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A Letter to My Younger Self
Episode 104th August 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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Three women. One goal. And a letter to their younger selves. 

In the final episode of our first season of Voices of Exchange, a team of exchange alumni - Pandora White, Vanessa Diaz, and Ashleigh Brown-Grier - join us to talk about international exchange, their Citizen Diplomacy Action Funded project -- We Represent -- and how they are bringing diversity, equity, and inclusion to exchange programs. 

Transcripts

Dr. Pandora White

I'm Dr. Pandora White, and I am the CEO of We Represent, and I am over everything, it appears (laughs). I am Dr. Pandora White, and I am the CEO of We Represent, and I oversee all operations.

Vanessa Diaz

I am Vanessa Diaz. I'm the COO and director of creative communications. I design all social media and website graphics, as well as work closely with the CEO of We Represent. 

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

I am Ashleigh Brown-Grier. I am the director of external relations, and I help wo-, solidify relationships and partnerships within We Represent.

Dr. Pandora White

What is WeRepresent? What is our story of beginning? I was at an international, uh, alumni event. I, i.e with partners of America, I had started putting on events for alumni to meet each other, to talk about, you know, what's the next steps after you do these exchanges? How do we use this to further our career? So at that meeting, they announced that there is gonna be the citizen diplomacy grant to do projects in various fields, including, uh, creating, uh, communities for alumnis and promotion of the program. And so at that meeting, I actually s- just met three or four other alumni. So it was about 30 to 40 of us there. And they were like, "Does anybody wanna do a project like this?" And we're like, "Okay." So we just took each other's phone number, [in the] first couple of days of knowing each other.

Dr. Pandora White

fice? So promotion. And so in:

Dr. Pandora White

No one that I knew I had ever really went abroad. You might know one or two people who would take a boat down to Mexico, because I'm not far from New Orleans and there's a port there. But going to another place, living there, really seeing what it was like to be in someone else's shoes, that wasn't something that you would see. And then the other thing was, if you knew someone who did it, maybe they didn't look like, you, maybe they didn't have a similar background to you. They got me thinking that we should do it, and that's why. And see if we can increase them as, uh, students from different, uh, backgrounds that apply.

Vanessa Diaz

We also, uh, our group, a lot of our team members were also doing similar work prior as alumni ambassadors, um, as co-founders of affinity groups in which we were trying to reach underrepresented groups anyway, on virtual, like virtually and in person. So it kind of, um, was great that Pandora reached out to us cause we were doing similar work, and then now we were able to like hone in. Between everyone, we had like 60 volunteers, panelists, moderators. Yeah. It was, it was really amazing.

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

Also with our affinity groups, they were also willing to promote, help promote the conference, which really helped gain those, uh, other alumnis, um, put us in contact with them or alumni (laughs), and put us in contact with them as well as, you know, promoting to, to their base, to students who may be interested in attending the conference. The most rewarding part, or just for the team in general was, um, we were able to really push the WeRepresent brand and, um, our mission to people. Right? And so we were surprised in the beginning when we had so many advisors from these institutions who are like, "Oh my gosh, we wanna work, we, we're interested in learning how to really, um, reach our minoritized students on campus." And so that was, that was a little shocker for us. And what I told Pandora was, you know, it's great that these advisors A, attended and, registered and attended this conference. Because what they took from that con- com- from our conference is they can go back to their campuses and they can use these tools, um, to help with their outreach on their campus with minoritized students.

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

But now they also have connections with alumni from all four programs that they can call on and say, "Hey, do you mind speaking with our students or do you mind, you know, there's a student who's interested in X, Y, and Z. Can I, you know, uh, put them in contact with you?" So I think that was one of the most rewarding. And also that so many people attended the conference. I think that was also (laughs) really, um, not saying that we didn't expect anyone to attend, but, you know, it's COVID, there's Zoom fatigue. So to have people attend, whether that was, um, via Zoom or, uh, via our social media accounts, I think that was really, um, a reward for us.

Vanessa Diaz

Being able to have a space where we talk about underrepresented groups, but like multiple underrepresented groups. And not only that, but like, recognize that you can be more than one thing. So you could be like a gay black man who is also disabled abroad, you know, and like being able to talk about those things in like an intersectional way versus like just checking off one box. I think it was rewarding to hear stories about people maybe even traveling to the same place. Cause my experience in Jordan, it's very different than a colleague of mine that looks different than me. And so I think having those parallels and having those stories heard side by side are really important. Having the opportunity for people to talk about that candidly and openly, but in a way that was like, I learned a lot and I would go back.

