Category Archives: The Big Picture

Do You Know Which Famous African-Americans Studied Abroad?

February is Black History Month in the United States. Did you know it is observed in some places in Germany, too? Several groups of Afro-Europeans have gotten together to celebrate and commemorate the contributions people of African descent have made to the world, as well as to spotlight ongoing issues of discrimination and exclusion still plaguing German society. The most notable celebrations are in Hamburg and Berlin – feel free to check out the flavor of the activities planned outside the USA for BHM 2013!

Getting back to the States and the topic of this site, though, I was very excited and inspired to discover an article by Megan Lee entitled, “20 Famous African Americans Who Studied Abroad“. Megan’s article provides as quick list of some well-known African-Americans – representing different segments of public life – who spent time studying abroad from mid-20th century.

The list includes some names that come as no surprise:

  • Katherine Dunham (dancer, choreographer)
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. (educator, scholar)
  • Paul Robeson (singer, actor)

to name just a few. Most inspiring to me, however, were the names of people I had no idea spent time expanding their scope of experience outside the borders of the USA.

How she could have neglected to add Angela Davis, though, is a mystery to me!


Merry Christmas!

Frohes Weihnachtsfest!

Nadolig Llawen!

Prettige Kerstfest!

Joyeux Noel!

Srozhdestvom Kristovym!

Feliz Navidad!

Kala Christouyenna!

Glædelig Jul!

Barka da Kirsimatikuma Barka da Sabuwar Shekara!

Feliz Natal!

Hyvaa joulua!

Rehus-Beal-Ledeats!

E ku odun, e ku iye’dun!

Sung Tan Chuk Ha!


Things to Know When Traveling Abroad

Clutch online magazine has really picked up the baton when it comes to encouraging African-American women to travel abroad more. Just a few days ago writer Arielle Loren added a new article called, “10 This You Should Know When Traveling Abroad” to the numerous articles that have been posted over the last few weeks.

In addition to the very useful tips included in that article, here are a few I would also recommend people consider.

First, where simple logistics are concerned:

  • If you plan to use public transportation, and there are schedules/maps online, familiarize yourself with the system before you leave, so you know how to find your way around “like a local” when you arrive
  • If you are using taxis, make sure you understand pricing practices in the cities/countries you are visiting. In some places it’s really important to agree a price *before* you get started or the driver can literally charge you whatever astronomical fee he fancies!
  • If you are taking prescription medication, not only take enough with you to last you while you’re gone. Also take a copy of the prescription and/or the name of that medication in the countries to which you’ll be traveling.
  • Don’t forget to get a local SIM card for your cell phone and/or an international calling card to save money on calls home (and be prepared in an emergency)

On a more social note, think about the following:

  • Reach out to an expat or local blogger and build up a relationship with them before you leave home. That will give you a touch point when you hit the ground.
  • Consider contacting local student or professional organizations before you leave, if you’d like to do a little networking while you’re on the road. Check out their online event calendars before leaving home and/or consider sharing your expertise by offering to do a presentation, etc., on a relevant topic for them while you’re there.
  • Contact a local middle/high school if you are willing give a short presentation and field questions from kids interested in the States/learning English/becoming exchange students, etc.

What are the tips you’d add?


If (Job) Opportunity Knocked…

…would you hear it?

Like many others around the world, I’ve been following the international coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement in America. I’ve also read many of the personal stories people are sharing about their struggles in the face of the current economy. While lighting a spark to re-think (and hopefully re-create) the structures that have America’s economy in a choke-hold is a high priority, for many the more immediate need is to – finally – find suitable and sustainable employment.

This is true for many Americans, of course, but as a group African-Americans (and other minorities) are especially hard hit!

