Meet Jamila White (IES Abroad Dijon, 2005), the Senior Africa Representative for Mercy Corps. Mercy Corps is a global team of humanitarians who partner with communities, corporations and governments to transform lives around the world by alleviating suffering, poverty, and oppression to help people build secure, productive and just communities.
IES Abroad: What inspired you to study abroad?
Jamila White (JW): My French teacher inspired me to study abroad during my sophomore year. Originally, I was interested in an international fashion career, and was majoring in business and studying French, as it is widely known that a successful international fashion career requires the ability to communicate and network in multiple languages.
IES Abroad: When you studied abroad in Dijon, how did you experience diversity in the city? Did it have an impact on your study abroad?
JW: Dijon was not very racially diverse, however, IES Abroad facilitated a predeparture diversity and cultural workshop for students of color to help us understand and discuss race relations in France and learn of available support and resources. This workshop helped me to better understand navigating the culture. Fortunately, my host University attracted students from all over Europe and Asia and was much more culturally diverse than the city.
Racial diversity or lack of diversity impacted my experience for sure and helped me to bond with other French and non-French students of color over shared and similar experiences. My time in Dijon coincided with the October and November 2005 French Riots, which was a three-week period of riots in the suburbs of Paris and other French cities. These riots involved African and Arab youth protesting discrimination, police harassment, and societal racism. It was an interesting time to be a Black woman in France. At the time, there was the depiction that race tension/warfare was limited to America, while in Europe there was greater racial social cohesion. I remember long conversations discussing international race relations, civil rights movement, authenticity versus assimilation, and more.
As one of two Black American students at the University that fall, I was able to share my culture and break stereotypes, as well. For instance, I co-taught a hip-hop dance group with another Afro-Caribbean French student.
IES Abroad: What are some of the most influential memories from your time in Dijon?
JW: Taking a train with three of my other study abroad friends to Geneva for a long weekend only to be turned away at the border because we forgot our passports. We ended up spending the weekend in Lyon with all international students and never seeing the hostel—we literally stayed out for 48 hours.
IES Abroad: How did studying abroad help you prepare for your career at Mercy Corps?
JW: In a general sense, I think the challenge and risk of going into the unknown and placing yourself in a different culture, with different social and economic policies, language, history, food, etc. is great. It makes you adapt and think on your feet, as well as challenge our most basic fears of acceptance and fitting in.
IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned abroad that remains a constant in your life today? What was your ‘aha moment’ when you realized you would never be the same again because of this study abroad experience?
JW: It was through my first study abroad experience that I discovered Africa, and decided to forgo a career in fashion and dedicate my life to ending poverty. Without my study abroad experience, I most likely would not have pursued a career in International Development and African Affairs. My study abroad experiences were my first immersion into different cultures. At a young age, I learned to appreciate diverse cultures and collaborate on international teams. In my current position, I am tasked with developing relationships with diverse stakeholders. Studying abroad taught me how to cultivate international relationships and work multiculturally.
IES Abroad: What is your advice for the next generation of IES Abroad students?
JW: Take the unbeaten path, embrace your diversity, it’s your superpower. Remember you are representing not only yourself, family and school but also your community. Try everything, stay in touch with the friends you meet, and have the time of your lives!
Learn more about studying abroad in France, and check out all of our Alum of the Month profiles to see real examples of how study abroad changed the lives and careers of our former students. To help more students like Jamila receive the option to study abroad, you can support our scholarships.