ISEP Celebrates Black History Month: "If I can do it, you can do it"

February 26, 2021

“If I can do it, you can do it,” and “ask questions, even if you don’t know what questions to ask,” were the clear messages from this month’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force interview in honor of Black History Month.

As we near the end of February, ISEP University Relations Manager, Bailey Kepford, sat down with Desmond Warren, the ISEP Coordinator at Missouri State University, and Aaliyah Williams, an ISEP Alumna, to discuss their experiences as Black students abroad and to hear their encouraging words for other Black students who are considering traveling or studying abroad.

ISEP Alumna, Aaliyah Williams, who studied abroad in ISEP’s University of Jyväskylä program in Finland, kicked off the conversation by outlining what Black History Month means to her personally.

Aaliyah: “Growing up within our education system, Black History wasn’t taught, and it wasn’t present within my upbringing as much as I would like. [During] Black History Month I feel the most myself, I feel like I spend a lot of my life unknowingly shrinking myself to fit into societal spaces where it might not be deemed appropriate for me to be in those spaces. [During] Black History month, there’s something intrinsically that makes my energy shift. I’m happier, I feel more uplifted. It’s a month that I can connect with other Black people just because it’s Black History Month. We feel the same feelings. With technology today, so many people share so many things during Black History Month that we don’t see on our timelines throughout the year, so I’m always learning something that I didn’t know about Black inventors, Black creatives today. So, I just like this month where Black people can feel secure within themselves and share what they’re bringing to the world.”

Bailey: “As a follow up to that, does it resonate differently during the time of COVID, since there’s less community happening right now due to social distancing?”

Aaliyah: “There have been a lot of virtual events this year. Now, there’s more videos, more connections via streaming services where we can watch collectively.”

ISEP Coordinator in the Missouri State University Study Away Office, Desmond Warren added:

Desmond: “For me, Black History Month is more so for everyone outside of the Black Community. When I got to college, I realized that there’s a very big disconnect on the history, the love, the experience that Black people have had here in the United States between everyone else. Lots of historical events that were missed, lots of other events within the Black and African American communities that don’t get taught in schools. So, for me, having an actual month where we can come together and really focus on what we’ve contributed to the world, to the United States, is something that I really like to have.”

Bailey: “I have another question for you Desmond, is there any particular advice that you give students of color when they come into the Study Away Office at Missouri State?”

Desmond: “Definitely. For me, going abroad was my first time ever leaving the country. When I got to college as a first-generation student, studying abroad wasn’t even on my radar. And so, for students of color, specifically Black students, I tell them this is for them. If I can do it, you can do it. I spent three semesters in Mexico, so if you want to go even on a short-term program for two weeks or if you want to go for a semester – do it! It’s up to us to pave the way for those who are coming behind us, to break down those cultural barriers. I just hosted an event a couple of weeks ago for Black History Month where I talked about the Negro Green Book which we use to have to travel around the U.S. and how traveling for the Black Community wasn’t a reality for people, it was literally life and death. Now that we have the opportunity in the 21st century to travel the country and travel the world, it’s of the upmost importance that especially Black students take this opportunity to go abroad. I get on my soap box and preach into their lives this is for you, you can do it, how can we get this to work out.”

Bailey: Aaliyah, you just participated in our Alumni Panel, and you said you didn’t see a lot of women of color going abroad and you wanted to go abroad so that you could come back and encourage other students to do it – if you can do it, they can do it. So, what advice would you give other women of color or other people of color who are studying abroad, thinking of studying abroad or just interested in traveling abroad?

Aaliyah: “I didn’t see Black people or women from my community, my peers around the same age range, but there are Black people abroad, there are Black Americans abroad, it’s just not at the forefront of society and things that you see. I actually have a cousin that lives in Sweden and she got me into a Facebook group for Black women abroad and they share news articles about things that are happening in other countries, because when you’re in Europe you travel between European countries because it’s easy to do. So, they make you aware of what’s happening in other countries, aware of haircare products in Europe, places to get your hair done and things like that. So, I was able to find an online community within that. There most likely will be plenty of other Black women and Black people groups for people abroad and in other countries. I will say for anyone going abroad, but Black women and Black people to be diligent about researching their programs and the experiences in the places they’re going to. And even if you don’t find Black people to talk to about that experience, find other people who went to your university and lived in your area to talk to because even if their experience isn’t the same as yours, they’re going to provide you some insight being that you’ve never been there before, that would be helpful for you so you can reframe it into how you anticipate your experience will be. And I would say to have a good phone plan so that you can always figure it out if you get lost.”

Bailey: “100% agree with that for sure.”