For some people the global marketplace can offer the advantage of  qualified employment opportunities. That’s why I would recommend that any job-seekers who are able to look beyond their local employment listings actively seek  the challenge of a position abroad. In addition to insuring a much-needed regular pay check,  working outside the U.S.  can provide you with other career-related benefits:

  • a unique perspective on your particular field
  • an opportunity to increase your intercultural acumen
  • contact, contact, contacts

Add to that the turbo-boost to your personal development, and it can be a very enticing package!

The most recent edition of blackexpat.com paints an extremely vivid portrait of one woman’s sojourn into the world of international employment. Although Dr. Andrea Stith visited France during high school

She got her first chance as a freshman in high school where she went on a school trip to France and was (horrors!) able to drink wine as a minor. She visited Paris, Nice, and the Swiss border and loved it.

she missed out on the opportunity to study abroad during university

she never took advantage of her college’s summer abroad program to her regret. Having missed that experience, she vowed to compensate later. “My undergrad university had a fantastic study abroad program, which I didn’t pause to take part in. I regretted it always, and really made travel a personal priority…but I finally decided in my mid-30’s that it was time to move abroad.

By the time she was 30, however, she wanted to make good on her commitment to live and work abroad. Now an assistant professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University, Dr. Stith is among the growing number of African-Americans enhancing their CVs and enriching their lives by accepting the challenge of living abroad.

Click to read more about Dr. Stith and her take on living and working in China.

Obviously, working abroad isn’t the answer for everyone. Other countries are also suffering from the fall-out of the current global crisis, and in order to take advantage of available international opportunities, you must have a skill set that is both relevant and transferable.

However, if you’re willing to think creatively when it comes to defining your areas of expertise, as well as defining the geography of your search, you may just find a door to opportunity opening that you never knew existed!


What’s Holding YOU Back?

So, you’ve been living vicariously through tales from fellow students, blogs you’ve found on the internet or this site, but you still haven’t made a commitment to studying abroad.

I’d be interested in knowing what’s holding you back!

Everyone’s story is different, but so are the solution that are available. By sharing with me why you haven’t been able to realize your dream of studying in a foreign country, you can help me pull together more resources to help you – and other African-American students like you – think outside the proverbial box when it comes to creatively developing a plan to get your passport and get you onto a plane!


Safety First

I just finished my second info call with special guest, Sienna Miller, who is a Rutgers University senior who spent a semester studying in South Africa. One of the things Sienna mentioned was the warning her group received during their orientation with regards to personal safety.

One of the main worries of any parent when sending their child off to study in a foreign country is the specter of violence and crime. For black parents add the additional fear of racism/racially motivated violence.

Within the last few weeks two European situations have hit the headlines all over the world that must there send chills down the spine of any parent whose child is now abroad:

Both of these situations have decidedly racial overtones, though each in a different way.

Although we can never be 100% safe, Sienna brought up some interesting points when she talked about her own safety measures while living in South Africa. In a nutshell:

  • She admitted that the level of violence on her campus wasn’t any higher than she experienced at home, but realized being American (and therefore theoretically more affluent) made her a likely target of certain types of crimes
  • The most unsettling factor was knowing you would be far from home and the support of loved ones if something happened
  • Reasonable due diligence and a strong dose of common sense are often enough to keep you out of harm’s way

As my guest on the first info call, Tecla Robinson, spent her time abroad in London, she will be weighing in with her take on the violence that erupted there in the coming week.


Hej från Sverige! (Hello from Sweden!)

Although I’ve lived in Europe for more than 30 years, there are still European countries I haven’t visited. Sweden is one of them. I admit to being  fairly unmotivated when it comes to discovering Scandinavia, but every place can’t be for everybody. I’ve heard wonderful things about all of the Scandinavian countries, but – with the exception of a few business meetings in Copenhagen – have never spent any significant amount of time there.

That obviously doesn’t mean that Scandinavia isn’t an interesting place for African-American students to explore, so I was particularly happy to encounter an article called “20 Things To Know Before Moving to Sweden” by Lola Akinmade-Åkerström, who is a Stockholm-based freelance writer and photographer!

