Merrill Scholar Emerges as Global Storyteller - Alum of the Month Jimmie Briggs

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IES Abroad
May 18, 2020

Meet Jimmie Briggs (IES Abroad Vienna | 1989) a gifted storyteller and humanitarian. Jimmie was pre-med at Morehouse and pre-accepted to Harvard Medical school, prior to which he spent a semester in Vienna after receiving a Charles Merrill Jr. Scholarship. Vienna changed Jimmie's trajectory and he decided not to pursue medicine, but journalism. Witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Eastern Europe had a profound effect on his life. After graduating from Morehouse College, he worked at the New York Post and Village Voice. He started Man Up Campaign, a non-profit to engage men/boys in global movement to end gender-based violence throughout the world. He has written three books, including the award-winning book Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War. In 2010, he was awarded GQ Magazine's “Better Men Better World” award.

In August 2020, Jimmie addressed the IES Abroad alumni network in the discussion Finding Courage in the Midst of Social Change: A Conversation with Jimmie Briggs, which you can view on YouTube.

IES Abroad: What inspired you to study abroad in Vienna?

Jimmie Briggs (JB): I received a Merrill Scholarship from my home institution, Morehouse College, and was intrigued by Viennese culture and the opportunity to study in a place residing between Eastern and Western Europe.

IES Abroad: How did your experience studying abroad shape your thinking going forward?

JB: My time abroad in Vienna changed my intended path to that point. Unequivocally, I would not be where I am in my life, doing what I'm doing, without that year abroad in Vienna with IES Abroad. Since childhood, I'd always planned on and believed I would become a doctor. It was a dream into which I and everyone in my family had invested. My experience studying in Vienna showed me that maybe I could live a life of travel, cultural exploration, and storytelling. The wanderlust spirit within me was stoked by the opportunity of traveling to places like Berlin—when the Wall came down there—or, Prague, during the Velvet Revolution. I had a front row seat as history was unfolding and wanted to have more chances of being present in such moments, not solely to bear witness, but also tell the stories of what I saw and heard.

IES Abroad: Where did your career take you after going to college? Did the skills you acquired while studying abroad help you in your career?

JB: After college, I spent about a year and a half tending bar, waiting tables, and then moved to Washington, D.C. where I got a job sorting mail at The Washington Post. From there, I moved to New York City to intern at The Village Voice before taking an entry-level feature reporting job at LIFE Magazine.

To a certain degree, the skills I learned while studying abroad helped in my career. Skills such as high self-motivation, independence, problem solving, and a certain degree of intrepidness were seeded during my time with IES Abroad—all useful as a journalist.

IES Abroad: Today, you are a social impact consultant, journalist, educator, and storyteller. What has been the most inspirational part of your social impact work?

JB: I think the most inspirational part of my social impact work has been evolving into a credible advocate on behalf of gender equity and violence prevention. As a cofounder of Man Up Campaign, a member of New York City's Gender Equity Commission, and a frequent lecturer to schools, community organizations and youth, I am most proud and inspired by the audiences with whom I engage around promoting healthy manhood and masculinity, as well as elevating the dialogue on preventing violence against women and girls.

IES Abroad: Who or what encouraged you to write Innocents Lost?

JB: That book came out of me wanting to explore the lives of children impacted by war and crisis, specifically child soldiers. Prior to starting that book project, I had spent several years writing about youth violence in the United States, e.g. gang violence, drug-related violence, and the impact on families and community. At that time, the mid-90s, there wasn't much about child soldiers and war-affected children being discussed in the mainstream media nor the general public. My employer, LIFE magazine, sent me and a photographer to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—then, Zaire. It was there that we firsthand encountered girls and boys carrying military weapons in the bush. Having documented young people carrying guns in America, I felt compelled to report on this parallel phenomenon. That trip to the DRC in the mid-90s, was my first step toward the journey which culminated in Innocents Lost. Over nearly eight years I traveled to half a dozen countries around the world documenting the lives of children and war.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give students considering studying abroad or interning abroad?

JB: Remain as open as possible to the journey in regard to not having preconceptions, or unrealistic expectations. Travel and engage without ego or arrogance. Meet people where they are without judgment or condescension. Share and be as open as you hope those you encounter are.

IES Abroad: You are a Changemaker from all your accomplishments. What for you defines a Changemaker and what characteristics and attributes should students planning on study abroad have to become the next generation of Changemakers?

JB: As much as I have been called a Changemaker in my life, I'm still quite uncomfortable with the phrase to be honest. I guess I've always seen myself as someone who's tried to plant seeds, and then water them as much as I can—with many, many others. For students studying abroad seeking to become "Changemakers" in their respective communities, or the world at large, I would urge them to find mentors within their IES Abroad program among the faculty and administration as I did. For me, having those two to three people within IES Abroad leadership with whom I could engage with minimal fuss, or in whom I could confide, made my experience so much more relaxing, and anxiety free. Additionally, I hope that IES Abroad students also take advantage of the extraordinarily privileged chance to immerse themselves in the culture (including the challenges) of their respective study countries. It would be quite easily to insulate and isolate by only staying within the safe confines of IES Abroad, physically and figuratively. One has to break out and make friends, acquaintances and find mentors or allies within the countries in which the study abroad experience is unfolding. From my perspective, that is really how one grows and takes away what is needed from the time overseas.

IES Abroad: What was your 'ah ha' moment when you realized that you would never be the same again because of your study abroad experience?

JB: There really were two moments. The first was in Berlin in the days when the Berlin Wall was literally coming down piece by piece. An Austrian buddy of mine drove from Vienna to Berlin to witness the "Wall" come down firsthand, event jumping into the fray ourselves with small hammers and pickaxes to get our own pieces of it. The Second "a ha" moment was in Prague during the "Velvet Revolution" in Wenceslas Square after the fall of the Communist government of what was then Czechoslovakia. Together, those two experiences combined to ensure I was not going to medical school and becoming a doctor as I had long presumed I would. After being in the midst of history unfolding and narratives changing before my eyes, I wanted to feel the way I did in those two places and moments, as well as write about it narratively.

Learn more about studying abroad in Vienna, 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 Jimmie receive the option to study abroad, you can support the Charles Merrill Jr. scholarship.

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