraints on the model, but it’s been a very generative and entrepreneurial time for sure.

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