Many of the 20 facts she mentions were either new to me or their significance wasn’t completely clear before reading her breakdown. Along with interesting factoids concerning customs and rituals in everyday life, here are a few that seem particularly relevant for anyone planning to do more than spend just a few weeks in Sweden as a tourist.

re Language:

You can probably get by with English for decades, but…

Chances are you can live in Sweden for years without learning a lick of Swedish. That’s because many Swedes are fluent in English and are always happy to switch so they can practice their English on you. This means it might take you longer to properly learn the language, and the Catch-22 is that fluency in Swedish is crucial to full integration.

Signing up for SFI (Swedish For Immigrants) — which is free and provided by the Swedish National Agency for Education — could be a step in the right direction.

re Education and Health Care:

Not all education and healthcare is free

Contrary to popular belief, not all healthcare and education is free, a common misconception many foreigners hold about Sweden’s subsidized social system.

As of autumn 2011, Swedish universities will charge students who are not citizens of the EU, EEA or Switzerland. The universities set their own fees, which will mostly vary between SEK 80,000-140,000 per academic year, depending on the subject. Fees for medicine and art programs will be even higher.

While healthcare is heavily subsidized by the Swedish government and taxpayers, don’t be surprised if you’re required to pay a few hundred crowns for a visit to the doctor. For routine doctor’s office visits, the maximum amount you may have to pay out of pocket for an entire year is SEK 900 (SEK 1,800 for prescription drugs).

Considering that works out to roughly USD 145 per year (USD 290 for drugs), that’s a lot less than what many new residents have to pay in their home countries.

re Gender Equality:

Daddies pushing strollers

When it comes to equality between the sexes, Sweden is one of the leaders, and men here definitely pull their own weight in staying home and raising infant children.

Couples are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave, and this time can be shared between parents. So you’ll often find new fathers with parked strollers and babies strapped to their chests, having lunch and fika dates with other dads.

re Code of (Public) Conduct:

Try keeping it “lagom”

There is a societal code of conduct in Sweden which really has no direct translation in English. Loosely translated, the word “lagom” means “just enough,” “in moderation,” “appropriate,” and other synonyms you can pull out of the dictionary. When used in reference to societal behavior, it means blending in appropriately without extreme displays of emotion.

re “Green” Living:

Keep that plastic bag

Before you toss out that plastic bag, you may want to reconsider. Most grocery stores will charge you a few kronor for plastic or paper bags in an effort to keep waste low and encourage recycling. Sweden is one of the most eco-friendly countries on Earth, and its capital Stockholm was awarded the European Green Capital distinction in 2010 which recognizes exemplary recycling and sustainability efforts.

~~

To find out more about expat life in Sweden from a Black perspective, also check out Adrianne George‘s StockholmExpat.Com, including the article series “Nice things happen to me in Sweden“.


Racism Abroad: Less? Or Just…Different?

Over on racialicious.com, guest contributor Sonita Moss wrote an interesting article about what she perceives to be the scapegoating of America on the international stage where racism is concerned.

 He smoothly side-stepped my question and turned the focus to America’s racism. Because America is a popular topic in the media, the nightly French news frequently reported breaking American news. Thus, the world beyond our borders is informed of how race issues are part and parcel to American culture.

Although I agree with a lot of what she has to say – and also applaud her nuanced take on her experiences abroad – there were some issues I believe she assessed from a distinctly American perspective. A perspective that she seems to forget is not shared by the people she is referencing. For example, she notes:

I noticed, with a certain amount of chagrin, that many Europeans of color refer to their privileged compatriots as the standard of that country, while they are specifically marked by their race. “English” are white, but English blacks are, well, black.

By drawing the national line in the sand in black and white, so to speak,  (or rather: in white and “other”), the author is reverting back to a decidedly American dichotomy.

