TBB Leadership Spotlight: Isaac Galef-Brown

  1. What roles have you taken on at TBB? What is your current position?

I first joined Thinking Beyond Borders in August 2017 as a Program Leader for the Latin America Gap Semester program.  That year I led both the fall and spring semester trips. The following year I returned to lead the longer Global Gap Year program.  I now lead TBB’s outreach and recruitment efforts, admissions, alumni engagement and long-term program development as a Director of the organization.

  1. Describe one of the most influential experiences of your life.

One of the most influential experiences of my life was studying abroad in Granada, Spain during my junior year of undergraduate studies.  I lived with a host family for 3 months and took intensive Spanish language classes everyday with my peers. More than anything else, the experience shattered my perception of what the concept of “home” means and it forced me to start thinking differently about the world outside of the bubble which I grew up in.

  1. What is your daily motivation to do the work you do for TBB?

My motivation to do this work each day comes from three things.  The first is the work our Program Leaders and students engage in everyday on our programs.  Together they engage in critical, meaningful dialogue, reflection and questioning and at a critical moment in each student’s personal development.  The combination of this timing and depth of content make TBB a pretty transformative experience for many students, and continuing to provide that opportunity is what gets me excited about this work.

A second, broader motivation comes from TBB’s idealistic mission to empower students through education to address critical global issues and the close alignment which has been created between this mission and our practice. Sure, it’s a lofty mission, but when you lead a program from beginning to end and get to see the full scope of growth and learning, it doesn’t feel like a huge leap of faith to have high hopes for TBB’s alumni.  Because TBB has been around for 12 years now, we can already see the incredible work which TBB’s alumni are now engaging in around the world.  

My final motivation, and probably the most important one, is the TBB students I had the opportunity to travel with as a Program Leader.  I learned so much from my students, they really never cease to amaze me.     

  1. Why do you think gap years are important for students?

I struggled throughout my freshman year of college.  It wasn’t a particularly productive struggle either and I wasn’t a very motivated or engaged student.  I hadn’t taken a gap year because I felt the pressure of staying “on track” with my peers. In hindsight, I could have really benefited from taking some time before college to engage in self exploration and I think that’s a benefit of taking a gap year which is available to everybody.  At a time in our personal development when we are trying to figure out who we are, what we’re most passionate about, what our values are and how to align those with our daily practice, taking some time to explore these concepts after a whopping 12 years of formal education makes a lot of sense.

  1. Which country has been your favorite to travel to and why?

Cambodia just might be one of the most interesting places I’ve ever traveled to, precisely because I was so ignorant of Cambodian history before visiting.  It’s not something I’d ever learned about throughout my education in the US. My bubble of ignorance was burst open as I visited the Killing Fields, where over one million Cambodians were killed during the genocide in the late 1970s.  You can see how this traumatic period under the Khmer Rouge regime is still affecting the country today, as many Cambodians we met lived through its horrors. I then went to visit the incredible temple of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, which told an entirely different story.  This temple complex was built by the Khmer Empire and was once one of the largest and most advanced civilizations on earth. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it. These experiences stand out to me because they demonstrated how much I don’t know about the world but they also pushed me to think deeply about how we sometimes characterize parts of the world with single narratives and how damaging that can be.  Cambodia is such a complex country full of different narratives and my brief visit only scratched the surface.

  1. Which TBB education unit do you like the most and why? 

As an educator, I am certainly biased towards our education curriculum, however TBB’s “Who Am I” curriculum just might be my favorite.  I believe that it’s crucial to ask deep and critical questions of ourselves before we go out into the world with the assumption that we can make a positive impact.  I say that because there is so much to understand about how our identities dictate or sometimes alter the interactions we have with others, whether we are aware of this or not.  Questioning and reflecting on ourselves has the potential to literally change our view of the world. How cool is to get to be a part of this transformative process? The cop out answer is that ultimately, I love all of TBB’s units of study because they are based on broad topics that every human being on earth will interact with at some point in their lives, be it a negative or positive interaction.  This makes them not only incredibly relevant to all students, but also something that unites us, no matter where we’re from in the world. 

  1. What would you say to a high school student who is considering taking a gap year?

‘Exploration’ is one of the most invigorating and exciting words I can think of that ultimately describes what the learning process can and ought to be for students.  Exploration doesn’t necessarily require grades, classrooms, textbooks or sometimes even a formal teacher figure. Taking a gap year can transform your perception of what it means to ‘learn’ because it provides the opportunity to tie those two concepts of learning and exploration together and make it applicable to the world around you at the same time.  

  1. What has working in this field taught you?

Paulo Friere, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, wrote that the teaching and learning relationship is actually triangular, where teachers serve as guides, helping to illuminate the subjects we explore together as learners.  I originally read about this concept from Friere in graduate school while getting my masters in education. Working in this field has taught me that as an educator, I will never have all the answers, and beyond that, it’s not the job of a teacher to have all of the answers.  Instead the focus of an educator should be to engage in authentic inquiry alongside students. This revelation has led me to greater self awareness and humility, and finally, the ability to learn so much from my students.

  1. How do you envision the future of TBB?

The future I envision for TBB is one where our programs are more accessible and varied than where we are currently at.  These gap year programs push us to think critically about the world, our role in it, and issues larger than ourselves, so I think it’s an experience many people could benefit from. 

  1. What is your favorite outlet to have fun? How do you experience self care?

My favorite outlets have changed over the years.  Music had traditionally been a large part of it, and I played drums in a funk and soul band for years, but unfortunately I couldn’t find space in my backpack to bring my drum set with me while traveling with TBB.  More recently self care has been anything and everything outdoors including hiking in the White Mountains, gardening, trail running and rock climbing. I happen to be obsessed with Parks and Recreation as well, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to mention how many times I’ve watched that show from beginning to end.