MaryBeth Thomas graduated in 2016 with highest honors from Mitchell High School, tucked away in the mountains of Western North Carolina between Spruce Pine (population 2,103) and Bakersville (population 449). Having never travelled outside of the Southeastern United States, she dreamed of exploring the world after graduation. As an honors student, artist, athlete, and Mitchell High’s senior class president, she had her pick of universities and was set to enroll at a small liberal arts college when an email arrived out of the blue from the Campus Y at UNC-CH. It was an invitation for her to consider the Global Gap Year Fellowship (GGYF).

UNC’s gap year program is an opportunity for high school graduates to defer their acceptance to Carolina to undertake a year of public service abroad. Students receive a $7,500 stipend from the University and intensive coaching from our staff before, during and after their gap year. We find that there are three elements of our program model that make it extremely attractive to students and incredibly transformational in the way it shapes a young person’s academic and career path and their sense of self.

• Customization: Students design their own gap year, choosing destinations and service sites based on their interests and budgeting their finances accordingly.
• Competencies: They work in local grassroots organizations in under-served communities, where they immerse themselves in a different culture, and develop critical soft and hard skills and professional competencies.
• Autonomy: Students develop critical self-reliance skills, heightened personal growth and resiliency by designing and directing their gap year and responding to challenges that emerge along the way.

The prospect of a gap year led MaryBeth to chart a new course for herself. She committed to UNC and the Fellowship, ultimately traveling to Tanzania, South Africa, Madagascar, and Egypt to work on public health initiatives and teach music. This semester, as a 19-year-old first-year student, she’s joined the Carolina class of 2021 with a new perspective on the world, herself, and her future.

Watch the video above to hear MaryBeth tell her story. Then, contact cydevelopment@unc.edu about ways you can help sustain the GGYF program, or visit giving.unc.edu. Under “Gift Now,” please search The Kerry Kennedy Campus Y Social Innovation Fund (606169).