  • Both Europeans and Africans/Afro-Caribbeans, for example, when referring to themselves are more prone to see their nationality or other more specific ethnic allegiances as being their most significant identifier – not their skin color. This doesn’t mean that anyone denies being black (or white, for that matter), it just means that being Jamaican or Nigerian  or English or French( which are also ethnicities, and not just nationalities!) carries more immediate weight.
  • In contrast to the USA, which was officially established as a nation of immigrants from the very beginning, European countries only began their modern discourse on immigration in the latter half of the last century. Until then, there was no significant influx of non-European immigrants. (I am purposely not addressing the question of Judaism/The Pogroms in this context)
  • Unlike blacks in America, many immigrants still have a direct sense of allegiance to their (parents’) countries of origin. Where American blacks understandably only have a vague notion of where we come from in Africa, and therefore no specific point of reference outside of the US, immigrants often still have very real ties to another country and culture.

Take all three of these facts into account, and you see that grappling with the question of “Who is or is not (insert name of relevant European country here)” is a much newer challenge in Europe than it is in America.

Amazed at the utter whiteness of the venue, one night I asked my friend, “Do you ever notice that there are essentially no black people here – why is that?”

In a country like the U.S. where African-Americans make up about 13 % of the population, there are obviously areas in the country where the presence of black people is quite strong, though it’s certainly not true everywhere in the country. Anyone living in the States knows about the rich heritage of places like Harlem or that Washington D.C. is often referred to as “Chocolate City” or the dynamic atmosphere of the Southern mecca “Hotlanta”.  In comparison, the black population in European countries* is often in the (very low!) single digits. For example, approximately:

  • 2,9% in England
  • 2,8% in the Netherlands

Although these number are not only supplemented by black students and refugees (and tourists!), as well as other people of color (including those that identify as mixed race/bi-racial), it’s easy to see why it would be unrealistic to expect to find many cities across Europe with thriving black communities similar to those in Chicago, Philadelphia or Atlanta!

Obviously, it’s this “critical mass” of descendants of slaves united by the common link of oppressive racism in the United States that has propelled black Americans through the Civil Rights Era to where we are today. It’s why we have

  • a certain degree of political representation,
  • legal recourse against discrimination, and
  • increased visibility in the media,

and – indeed – a black president!

BUT: It’s taken us more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War to get here. By comparison, it’s hardly been 60 years that Europe threw off the yoke of Nazism.

As before, I strongly encourage all people of color to travel or live abroad, if it is feasible. Just know that the racial ‘baggage’ you take with you will be greeted with a brand-new, dare I say it, exotic version: racism exists abroad, you know, just not as bad as it is in America.

I wouldn’t say racism in Europe is not as bad, I’d say it’s simply different. How you ask?

That’s a post for another day!

~~

(Due to data protections laws, however, it’s impossible to get an accurate statistic for the number of Afro-France or Afro-Germans, as in those countries it is illegal to specify the race of German citizens on government documents and statistics.)


Have We Already Missed The Boat?

I usually spend an hour in the morning checking out interesting articles online. I have a number of “go-to” English, German and Dutch sites that I check, and often share my most interesting finds on Facebook or Twitter.

Today’s hot topic seems to be the American education system: how it ranks internationally and compares to what it used to be.

I hope all of you have heard of Ursula Burns.

She is the 1st African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company in America. “Xerox CEO Ursula Burns Is ‘Panic Stricken’ About U.S. Students’ Ability to Compete” outlines how Burns – using her signature no-holds-barred style of communication – sat down for an interview with  CNN’s Soledad O’Brien to talk about the ever-widening gap between the qualifications corporations are looking for in new hires and the skills and experience graduates actually bring to the table.

There are two quotes that jumped right out at me. First:

In John Stossel‘s “Stupid in America” feature, Stossel states that 76 percent of American parents are not happy with their child’s school.  When Stossel compared the kids at an above-average high school in New Jersey with kids in Belgium, the American children were handily dismantled and even referred to as “stupid” by the Belgium children.  When 15-year-old American children were tested against 40 other nations, American kids ranked 25th.

