Written by Denver Regine Lark
My experience as a CIEE sponsored Nelson Mandela Global Scholar has been astonishing. My unique Open Campus program allowed me to study in Paris, Cape Town, and London. Each country offered novel experiences and opportunities.
Although I met people from all walks of life, one thing remained the same: no one looked like me. Few were women, few were black and even fewer were black women. Why is this? Is it because we don’t want to? Are we scared? Or is it just that we think we can’t travel? I have proven all of these assumptions wrong by studying and traveling abroad. After talking to black students and faculty in my study locations, the answers all remain around my assumptions.
Despite this, I found many positives in my experience. I enjoyed the food and excursions, both of which felt familiar with what I had back home. This balance allowed me to learn and live in new cultures while keeping homesickness at bay. My trip to Paris was my first time visiting Europe and boy was it a culture shock! From the language, food and overall culture, Paris took time to get accustomed to.
Fortunately, Paris had a large African presence. Now, although many people looked like me, I realized that there were a great many differences that separated our unique experiences. They were not “African-Americans” and identified differently. The only part that may be similar is our ancestry.
“Could you classify yourself as a ‘Black American?’ No, not at all.” I remember hearing this question in England and, surprisingly, South Africa. There was no clear way to pinpoint where we were actually from. It was only when my friends and I spoke that we were quickly labeled as Americans. We were immediately questioned regarding our political beliefs, economic inclinations and reasons for studying abroad in South Africa.
Many times, people were quite thrilled to meet black Americans, especially educated black women. Other times, we would hear comments like “you left your brothers and sisters to suffer and die because you went to live with the white man.” We found these taunts to be quite strange.
Due to years of social disparities resulting from the apartheid era, many who looked like me left South Africa. My friends and I were not categorized or judged by how we looked, rather we were separated by where we came from. We soon learned that certain words which are viral back home, words like the “N” word, are viral and greatly used in South African pop culture as well. I was quite surprised to hear the latest Billboard 100 songs being sung by children of all ages as I walked through remote townships.
All of my experiences came to a head when we visited a township in Soweto. Once we arrived, we were warned that the little babies who are considered our brothers and sisters would not pay us any mind. When we arrived with white people, they would run and play with them, not believing them to be the “enemy” because they are visiting their home township. None of us were able to comment on much of what we saw, instead, our focus shifted towards other things.
As I continued to travel alone and in the company of others, I always kept in mind that I was not only an American but a black woman at a pivotal time in politics. Many people in other countries could prey on such vulnerability. I soon learned that the leap of faith I took to study abroad would inspire others of my age, gender, and race to follow in my footsteps.