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FOCUS Climate Gap Year currently offers programs in China, Chile, Argentina and India for passionate young students from urban and rural America. Not only do participants get a world-class educational experience “in the field”, they also join a diverse alumni network that is already working in every corner of the problem to accelerate solutions. FOCUS already has partnerships in more than 40 countries and will be offering programming to 500 students a year by 2024. While this solution is primarily helping to solve SDG 13, the gap year helps address other SDGs such as Goal 4 quality education, Goal 11 sustainable cities and communities, and Goal 12 responsible consumption and production.
The innovation is a new model to engage with youth to accelerate and sustain impact on climate change. FOCUS is re-inventing the gap year model by developing programming to empower participants to go much deeper into global issues. Also, FOCUS is working to change the current model of climate activism beyond "getting out the vote" toward deeper, sustained engagement over time.
FOCUS supports its alumni as they navigate choices around selecting a major, finding internships, choosing a graduate school path, and finding early career jobs that keep them focused on climate action. Additionally, FOCUS has developed a model for gap year alumni engagement that will provide "5x human capital return." FOCUS also supports each alum in bringing 5 new relationships into the larger FOCUS network that are interested in deeper climate engagement. By enabling connections among alumni, FOCUS is creating a basis for a re-imaged social movement to address climate change.
Current education and climate action models aren't sufficient for what society and the planet needs. It’s either restricted to book smarts or electoral politics. FOCUS has developed these practical innovations based on ethnographic research with millennials and GenZ youth, as well as first-hand experience running programs that focus on community organizing, leadership development and experiential education.
As the executive director of the national non-profit Focus the Nation between 2008-2013, Garett Brennan helped more than 1.5 million young people get engaged on climate. In 2011, after several years of running campus-based engagement campaigns for youth, FTN redesigned its approach to programming to focus on experiential education, collaboration and leadership development—helping young people experience first hand the impacts of climate and an energy grid transitioning toward renewables around the Mount Hood and Columbia Gorge region.
During his time at FTN, Garett felt that something was missing from the approach. He invited a group of 20 students to participate in a 7-day retreat on Mt. Hood to discuss ways for FTN to be more impactful. One morning, Garett led the group on a pre-dawn hike, which was in itself a deeply moving and unique experience for the students. When they arrived at a spot that had previously been part of the Eliot Glacier, Garett explained where they were standing.
"It was deeply moving for me to see the students experience the effects of climate change first hand, for them to viscerally know that climate change is very real," Garett said. "I felt a deepened sense of purpose. I also felt validated about my intuition that students need first-hand experiences to fuel their passions and interests. This became the foundation for the FOCUS model."
While the first cohort is just starting to form, the impact can already be felt in the engagement and enthusiasm from investors, partner organizations, students and parents. Finalizing the list of participants for the first cohort is slow and methodical as FOCUS is working to break down barriers to financial aid to make this experience open to all young adults. Students are already expressing interest for the 2019, 2020 and 2021 cohorts.
Organizations in Chile, Argentina, India and China have been engaged via an RFP process to serve as in-country experts and hosts for participants to engage with local experts working on real-world climate impacts and solutions that are unique to each country. As FOCUS engages with these organizations, a new model for connecting international host-organizations to a pipeline of committed student activists is being developed.
This new model of engagement with in-country organizations will allow in-country experts to respond to market demand more quickly, scale faster, and impact the negative effects of climate change faster.
FOCUS Climate Gap Year is engaging with key stakeholders in new ways. Building on the benefits of gap year educational experiences for families, students, campuses and communities, this innovative model evolves the tenants of gap year education to explore the issue of climate action more deeply. This benefits students, in-country organizations, and experts and domestic companies, organizations and agencies seeking new talent to accelerate their climate agenda.
Additionally, engaging in-country organizations in this new model has benefits. These organizations historically struggle and compete for engagement with this target audience; they each must individually market and promote their opportunities. FOCUS provides a platform that allows for the promotion and engagement with a key target audience in a more meaningful and efficient way.
Data on the impact of gap year experience shows that students who participate generally have higher GPAs, a deeper sense of purpose, graduate faster, have higher job satisfaction, and are more civically engaged in the electoral process. This approach to education is a beacon of hope as the United States struggles to find new models of education that deliver greater value to individuals and communities.
The effects of climate change are accelerating. It impacts every aspect of our lives. We need a new approach to getting young people involved on the ground so they can gain the skills and perspective they need to change the world.
By living in communities experiencing the impacts and those implementing solutions, you will learn about the wide range of skills and challenges that any climate action requires: collaboration, science, technology, policy and legislation, storytelling, media and energy.
The impact happens for the students and experts directly involved in the gap year -- exploring issues, developing relationships, and working in the field. After students return from their climate gap year, they will immediately join thousands of others in the FOCUS network -- this is the foundation for a sustainable, solutions-oriented social movement for climate change.
Garett Brennan, Co-Founder and CEO
FOCUS Climate Gap Year is a hands-on, boots-on-the ground leadership program for young people interested in exploring the world, immersing themselves in climate impacts and solutions, and launching their own academic, personal and professional paths toward action.