Even the better American high schools are not positioned to academically challenge foreign exchange students. The quality of the schools in Germany, for example, has suffered considerably between the time I was an exchange student here (1972), and when my own children were in school (the 1990’s). However, my daughter still experienced the same phenomenon the year she spent at a suburban Pennsylvania high school. It’s also something I heard  time and time again during the hundreds of interviews I conducted with young applicants as Head of Human Resources Development for a top Germany advertising agency network.

Despite the additional burden of taking classes in a foreign language, when it comes to the actual school work, exchange students often consider their year in the States to be a veritable academic breeze compared to the rigorous curriculum to which they are accustomed. Many German schools don’t recognize that high school year abroad academically. However, young people are still encouraged (and eager) to participate just to broaden their intercultural horizons and add an additional highlight to their burgeoning resumès.

Although international scholastic rankings are published regularly, am I wrong to think that many American students – and their parents – may still not understand the implications  status quo can have on their future? Now that the world functions as a global marketplace, Americans are being forced to deal with a situation where they are no longer in the driver’s seat job-wise:

“We can find better candidates in other nations and other places than we can here.”

THEN: Increased mechanization in many sectors has already cost American workers the bulk of the well-paid production-related “blue collar” jobs. These have gone to workers in developing countries where labor costs (among other things) are considerably lower!

NOW: Our students don’t excel academically in international comparison. Therefore, in a world where corporations are no longer limited to only hiring local staff, ever more “white collar” jobs will also be migrating to where employees are both better educated and cheaper to employ!

How can more African-American student safeguard against being caught in the grip of this job drain? By being more aware of developments on a global level and positioning themselves to take up the challenge that this expanded playing field presents!

~~

Recommended articles:


Black Women Working Abroad – Germany

In an effort to maintain some control over my personal brand, I admit that I will “google” my own name (as well as the name of my company and projects) at regular intervals. It’s interesting to see how some of my activities rank online, but even more interesting to see where unexpected – or “unauthorized” – mentions pop up.

It was during one such search today, that I came upon an interview I had forgotten I’d given Carolyn Vines for her blog, Black and (A)Broad. In this interview – which focuses on my experiences as a black American woman working abroad – this particular question and my answer reflect some of the intercultural difference you must be aware of if you are planning to work abroad:

What are two main differences between the German work ethic and the American? What about differences in the work setting? What about salaries?

I think both countries have a similar work ethic, but it’s manifested in different ways.

Americans are quicker to get things done, and take into stride more easily that there might well need to be course corrections along the way. Germans focus more on getting things done right, which often means they are slower out of the starting block than their American colleagues.

Americans believe in working a lot. With the loosely meshed social support system, Americans work more hours/multiple jobs in order to achieve more (bigger homes, number of automobiles, etc.), but with comparatively less security. Germans, on the other hand, believe in working hard and playing hard, which explains the relatively long vacation time here (and other parts of Europe) compared to in the States. Though things are changing, they also profit from a tighter social support system.

American office culture is generally more informal. People tend to address each other by their first names and are more collegial. In contrast, the office culture in Germany (still) tends to be more formal. People more often refer to one another as Mr./Mrs., and use the formal “Sie” as opposed to the informal “du” to address people.

More American women work outside the home. In many cases it’s a necessity, but there is also a social trend that encourages mothers to work. As a result, there are also more women in high(er) positions. Significantly fewer German mothers work. The availability of decent childcare is limited, making full-time employment difficult if a good support network is lacking. Although the number of women who (have to) work is rising, there is still a strong belief that it’s better for the development of (small) children if there is one parent in the home as primary caregiver.

It’s hard to compare salaries, simply because different industries have different standards. Overall I would say that Americans have a greater sense (also: need) of job mobility and therefore – in some areas – greater chances to increase their income. Germans in general have more benefits (healthcare, job contracts, etc.).

Click to read the complete interview on Carolyn’s blog!