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Beyond Bridge Year

Katherine Clifton ‘15 (facing page left) and Damaris Miller ‘15 (right) both returned to their Bridge Year host countries after graduation. Clifton (above) with her fellow Bridge Year Program participants in Serbia, in 2010.

When you set off on an adventure halfway around the world, you never know where your journey might take you. In some cases, you may be surprised that you end up back where you began.

By Mary Cate Connors

Six years ago, Katherine Clifton ’15 and Damaris Miller ’15 were selected to participate in the Bridge Year Program, a unique Princeton initiative that allows students to engage in nine months of University-sponsored service in one of five international locations before the start of freshman year. As Bridge Year participants, Miller traveled to Varanasi, India, and Clifton set off for Niš and Novi Sad in Serbia.

“I’m very grateful that I had the chance to be a part of the Bridge Year Program,” Clifton says. “It allowed me to be a part of a community, to participate in service learning, to have a home-stay family, to develop a new appreciation for a culture other than my own, to learn a new language — the list goes on.”

For Clifton and Miller, the Bridge Year experience influenced not only their education, but also their postgraduate plans. As seniors, they were awarded prestigious fellowships from Princeton that brought them back to their Bridge Year host countries to undertake independent projects.

‘The place that shaped me’

Clifton fell in love with Serbia almost immediately. She was drawn to its rich culture, beautiful countryside and complicated history. She taught English to Roma children as part of her Bridge Year service placement, and it was during that time she became interested in the deep-seated tensions that exist between the Serbs and the Roma.

“My time in Serbia fundamentally changed who I was, how I see the world, and how I see myself in the world,” Clifton says.

Clifton cites a greater sense of independence, a healthier “relationship with free time,” and a strong desire to engage with and serve her community as just a few of the ways her Serbian experience influenced her personal growth.

Back on campus, Clifton pursued her passion for English and theater. Through her coursework, she began to see the power of storytelling and theater as a force for social change and community building.

Clifton also embraced a range of international opportunities offered at Princeton to enhance her academic pursuits. She spent a summer teaching English in Japan through Princeton in Asia, traveled to the UK during spring break to study Shakespeare and participated in a Global Seminar in Greece that she calls the “most transformative course” in her academic career.

But when it came time to decide what she wanted to do after graduation, Clifton knew she wanted to return to Serbia, the place, she says, that shaped her worldview six years ago.

Her attraction to Serbia, coupled with her interest in theater and storytelling, served as the perfect catalysts for her Martin A. Dale ’53 Fellowship application. The award enables a Princeton senior to work on “an independent project of extraordinary merit that will widen the recipient’s experience of the world and significantly enhance the recipient’s growth and intellectual development.” Clifton was awarded the Dale and began her fellowship in September 2015.

Her project explored the conflict between the Serbs and the Roma in a series of interviews that she used to create a piece of theater. As it turned out, however, her fellowship year became about much more than her theater project. Clifton arrived at the height of the refugee crisis and aid work became her focus. She worked in Belgrade with NGOs and traveled to border nations to deliver parcels of food, sort through clothes and help acclimate refugees.

“Being on those front lines was a difficult and draining experience, but one that I actually think Bridge Year prepared me for,” she says. “It helped me to understand the importance of flexibility and the necessity of addressing the needs at hand.”

Clifton is taking those lessons with her on her next adventure. This fall, she is studying at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. She plans to earn an M.Sc. in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and an M.Sc. in World Literature. Through these two programs, she will continue to explore the intersection of art and politics worldwide.

‘Like a moth to a flame’

Miller never expected to return to India.

“How did I end up back here in India?” she says. “I’ve been asking myself this question for four years.”

Miller’s first visit to India was with the Bridge Year Program. She lived in Varanasi, studied Hindi, and worked at a resource center for differently abled children and young adults. She pursued Bridge Year because it allowed her to live in a country like India, which was the furthest she could conceive from her “comfort zone,” she says.

When Bridge Year ended, several of the students in Miller’s Bridge Year India cohort continued to study Hindi and talked about how they would go back as soon as possible. But Miller didn’t think she would return anytime soon, let alone ever again call the country home.

“The big joke is that at the end of Bridge Year, I was like ‘My experience in India has been incredible, and I’ve learned so much, but I doubt that I will ever live there again,’” she says.

Then, just two years later, Miller, who concentrated in anthropology and pursued a certificate in environmental studies, found herself back in India. She spent fall of junior year studying the culture and history of Buddhism while living in a monastery. She also completed a month-long independent research project about Buddhism and its relationship to the environment.

“Arriving back in India was like a big hug,” she says. “And I wasn’t necessarily expecting it to feel that way.”

Back at Princeton, Matt Weiner, associate dean of religious life, caught wind of Miller’s independent project and connected her with Dekila Chungyalpa, a colleague who was looking for someone to assist with a research project on environmental Buddhism. This connection led Miller to yet another trip to India for senior thesis research and an idea for a postgraduate project.

Miller went on to receive the Henry Richardson Labouisse ’26 Prize, a fellowship that enables graduating seniors to engage in a project that exemplifies the life and work of Labouisse, a 1926 Princeton graduate who was a diplomat, international public servant and champion for the causes of international justice and international development. Miller’s project brought her back together with Chungyalpa, who is now her supervisor.

“Applying to the Labouisse — that’s when I knew that I was like a moth to a flame,” Miller says. “Somehow, India was still not done with me.”

Miller started her fellowship year in Delhi in November 2015. Her project is in partnership with Khoryug — a network of Buddhist monasteries in India, Nepal and Bhutan — that are working together toward environmental sustainability in the Himalayan region. She travels between monasteries and nunneries in Khoryug’s network and helps to provide on-the-ground support, whether it’s teaching, information gathering, report writing, creating education materials or managing the website and social media presence. Thus far, she has worked with more than 30 of the monasteries in the network. Sometimes she stays for a couple of months, sometimes for just a few days.

Now, after all this time, India has become more like a second home for Miller. She may even stay there a while longer, as she plans to continue her work with Khoryug after her fellowship year.