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New Stanford Digital Education visiting fellow builds accessible paths for next-generation leaders

Social entrepreneur Abby Falik is pioneering new approaches to ensure that motivated high school graduates worldwide can access the learning that matters most.
Abby Falik
Abby Falik, Stanford Digital Education visiting fellow

Many students arrive at their first year of college unprepared to make the most of the experience. Are there better ways to help them through the transition and enable them to achieve their full potential? For nearly two decades, social entrepreneur Abby Falik (BA ’01, M.Ed. ’01), has been leading a movement to transform how young people learn, launch, and lead. To help advance her newest venture, Stanford Digital Education (SDE) has named Abby a visiting fellow.

“We are honored to welcome Abby back to the Farm as a visiting fellow at Stanford Digital Education,” said Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education. “My hope is that Abby can help cross-fertilize education innovations from the outside with ideas from Stanford faculty and students, to generate new approaches to mission-driven digital learning.”

Abby earned a bachelor’s in international development and a master’s in international and comparative education from Stanford, as well as an MBA from Harvard. After winning Harvard’s Pitch for Change in 2008, she founded Global Citizen Year, a post-high school fellowship to help next-generation leaders find “their purpose, their people, and their power to drive real change.” As CEO she raised over $65 million in scholarships, and equipped thousands of diverse, young adults to live and learn in communities across Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

In 2022, she joined the Emerson Collective as an entrepreneur in residence to incubate new platforms to help young people develop their purpose. She spent a year exploring learning models around the world with her family in tow — practicing what she’s preached about the power of transitions, and learning on purpose.

To find out more about her plans for the coming year and how it builds upon her past work, SDE communications director Jonathan Rabinovitz interviewed Abby via email.

How would you describe your trajectory since your time at Stanford?

For as long as I can remember (and even before I’d stepped foot on campus as a freshman in 1997) I sensed the limits of traditional education. I was hungry to ask — and answer — questions that couldn’t be taught in a classroom alone: Who am I? What does the world need? What’s my role at the intersection? I left Stanford after my sophomore year to spend a year living and working in Latin America. The experience was the most challenging of my life, and also the most formative. I learned what got me out of bed when there was no alarm clock, who my teachers were when they weren’t assigned, and what I chose to learn when there wasn’t a syllabus.

When I came back to Stanford I was no longer burnt out; I was on fire with a sense of possibility. I petitioned for my experience (learning languages and navigating foreign contexts, reading and writing, failing and rebounding) to count for credit. And, to Stanford’s credit (and my delight) they granted it! Suddenly, declaring a major felt less important than something more foundational: pursuing my mission. Ever since, that mission has been to help many more — and more diverse — young people find theirs.

I completed a co-term at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) and wrote my master’s thesis on the opportunity to make immersive, global experiences more accessible and more impactful. I had the inklings of an organization I hoped to build, but I also knew that the idea (and I) needed more time to develop. Five years later, after working at the intersection of education and global development, I found myself frustrated by many of the practices I observed in the nonprofit sector, and decided to go to business school. I spent my two years at Harvard learning how to build and scale a high-impact enterprise — an aim that felt equally (if not more) important when the bottom line was purpose, not profit.

When I graduated in 2008, I launched Global Citizen Year: a social enterprise that used the transition after high school to help motivated and diverse young people find their people, their purpose, and their power to drive change. In 2022, I stepped away from the organization to explore how to scale what worked to the size of what’s needed. Today, I’m working at the intersection of narrative change and innovation to unleash a generation of change agents who know their power to shape the world.

Why do you see a transition year between high school and college as having great potential for impact?

The transition after high school has the potential to be the most formative stage in a young person’s development — and yet, more often than not, we miss this window of opportunity. It’s the moment when a young person stands on the cusp of adulthood; they have the maturity to leave home but haven’t yet fixed their values or identity. Diverse cultures and religions have long honored this life stage with a formal rite of passage — from the Scandinavian folk schools and the Indigenous vision quest to military and religious calls to service. And the evidence bears it out: When done by design and not by default, this is not a “gap” year, but an opportunity to fill in the gaps left by traditional education. Sadly, most kids (and parents) are scared of slowing down or getting off track; but racing headlong toward an elusive finish line should scare us more. By helping young people pause, reorient, and align around authentic goals, we can equip them with the golden ticket money can’t buy: a sense of purpose.