Desmond: “I also want to add on a little bit. Some more advice for Black students going abroad, I would say don’t be afraid to look dumb. Don’t be afraid to ask any and every question that comes to your mind whether you’re just traveling abroad internationally through a travel agency by yourself or if you’re coming into office and speaking with a study away advisor like myself. Me going to Mexico, like I said it was my first time leaving the country, I had a lot of stereotypes in my mind of how Mexicans live. I believed the media that they lived in very poor conditions, that there was very little infrastructure, things of that nature. So, I came into our office, I came in here multiple times throughout the planning process of my program, sometimes 3-4 times per week and I would sit down with my study abroad advisor, Ashley Ryan, and would ask her – what’s the racism like in Mexico? Am I going to be able to find my haircare products? What is the currency exchange like? What are Mexican pesos? What are the different currencies? I just didn’t know. Coming back full circle, I would just say again, don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions because we all start from somewhere.”

Bailey: “Absolutely. It’s so important to prepare and there are people who can help you, if they don’t know the answer then they can help you find the answer for sure. Thank you both for those answers. Next question for you Desmond, did you face any barriers as a person of color during travel or while you were studying abroad?”

Desmond: “So, the barrier that I faced, and I have seen this with a few of my friends that want to go abroad, I would say my biggest barrier (outside of finances as a first-generation student) was actually my family and friends. I feel like this isn’t talked about enough within the Black community. From my specific perspective, since traveling abroad and traveling in general is still very much a new concept for the Black community, a lot of people discouraged me from going abroad. They said this like ‘I would lose my life abroad, I was going to have a terrible time, why would I do that it’s for white people. Various comments like that. And thankfully I had the Study Away Office at Missouri State that really pushed it saying, yes, it’s for you, that other Black students go abroad and if they can do it, then you can do it. So, I would say to be aware that those comments might come from your family and friends. That they might not see the advantage of going abroad. They might just see it as just vacation, as a waste of time or as just something that white people do. Just keep that in mind. But, bringing it back to the financial aspect, again, I’m a first-generation student putting myself through college and thankfully I had a lot of scholarships available to me to pay for my study away experience. There are a ton of scholarships out there that you guys can apply for through your university, speaking generally, or also third-party scholarships like the Gilman Scholarship that you guys can look into. But, definitely for me, family, friends and finances were the biggest barriers.

Bailey: “And Aaliyah, did you find similar barriers to your study abroad or did you have any that were different from Desmond?”

Aaliyah: “No, I didn’t have that type of barrier where people were discouraging me from doing it. Obviously, I went abroad by myself, so my safety was a big concern for my family, but they never wanted to discourage me from having that experience. I knew since I was in High School that I wanted to study abroad and that I was going to do it once I got to college. But I think my biggest barrier was my personal barrier. Being from more populated cities, I was born in Chicago and raised in between there and Kansas City, I’m used to more diverse populations. So, coming to Missouri State, a publicly white institution where I’m one of 3-5 Black people or people of color in the classroom and that being the same abroad, I had to get over my own discomfort with being the only Black ISEP student there. But I found other Black and Brown people that I met, and I befriended them. But just being able to fully experience my time abroad without letting the uncomfortability of being the odd one out. Because it’s an intrinsic thing, feeling different because you are different. Even if no one is making you feel different, per se, you still have that in the back of your mind, and it can make you not want to go on all the trips that other people are going on or feel like your different so can’t move the other way people move.”

Bailey: “Yeah, I can imagine that can be hard. And I’m just impressed that both of you guys were able to overcome those barriers and that you are able to talk about them and encourage other students. Because I know that other students have those barriers, and they are looking for someone to tell them that they can do it. I’m so glad you guys are able to say that you did it and that you really had great experiences and have obviously used those experiences as you’ve gone along in life since then. So that’s really inspiring to hear from you both about that. Aaliyah, another question for you, what is something about the Black student experience abroad that you think people should know if they don’t identify as members of the Black community?

Aaliyah: “An intrinsic thing that most people don’t realize is that Black people have to work harder than most people to make ourselves palatable or likeable to non-Black people based on societal stereotypes our skin, our hair, our bodies they speak for us before we even open our mouths. So, it takes a lot of inner maneuvering to feel like you’re accepted in so many situations. So, I think being culturally aware and culturally competent and understanding your privileges and how to accurately use it to support and uplift Black people and marginalized groups are the biggest things that people can do for other people whether it’s abroad or home side. And a social media account that I follow that a friend recommend to me is called, So You Want to Talk About and it doesn’t just focus on Black issues, it focuses on world issues – climate change, mass incarceration, voter rights. All these different issues, they give you the facts and the resources to go out a research it yourself. That’s something I’d recommend for people to become more culturally competent and more socially aware.”

Bailey: “Thank you for that. Desmond or Aaliyah – students of color often assume there are barriers to studying abroad before they even begin the process – they can’t afford it; it’s not meant for them; maybe even they don’t know anyone who’s gone abroad in this capacity. What can we all do within International Education to make sure these barriers are addressed?”

Desmond: “I believe that it’s up to the organizations, it’s up to the Study Away Offices, it’s up to ISEP to be the ones who initiate the conversations, who initiate going and doing the research on why aren’t Black students studying abroad or how can we reach this demographic. And then taking that information and actually implementing projects, or initiatives, or programs that cater to those specific weak points. Whether that be adding more funding, or passport support, or visa support, things of that nature. It takes a lot of that forethinking.