Vanessa Diaz

Um, and here's what I can give you, uh, I think was really refreshing. And um, yeah, I think, uh, pat ourselves on the back, I think we did a good job in that aspect. As the person who put out everything you saw having to do with the conference was like trying to effectively, effectively communicate and reach our audience, um, on a virtual platform, which means like building a website that works, that's functional, that tells a story. Um, having, reaching the panelists that we wanted to, reaching the audience. And to some degree we definitely reached it because the fact, there was so many faculty involved that came out in, that, um, attended. So for me, a personal goal was like, is our intent aligned with our design aligned with, like, the reaching goal. And I think, there's always room for improvement, but we did an okay job (laughs).

Dr. Pandora White

going to Ghana in the fall of:

Vanessa Diaz

I was a:

Vanessa Diaz

And I felt there was so much, um, a little, uh, a lot of ignorance and a lot of, um, I guess people didn't really care that I was so excited about the middle east. Um, at least my peers. And so I wanted to find another way to go back, then someone recommended me to go and apply for Fulbright. I, I only got it the second time I applied to Jordan. And then while I was in ETA, I was able to not only teach, but also like, um, do some pro bono design work. And now I work for the LGBT community center in New York City as a digital and design coordinator.

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

alian opera in PISA, Italy in:

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

But just some of the projects that I did with my, uh, students, um, taking them to visit the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur. We published a really cool Malaysian American poetry recipe book, uh, where we collaborated with, um, my student, my former students here in the states, as well as the students in Malaysia. And so we have this really cool book of just their favorite, the points are about their favorite foods and, uh, their favorite recipes. Um, but it just really changed my trajectory. I came back to the states and, um, was like, I'll see you all in the K through 12 arena at another time, all of my students, I pray to God that you make it (laughs) to college because that's where I will be seeing you all. And so, um, I'm currently at Howard University working on my PhD in higher education with a focus on internationalization at HBCUs, historically black colleges and universities. And outside of the classroom, I'm all about increasing students and HBCU students, um, knowledge and awareness about government funded, internationally exchange programs.

Vanessa Diaz

oth alumni ambassadors in the:

Dr. Pandora White

So when I knew I needed a new team, I reached out to the Nelson, was like, "Yo, you wanna do this?" And she was like, "Okay." So then I had to find at least two or three other people. So I said, I think Ashleigh might be a good try, we'll see. She's doing so much with her life. (Laughs). So I asked her, and she was like, "Okay, I guess I'll try it." (Laughs). And then the other two, uh, who aren't here, I actually found Shawn, he's a Gilman, and I met him on Facebook. And just was like, "Hey, I'm looking for somebody to help me with this project. Does anybody wanna do it?" So I posted it on one of the Gilman alumni groups, (laughs) and that's the team.

Dr. Pandora White

So for me, WeRepresent is essentially a letter to my younger self. And it is a letter telling me that I can do it. I was in high school and I for real was like, I'm gonna get to welding school. I'm gonna get a welding license. I'm gonna to go work on the boat and make a lot of money, and that's it. And somebody reached out to me and said, I mean, "You should go to college, give it a try." When I was in high school, and I'm first generation, I don't really know of anybody with advanced degrees. So at that time I just wanted to do what a lot of people did. I wanted to make money. So I went to college and I picked a random major, and said, "This sounds about right." Cause it was the only subject that I liked.

Dr. Pandora White

So then I'm in college and now I just know, you know, I have to graduate. But I was a very horrible student. I'm talking the worst. And, you know, part of it was, my school didn't really prepare me for college. It kind of but not for the college that I went to. So I get the college and I have to work to pay my tuition. So I had scholarships, I had loans, but my tuition was like almost $40,000. So I'm working and, you know, signing over my paycheck to the school. And I was like, I just want to graduate and be done with it. So I'm on academic probation. I'm about to get kicked out of school. And, you know, at that time I ended up finding trio programs. I transferred schools. I went and became a part of student support services in the Magnera Magneto scholars. And I pulled my GPA up.

Dr. Pandora White

And so at this point, the only goal I got is graduation. And I had heard about study abroad and I saw the price tag and I said, you know, I don't have $10,000, $5,000. I can barely afford to be in school. And that's when they told me about Gilman. And so I applied for Gilman. I go to Ghana and, you know, it was my first time on an airplane. Is my first time seeing a bus, like a city bus. That was, you know, is life-changing. 

