A bridge to the world

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Grace Mannix, a junior studying recreation, park and tourism management in Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, spent her summer vacation gathering cold-weather gear and giving herself a crash course in the Russian language. This fall, instead of returning to Penn State’s University Park campus, Mannix boarded a transatlantic flight to Russia, where she’ll spend this fall semester studying abroad in the country’s cultural capital, St. Petersburg.

For the 21-year-old globetrotter, it won’t be her first time living and learning abroad. Three years ago Mannix deferred her acceptance to Penn State for a gap — or bridge — year in a small town in Senegal, an agricultural-based country on Africa’s west coast.

“My Amazon shopping cart was something else that summer. I was stocking up on mosquito netting and water purification tablets and taking daily doses of malaria medicine. It wasn’t a typical post-high school experience, but I felt this pull, like I do now, to experience something different from what I knew and be part of something greater,” Mannix said. “Going to college has always been my goal, but so is understanding different cultures and people, and luckily I didn’t have to choose. Penn State has encouraged me to pursue every one of my dreams — from service to study abroad.”

After high school, Mannix spent eight months as a fellow with Global Citizen Year, a nonprofit organization that connects recent graduates with service learning opportunities in Brazil, Ecuador, India and Senegal. As part of the immersive cultural experience, she lived with a host family, became part of a local Senegalese community, contributed as an apprentice at a local tailor’s shop and joined a cohort of peers interested in exploring the world.

While common overseas, bridge years — an experiential break between high school and college — are gaining popularity in the United States. While some people dedicate their year to travel, saving for college, volunteering or exploring career interests, Mannix looked for an established program for the training opportunities it offered in language, global issues, international development and social entrepreneurship. After a rigorous selection process, she was chosen to be a Global Citizen Year fellow and became the first — and so far, only — Penn Stater to participate in the program.

“I’d always been really interested in African culture and before I went off to college, I wanted to have a hands-on learning experience where I could connect with people in a new place and alleviate stereotypes,” Mannix said. “While traveling, my goal is to take what I learn and immediately put it into practice. As our world is getting smaller and tensions are rising, my hope is to meld my interests and experiences to make connections that I believe will benefit communities.”

absa bracelet

Since leaving Senegal, Mannix has worn a bracelet engraved with her Senegalese name, which also was the name of her host grandmother. 

Image: provided by Grace Mannix

During her time in the predominately Muslim town of Kébémer, Senegal, Mannix practiced French and Wolof, the country’s most widely spoken language, side-by-side with her three-year-old homestay sister and learned African cooking and crafts. Each day, she walked on sand roads to and from her daily apprenticeship in a local tailor’s shop, where four seamstresses shared three sewing machines and frequent power cuts often delayed their work creating traditional attire for weddings and funerals. At home — a modest concrete structure with lime trees in the yard — she connected with her host family through dance.

But Mannix says the most meaningful experiences of her bridge year were the times she spent visiting a shelter for homeless street children. The shelter, “Maison de la Gare,” is a space for children, mainly boys, to become productive members of Senegalese society and learn to read, play soccer, tend a garden, wash their clothes and gain access to education and health care.  

“No matter where I went in Senegal, in cities and villages, I was approached by these barefoot children, wearing tattered clothing and begging for change and food,” Mannix said. “It was difficult to witness, but I learned the shelter was a safe place where these little boys could just be little boys. For me, forming relationships with the people changing their communities for the better and helping these at-risk youth regain their childhoods was inspiring.”

In addition to becoming a regular face at the shelter, Mannix helped her gap year program, Global Citizen Year, and Issa Kouyaté, the shelter’s cofounder and president, form a partnership and create opportunities — that would last beyond her time in Senegal — for students to visit the shelter and learn about homelessness and human trafficking.

Mannix says her experiences in Africa and the friendships she formed with people like Kouyaté — who was honored by Secretary of State John Kerry as a 2016 Hero in Trafficking in Persons Report — not only gave her invaluable perspective on a new culture, but also herself.

“Not to be cheesy, but living in Senegal I almost felt reborn from the shy, tentative person I was in high school — I was even given a new name, 'Absa,' while I was there,” Mannix said. “Everything from overcoming language barriers to living in a society where most girls stopped going to school after 8th grade helped me appreciate the value of my own education and evolve into the person I am today. I gained a new perspective on what I’m capable of, and now I feel like I can face any situation.”

But when it was time to return to the U.S. to start college, Mannix says the reentry period was still difficult.

Thanks to Penn State’s Learning Edge Academic Program (LEAP) — a transition opportunity offered to first-year students enrolled in summer session — her adjustment to life as a student at University Park was less overwhelming. 

Grace Mannix

Grace Mannix, who works part-time as a Zamboni driver at Pegula Ice Arena, is a junior in Penn State's Schreyer Honors College majoring in recreation, park and tourism management. 

Image: Patrick Mansell

“LEAP was a great buffer between Africa and Penn State as I was figuring out how to be myself in a new environment with more than one culture in my back pocket,” Mannix said. “I joined the health and nutrition track and made some really good friends that summer. It helped make a big school feel smaller, and I think anyone trying to find their place on campus could gain a lot from that built-in community.”

Today, Mannix, now a junior in the Schreyer Honors College majoring in recreation, park and tourism management, is living the college life she always envisioned.  

She stays busy with classes, attends football games and works part-time as a Zamboni driver at the Pegula Ice Arena, a job she loves. She recently won a writing award from the College of Health and Human Development, and like many Penn Staters, makes service a part of her day-to-day by volunteering with Hearts for Homeless, THON and the Lion’s Pantry. Each summer, near her home outside Philadelphia, Mannix works as a coach at the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, where she also works with the underserved boys and girls on character development, healthy living and academic success.

“There is so much opportunity at Penn State and this message that the world is your oyster,” said Mannix. “There are so many unique things I’ve been able to do — like learning to drive a Zamboni —  because I’m a student here, and I get more and more motivated every day to go after what I want.”

Which for Mannix, of course, includes travel.

After two years spent stateside, she decided she was ready to study abroad. This fall, Mannix is starting her adventure in Russia, where she’ll live with a host family and study language, culture, history and politics at a state university in the country’s most westernized city.  

To gear up for life in St. Petersburg — which is famous for its golden palaces, ballet and “white” nights when the sun doesn’t set — Mannix used the sewing skills she learned in Senegal to make and sell handcrafted quilts to help fund her semester overseas.  

“Everything comes full circle. The skills I learned and confidence I gained in Senegal — combined with support from Penn State and my study abroad program — are really what’s carrying me to Russia,” Mannix said. “I don’t know what to expect going to this completely new place where I don’t know the customs or speak the language, but I’m trying to take my own advice to put myself out there and do things that will help me grow, even if they are out of my comfort zone.”

In the future, Mannix hopes to continue to pursue opportunities in youth development, hockey, and health, but says she’ll always, ultimately, be an explorer at heart.

“No matter where life takes me, I know Penn State will be a source of pride and support. My grandfather enrolled at the University after serving in World War II and my mom is also an alumna, but surprisingly they’re not the main reasons I wanted to come to school here,” Mannix said. “The best decisions I’ve made in life have been based on my intuition, and from the moment I stepped foot on campus I knew this is where I wanted to be.” 

Last Updated September 21, 2017