Bailey: “Absolutely. Because we’re the data holders, so we know how many students we’re sending abroad and how disproportionate sometimes the demographics are and where those weaknesses are. And how we can identify why is that and asking those questions of ourselves. I think that’s really important for every international education office or organization to think about. We have the data that we can look into ourselves and see where our shortcomings are and then do the work, like you said, to figure out where we can start filling needs and breaking down those barriers that you guys mentioned like financial barriers. Next question, is there any role model within the Black community that you both have had that you wanted to share with us today?”

Desmond: “I don’t have a role model, but I did come across the Black Travel Movement and there are tons of travel organizations and Instagram/Facebook communities that are dedicated to Black people going abroad and traveling. There’s a video that Time Magazine did a few years ago that highlighted the Black Travel Movement. And for me watching that, I was just like GOALS. I want that to be me in Dubai having the time of my life, riding camels on the beach, doing the whole thing. Again, and it goes back to seeing that representation, seeing other Black people, other people of color living the life that you want to have and seeing that’s not just for middle class white males. It’s normal Black folks like me and you. Every time I see Black people going abroad, I’m like YES, DO IT. I love to see it.

Aaliyah: “My mom is my role model, she’s the blueprint for my life. I’m a triplet, she had me when she was 21, she was in her Junior year of college at Grambling University, she went to an HBCU. And she studied abroad actually in Mexico. She was all for me having my experience. She showed me the strength and resilience of a Black woman. And so, I always grew up feeling like there’s nothing that I can’t obtain with the right plan. My mom is definitely my biggest inspiration, my biggest role model. She’s the battery in my back for everything that I do. My biggest supporter. But, obviously, Michelle Obama, Angela Rye, Symone Sanders, Maxine Waters, people fighting unapologetically for Black rights are also my role models by my mom is in the #1 spot. I’m going to make her watch this video. I just gave a whole speech about you, you need to watch this video.

Bailey: “Shout out to Aaliyah’s mom! And it’s cool that you’re a triplet.”

Aaliyah: “My triplet, she actually studied abroad before me, she went to Harlaxton in the U.K. She went to Baker University and now goes to UMKC.”

Bailey: “Gotcha. Cool. My last question is if there is anything else you would like to share with the ISEP community?”

Aaliyah: “I know in the last video we didn’t get to answer every question that everyone had. And I’m always open to answering questions, I can talk about my study abroad experience and the Gilman Scholarship, which is eligible to Pell Grant recipients, I can talk about those things all day. Feel free to ask me any questions, my Instagram is @existingtoday.

Desmond: “I would just again, reiterate, I might sound like a broken record saying this, but again ask any and every question. I’ve been working in the Study Away Office for three years now, my friends are always asking me questions, what about this or that? And I appreciate that, but I say come into our office so that I can give you all the information. We literally have an entire staff here of Global Ambassadors, our Study Abroad Director – at all of your guy’s universities across the country, just go into the office and literally just walk in and say, ‘I have no idea about what study abroad is, studying away, help me’ and they will help you. They will sit down with you and hold your hand throughout the entire process from picking a location to filling out financial aid, scholarships to passport stuff, or at least pointing you in the right direction towards how do all those things. The key is just to start. And don’t wait until the last minute to start either. If you’re waiting until your Senior Year and saying ‘oh, I want to go abroad now’ then it will probably be too late for you at that point. And, also, if you’re a first-generation college student then there’s tons of scholarships, please don’t let money be a big factor. There’s tons of money out here in the world. The worst they can say is no. Literally, GoFundMe, ask your professors, ask your mom, dad, your neighbor down the street. Ask somebody’s dog. There’s tons of money out there in the world.

Bailey: “Absolutely. I totally agree. And even if you’re not sure what questions you want to ask, go in and say ‘I don’t know what questions I want to ask. What the most common questions?’ and the office that you go to will have the most common questions and be able to help you with that. It’s just about making that appointment, walking through that door and getting started. And it’s a life-changing experiencing and I can hear that from you, Aaliyah and you, Desmond how much study abroad has been great for both of you. That’s so refreshing to hear because it makes me, as someone working in this industry, just feel like it’s so meaningful to hear how you powered through those barriers and that you did something that you wanted to do and that you were motivated to do.”

Desmond: “Exactly, and now I’m bilingual, I got my study away experience, I’m getting my Master’s paid for free. I’m getting paid to talk to you guys right now by my graduate assistant stipend. I found the love of my life. You guys can also find the love of your life abroad. If that does motivate you, then I don’t know what will.”

Bailey: “That goes to show how it can really effect the course of your life to travel and especially if you’re doing study abroad because you’re doing it for an extended period of time, so you’re really having a long period to grow and to change. And to meet people from all over the place and to expand your worldview. It’s just so important. Alright, well thank you both so much for joining. It’s been so much fun to talk to you.”

Again, from everyone at ISEP we want to say thank you to Desmond and Aaliyah for sharing with us about their experiences and insights.