Having the opportunity to tell people this story or share other stories that all are different, but all means that you needed to have someone there, that first contact to get you on that path. And so having the opportunity to do that for students is important. And also for those faculty and staff that wanna help students, but don't know how. And so that is what WeRepresent is to me. What I wanna say about mentors, is that mentors are important, but sometimes you're gonna need more than one mentor, right? So if you have a team of mentors, the support team where it feels-

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

I came here to this like, okay, we can get more, um, outreach and recruitment to our HBCUs. You know, sometimes we have to really build those relationships with people. And so while this year we had some HBCU, um, students and faculty attend the conference, hopefully next year, you know, we've been around, we have some, we have some proof that (laughs) we've done some work and so next year, hopefully we can really hone in and get more, um, HBCU students to attend. And also predominantly black institutions. Because a lot of times we, we, you know, I, I didn't think about this in the beginning, but I'm like they're and they're also, um, mostly a majority community college institutions. And so that would hit, definitely hit, uh, more than one of our goals. (Silence).

Vanessa Diaz

I think for me, um, what this means for me is bringing the message that you don't, like, that these programs, these government exchange programs aren't for elite, you know, they're not for the top, um, either a super academic or just a certain group of people. Anyone can apply to these programs, right? Um, within the e- eligibility standards. But I just want to like, make sure that anyone that has ever been told, like they're not worthy or they're not smart enough, or like they're not meant for those programs, that would just feel out casted. That could feel that they have something to bring to the table. Basically, just being able to tell people that they can apply too.

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

Um, I went to Talladega College, which is a small private liberal arts HBCU. And so in undergrad, I had no clue about international exchange programs. And so I didn't even apply or know about Fulbright until my master's program. And so, um, I was intentional on when I got some Malaysia, I re- recognized that there were a 100 people in my cohort. Two of us were from HBCUs and only about 10 of us were black and or mixed identity with black. And I was like, oh, we have to change this. But so, I think it's that knowledge and awareness piece. I can't expect someone to apply for these programs if they don't know about these programs or that they exist.


Dr. Pandora White

Did we meet our goals? Was there anything, uh, that was surprising? We really only had two big goals. To have at least 10 alumni speak and to have 275 people attend the conference. And so we met both of those goals. And I think what was surprising and what we didn't think about before, was the number of, uh, faculty members that wanted to learn more for their students. And so now we're thinking, uh, bi-modally, so when we do outreach to purp- uh, to purposely look at things to help advisors and help students. So I think that was the change.

Vanessa Diaz

I did have a few people that pushed me for sure. Um, I will say I've always been interested in traveling, but the first time I went abroad, um, as a study abroad with Gilman, I didn't know what Gilman was. So the person in the national scholarship office was kind of like leading the way and guiding me. She was fabulous. Um, and she helped me through that essay, and writing is definitely not my strong suit. So there was a lot of writing workshops and stuff, a lot of guiding all the way. And, um, yeah, if it hadn't been for those people, I probably wouldn't have been pushed as hard.

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

Mentorship is, is a really big thing. Uh, for me, it started with my family. My grandmother was educator. I did have this one professor who, she still supports me to this day. She wrote my first, uh, she wrote, wrote my recommendation letter for both of my Fulbright applications. And then when I got to Morgan State, I never thought about doing like a PhD program. But when I was working on my masters, those professors there, w- we will be in class and they'll be like, "When are you all applying for the PhD program? When are you thinking about doing X, Y, and Z?" And so that aid, that instinct, you know, pushed me to go further. But also when I told them that I was interested in, uh, the Fulbright program, they supported it a 100%. 

Vanessa Diaz

My favorite part of the WeRepresent conference was the identity panels. We had a bunch, some of them on LGBTQ, uh, being black, indigenous, or a person of color, and or person with disabilities abroad. Um, I thought I learned a lot from those panels and hearing the panelists.

Ashleigh Brown-Grier

So my favorite part of the WeRepresent conference was Lynita Burger's, um, speech. It re- resonated with me, um, and especially with, um, in my area of international education. So that was-

Dr. Pandora White

And my favorite part of the conference was the networking sessions. All the networking sessions, we essentially did a speed dating version of networking. So you were matched with someone one-on-one and you had the opportunity to just talk to them for five minutes and you can extend it or whatever. So we had two different sessions. We had one for faculty and staff and one for students. And so I told, you know, the team, let's also pop in on some of those sessions, so we can, uh, talk to people and see, you know, firsthand how they feel.