API Staff Profile- Octavia

Meet Octavia, API’s Experiential Program Coordinator. She works with Teach, Work, and Volunteer programs in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the South Pacific, as well as with Internships in Asia, Spain, and the South Pacific.

I can’t really put a finger on when I first became obsessed with travel but I will share what personally fuels my desire to go abroad and appreciate the world around me.

Shortly after my father met my mother in Texas and before he knew my mother conceived me, he was offered an opportunity to teach Tex-Mex cuisine to English chefs in London. My parents parted ways before he traveled abroad to work, but shortly after he arrived in London he heard I was to be born. With the news of my birth he gave up his dreams of living abroad to return to the U.S. and raised me with my step-mother in South Carolina, where our families hail from. He inspires me to travel because without the sacrifice of his dreams, I would have never had the opportunity to follow my own dreams. He was always the person who built me up and told me I could do whatever I set my heart to do or become. I travel for him, and for his memory, because he is no longer with me in this lifetime; may he rest in peace. When I was younger I always thought this story was fabricated to make me smile, but I have a photo of him London and I keep his passport in my memory box.

My first trip abroad was with EF Tours to Spain, France, and Italy for two weeks with my high school Spanish club. Walking around in Madrid after a horribly delayed flight out of Washington D.C. was akin to opening up new good book for the first time. The magical novelty of being in a new location, especially in locations as lively and beautiful as the cities I visited for a few days in Europe, was enough to convince me that travel is a necessity for wholeness in my life. When I returned home I had difficulty articulating how I had changed, but knew I had to travel again to see if I could then find words.

 

Travels in Europe – first time to Rome!

Travels in Europe – first time to Rome!

The next location I visited truly shaped who I have blossomed into. After my freshman year in college, I spent a summer in Xiamen, China studying statistics for a degree in Biology that I was non-committal about earning. While in China, I vowed to learn Mandarin (still am learning) and to discover a different collegiate discipline that I would be proud to study. My sophomore year I adopted Anthropology, Asian Studies and Mandarin/Chinese studies, which led to my next abroad adventure: ethnographic research of tourism in Thailand.

Before traveling to China, I was in a very critical, calculated mindset of using that opportunity to earn a good grade in an “exotic” place and to cross a class off of my major required courses list. Little did I know about how personally affecting traveling for longer periods of time can be. While learning how to balance my studies with free time, I was able experience a level of anonymity unknown to me at home. Not that I lived my freshman year of college aiming to be alone, but there’s just something freeing about taking a train alone in a different country and hoping that you’ll end up where you think you’re going (especially when you have no knowledge of the local language). Travel is wonderful for the soul because it facilitates introspection on a level that is achieved outside of the familiar/your comfort zone.

 

Tree pose (or something like it) on a rock in the botanical gardens on campus, Xiamen University (厦门大学)

Tree pose (or something like it) on a rock in the botanical gardens on campus, Xiamen University (厦门大学)

 

In China the hardest thing for me to adjust to was being stared at and touched by everyone. Being African-American, my deep brown skin color really stood out in a country where more than 90% the population is homogeneously Han Chinese ethnically. I would have people come up to touch my skin and hair which made me extremely self-conscious for the first few weeks. One day while walking through a park to my favorite bakery an elderly woman and man stopped me to speak to me. Or rather to seize me – depends on how you look at it. The lady tightly griped my face to pull me close to her and spoke to me in Mandarin inches from my face. My eyes were wide with shock as I watched her appraise me by running her hands through my hair and pinching my cheeks. By the time this happened I knew enough adjectives to pick up that the elderly man casually standing next to us called me beautiful. And then the two of them simply walked away from me…. Some days I felt like a celebrity because strangers would take pictures of me when they thought I wasn’t looking and other times I felt I was being ridiculed. In Thailand I had similar yet less extreme experiences; ultimately I have learned that I am unique in ways that I don’t appreciate on a day-to-day basis. I began to practice and embrace honest curiosity and cultural exchange.

Another encounter with strangers in China!

Another encounter with strangers in China!

 

Thailand was where I learned the beauty of traveling without a set itinerary and acquired the courage to travel absolutely independently. While in Europe and China, I was in a very structured environment with planned group travel, dinners and “cultural immersion” activities. However cultural anthropology is best conducted independently; the purpose of me going to Thailand was to learn how to conduct research for an ethnography. An ethnography can be described as a description and analysis of an aspect of culture, political practice, belief system or ethnic group. I learned so much about how subtle ethnocentricity (comparing other cultures to your own as a standard of normativity) shapes how we interact with others in our own countries and abroad. My professor challenged me in ways that I truly appreciate now. He would tell me that our next class would be held in a different city the next week and tell me to go find a way to get there. It seemed very harsh and scary at the time but now I feel I like I could find a way to travel anywhere.

In front of a small temple near Hua Hin in Thailand

In front of a small temple near Hua Hin in Thailand

 

My travels have shaped my career choices in invaluable ways. My experiences abroad have prepared me to step back from adversity to consider situations from multiple perspectives. I have also learned that encouraging others to travel in any capacity is my destiny. I want others to have the ability to experience the world and themselves in the same ways that I have been blessed to be able to. API enables me to fulfill my calling for travel advocacy. What I love most about my job is when I can speak about the places I have been to with API applicants and ease their trepidations about traveling. I want to be the catalyst to help travelers fulfill their travel dreams and goals; I will be that valuable resource. Thank you for reading and allowing me to share myself with you!”

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Comments

  1. Carla Gourdine says:

    As always, I remain so proud and inspired by the extraordinary woman into which you have blossomed. I guess you are still traveling in that “little purple car…learning your heart out.” I wish you the very best Octavia!

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