Guest post by Byron L. Williams, International Affairs Professional
English as my mother tongue. Spanish when I was in my teens. Sesotho (native language from the African country of Lesotho) when I was in my early 20s. Ukrainian (one of the native languages from the European nation of Ukraine) when I was in my early 30s. These are all the languages I have learned in my life. What’s more important is: 1) why I chose to learn another language, 2) how it was made accessible to me, and 3) why language has played a key role in my personal and professional life.
Since attending my Las Vegas high school that was predominantly African American and Latino I had wanted to participate in a foreign exchange program to improve my Spanish. I told myself I was too busy grades 10 through 12 so it didn’t happen. Immediately after starting university I jumped into activities on-campus so it didn’t happen all the while still yearning to study abroad. I told myself, ‘that I was too tied to my organizations and clubs to break away from my scholarly duties and commitments’ in my secondary AND higher education experiences. In earnest, at both stages I didn’t know where to start since, while I was in high school and college, I didn’t have any friends who studied abroad or were excited about learning languages with the equivalent fervor.
My love of language has been as much about culture as it has been about access to culture since I started learning Spanish in 10th grade. Language has been my window into culture and this insight has set my personal and professional journey into international relations, foreign affairs, and most recently national security.
How many other countless high school students of color don’t know where to begin when it comes to wanting to explore another country through an educational route? How many college students of color know the path to becoming globally aware beyond the United States? And then how many know how to fund those opportunities, what the educational, career, and personal benefits are? Who to contact? What website to pore over? What questions to ask those who have attended such programs? And on top of that, I found out many times the decision for studying abroad or working abroad is a family decision so then that person has to help their family members understand and possibly be comfortable with their decision to leave the United States.
Because of that, I decided to create my ultimate grad school project around early exposure of international affairs opportunities (ranging from middle school to mid career professional) in communities of color. Perhaps if I would have known about the likes of Institute of International Education, Cultural Vistas, Council on Foreign Relations, or even made better use of my career services office in undergrad to point me in the right direction I would have studied abroad or determined my true career path much earlier.
What has intrigued me is by accessing language at an earlier age it made me much more aware of my surroundings beyond my immediate community and in addition, a culturally competent global citizen. In writing this I have discovered my current career path has been more about me asking questions and thinking critically instead of starting with the answer. I decided on my capstone focus because I’ve spoken to so many people and families of color who want to know about my experiences abroad as an: 1) African American in Africa and Europe, 2) African American male, 3) a person of color, 4) a mid-career person of color, 5) a young person of color, 6) a person of color from Las Vegas, 7) a person of color with no one else in my family having taken this journey before me, and more.
My research for my capstone also spurred me to learn more about the intertwining and dependent results of language acquisition such as: 1) the disparity of language immersion programs in communities of color, and also 2) the sociological weaving that can affect such things as poverty, health, career trajectory, upward mobility, code-switching, cultural competence, workforce development, and public health.
Throughout it all my passion for language, culture, foreign policy, and increasing access to these resources has always been ever-present in all that I’ve accomplished and how I want to contribute to stoking the interest of more people to consider viable career in international and foreign service.
Calling all middle and high school teachers and career guidance counselors
If you are interested in guiding youth of color towards opportunities that might not be often mentioned in their communities, this is for them!