I understand that you, your husband and your sons recently completed your own version of a “purpose year.” How did that experience affect the way you approach your work?

Last fall, we pulled our two young boys (six and eight years old) out of their public school in Oakland in search of a very different type of education. We immersed ourselves in six countries — staying longer and going deeper than typical fly-by travel — and enrolled our boys in local schools wherever we found willing partners. As a family, we left our comfort zone to feel the stretch of experiences beyond it, and as an entrepreneur I stepped off the treadmill to expand my sense of possibility for what I’m building next. Together, we experienced an inspiring array of educational modalities — from a Waldorf school in the high desert of Mexico where kids whittle their own knitting needles, to a “free school” in the mountains of Andalusia that had “guides” instead of teachers, and a network of Nordic folk schools in Denmark committed to helping students find their inner compass. You can learn more about our experience here: Learning on Purpose.

As we traveled, something else happened that felt equally impactful: We watched, awed, as ChatGPT began to ace all the tests our western, industrial-style education had been oriented around for a generation. So much of our reform and philanthropic efforts in education have focused on squeezing out incremental gains on tests that robots can now pass … in seconds. This was a light bulb moment for me and, I hope, a moment of reckoning for all of us.

It’s time to step back and ask the bigger questions: When the computer in our pocket has all the answers, what’s the purpose of school? What do today’s kids most need to learn, and how will we redesign the systems around those things?

My experience over the last year informed a framework for developing what I call the REAL skills of the future: resilience, empathy, agency, and leadership. These skills, far from being “soft,” have become the new power skills — the abilities that are uniquely and brazenly human in a world becoming less so.

What do you plan to work on in the coming year?

My entrepreneurial engine is humming, and I’m working on three projects with the same aim: to re-invent the path out of high school as an aspirational, accessible, and transformative rite of passage. I am writing a book, developing a TV show, and launching an ambitious new school that looks nothing like our traditional associations with the term. The school (name TBA) will gather diverse and determined high school grads worldwide — those who are skeptical about the status quo, but optimistic about the future — and equip them with the insights, skills, and networks they’ll need to change our current paradigms — for good.

Are there particular ways you’d like to draw upon Stanford as part of your fellowship?

It's an honor and delight to get to re-engage with the Stanford community through this fellowship. I’m looking forward to delving deep into interdisciplinary research around my areas of focus — purpose formation, leadership development, digital learning design, and engaged citizenship in the 21st century. I’m also eager to collaborate closely with colleagues from the GSE, the, the Graduate School of Business, and beyond. As my team and I develop prototypes and pilots, we’re excited to engage current students from across the university (and beyond) to include their voice and savvy in the design process. And when my book is published I hope to work with the university around the launch!

Why is Stanford Digital Education a good fit for you?

SDE’s mission to advance innovation for equity and opportunity aligns deeply with my own. We have an historic opportunity to use technology to democratize access to the learning that matters most, and I’m thrilled to get to learn from SDE’s leadership and programs on how you’re already doing this.

One specific point of intersection is the opportunity to revitalize interest (and action) around Stanford 2025 — a visionary exploration of the future of higher education that asked: What could the university of the future look like if we were to start from scratch? While the project was completed nearly a decade ago, some of the ideas are even more relevant now. As I lay the foundation for an audacious new type of higher education, it will be informed by two of the models proposed in the project — “purpose learning” (equipping students to find a mission beyond their major), and the “open loop university” (inviting students to loop in and out of learning over the course of their lifetime). I’m looking forward to engaging colleagues at SDE and beyond as we work to translate these important ideas into meaningful practice.

For more about Abby’s work, visit her LinkedIn and website.

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