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Bridge Year allows Sonia Rao (’24) to recharge and rebuild

January 14, 2022 • Camille DiBenedetto • No Comments

Like most college students, going to school online in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t easy for Sonia Rao (’24). During her sophomore year at UNC in 2020, Rao was living off-campus in Chapel Hill, working for The Daily Tar Heel and staring at a computer screen all day. By the end of her fall semester, she was burnt-out. So, she decided to take a gap year. And the Campus Y’s Bridge Year program was the perfect way to do it.

The Bridge Year program was created in 2017 in partnership with the founding members of the Meantime Coffee Company, two of who had taken gap years during their time at Carolina. Each year, the Campus Y sends one to two students abroad to complete service work between their sophomore and junior years. Before COVID-19, students traveled abroad and did volunteer work in Cambodia, Greece, India and Italy. However, since COVID-19, the program has become domestic with students having served along the US/Mexico border, Hawaii, and North Carolina.

Last semester, Sonia spent the first half of her Bridge Year volunteering at the Rainforest Inn, a sustainable Bed and Breakfast in the El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico. At the Rainforest Inn, Sonia put her coursework as a journalism major to work. Sonia helped the Inn with their website, blog, and Puerto Rico Travel Cast, a podcast produced by the Rainforest Inn that highlights local businesses for tourists. In addition to her media work, Sonia helped out with miscellaneous tasks around the Inn such as gardening and learning how to make coffee.

One of Sonia’s goals for her Bridge year has been to focus on areas that she’s passionate about outside of journalism. As a City & State Editor for The Daily Tar Heel, Sonia was putting in a lot of hours covering the pandemic and the 2020 election. In an article for The Daily Tar Heel from last May, Sonia explains her decision to take a gap year and the problematic work/life balance of student journalists. With her Bridge year, Sonia is working on separating her identity as a person from her identity as a journalist.

This semester, Sonia is traveling to Texas to volunteer for the Annunciation House, a shelter for immigrants and asylum seekers on the US/Mexico border. “Working with immigrants is something that’s personally important to me because my family immigrated to the US and I haven’t had the time to volunteer or work with a refugee organization.” Sonia says.

At the Annunciation House, Sonia will be helping asylum seekers and immigrants seeking refuge at the shelters. Her responsibilities will include preparing meals, teaching basic English, distributing food and other essentials, helping clients contact family, and assisting them with transportation. Like her work at the Rainforest Inn, Sonia will be doing a little bit of everything.

After she returns from her Bridge Year, Sonia plans to become more involved in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community when she returns to Carolina and the Campus Y in the fall of 2022. She already has her eye on the Refugee Community Partnership in Carborro, an organization focused on connecting people to resources, breaking down language barriers, and mobilizing institutions to eliminate barriers to equitable access of health and education.

But for now, Sonia is enjoying her gap year. She’s grateful for the opportunity it’s given her to reassess not only her academic interests, but her personal ones.

“My gap year has taught me a lot about what is and isn’t important to me. I’m more comfortable being by myself and trying new things…and I’m more comfortable not knowing what the future holds.” Sonia says. “I also know that when I come back to UNC, I’m going to prioritize my mental health.”

When I asked Sonia what she would tell students considering a gap year, Sonia said to do it. “If you’re feeling burned out, know that you have an option. Take the break. It’s a completely normal thing to do.”

Sonia also gave students applying for the Bridge Year fellowship some advice. “Be really honest in your application, don’t just say what you think they want to hear. Make sure to convey your reasons for wanting to take a bridge year! And start early and make sure you read the whole thing well before the deadline! (I didn’t realize there was a professor recommendation until the day before it was due…thankfully I have great professors.)”

If you’re interested in applying to the Bridge Year fellowship for the 2022-2023 cycle, you can find more information here. The application will open next week.

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