Not long ago, I was one of eight young professionals chosen to participate in a six-month media fellowship for recent college graduates. The first group outing and ice-breaking session came with the requisite roster of questions all young and blindly ambitious twentysomethings throw at their peers. Résumés were compared, quiet rivalries established and pedigrees picked over.
What scored highest with this crowd was an impressive answer to the question, "So, which countries have you traveled to?" Some had spent semesters studying in Spain or a year teaching in Malaysia, along with the requisite post-graduation excursions through Europe and reporting trips to sub-Saharan Africa. As for me, well, I didn't even have a passport.
After the initial embarrassment of having to ask, "Does Canada count?" it hit me. My competition, especially in an industry flooded with talent and fewer jobs than the Titanic had lifeboats, was out gathering the kind of experiences that I had only read about. Experience that will be invaluable when it comes to an employer choosing Candidate A over Candidate B. They lived in a global community — one that I saw as gated and inaccessible.
The problem of an un-globalized population has not gone unnoticed. In 2009, President Obama began the "100,000 Strong Initiative," a $2.25 million program intended to encourage young Americans to travel to and study in China. This past February, first lady Michelle Obama spoke to students at Howard University about the initiative and the importance of having an international perspective in a world that is becoming increasingly less U.S.-centric.
Yes, our widespread lack of international participation is so chronic that it has prompted a multimillion-dollar presidential initiative. But where our white peers may need the push to go overseas, students of color often need a shove. Blacks make up about 4.2 percent of all American study-abroad students, while 81 percent are white, according to the Institute of International Education. In order to "win the future" as President Obama demands, we'll have to at least get in the game. If not, warns Jennifer Campbell, assistant director of the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, the gap between Americans with a global mindset and those who only think domestically may never be bridged. "We have to make sure all of the population has access to international exposure, or else there will only be a certain part of the country who will be able to compete globally and the rest will be left behind," Campbell told The Root.
In the past, experts attributed the lack of international travel among young people of color to financial constraints, fear of racism, parents unwilling to support the decision and a lack of role models.
But Campbell, whose program has given out 2,300 scholarships to minorities for international exchange programs, says that those attitudes are changing. "I think that this generation recognizes that the person next to them is more global than they are," Campbell says. "Things are changing, and this generation is pushing for those opportunities more now than ever before."
For young black professionals and recent college graduates, a semester abroad is no longer sufficient to make the team in corporate America. Recently, in the midst of his pre-hiring inquisition, an interviewer asked me if I knew the capital of Senegal. (I did; still didn't get the job.) Technology has turned the world into that proverbial global village; employers want to know how big or how small we have allowed our world to be. These days, competition isn't confined to national borders. Internships and undergraduate degrees aren't enough to compete. You've got to have that international edge.
And today's technology means that for my generation of twentysomethings, expat living takes on a completely different tenor from that of previous generations living abroad. They could only capture their experience through memoirs or scribbling in their diaries or in the letters sent back to the folks at home. But today, the next big travel blog or YouTube series or CNN Skype reporter will emerge from my peers.
Of course, these days, that same technology means that taking up residency in another country doesn't require as much bravery as it may have decades ago. Family and friends are never more than a mouse-click away. There become fewer and fewer items on the cons list when deciding how much you want to sacrifice for the sake of furthering your career or personal ambitions.
I spoke with several young people who have uprooted their American lives and planted them in foreign soil; each experience is documented here. Their reasons range from better career opportunities and a devotion to global activism to a longing to connect with their roots in Africa. One thing in common: a desire to become part of the conversation that the rest of the world is having without us.
As for me, I eventually got that passport and took my first trip abroad just a few months ago. Granted, I visited Germany, a developed and economically stable country, but I was expecting our differences to be more pronounced than just my American accent. Most people spoke excellent English, every restaurant offered English-language menus, Burger Kings littered the streets and I heard the Top 40 U.S. singles more there than I do here. And there's the irony: With technology washing globalization up on almost every shore, the digital world is more conducive for market expansion, but less exciting for travelers wanting to experience another culture. It gets even harder for young expats to cut the strings they've come to rely on that connect them to their American comfort zone, especially when those strings are now an endless network of satellites and wireless routers.
From a career perspective, however, this couldn't be better. I traveled on a fellowship that introduced me to American journalists living in Germany; they urged me to learn German so that I, too, could write for English-language publications as a foreign correspondent and be a reporter in the host country.
I think they may be on to something. Right now, I am saving up for Rosetta Stone.
Jada F. Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C., and blogs about 9-to-5 fashion at CasualTuesdays.com.
is an intern at The Root and senior journalism major at Howard University.