Episode 18 │ Connections, Connections (D.C./SRI LANKA)
Updated: May 4
"I really like connections and relationships more. Like don't get me wrong, I love learning things, but my favorite thing about experiences is the connection with people." (Gerena, Episode 18)
I met Gerena Walker toward the end of my time at Michigan State University, and I'm glad we've been able to keep in touch. We ran into each other at a going-away party years ago, she temped at my workplace for a short time, and there's always social media of course. She's studied abroad twice and studied away once, and she talked to me about these experiences and a lot in between.
First, Gerena spent two weeks in London where she participated in the study abroad component of a freshman writing class. The theme of the class was identity and community, specifically focusing on World War II and the impact it had on Britain and the U.S. She recalled that it felt more like a vacation with some academics than a rigorous learning experience, but she didn't mind that at all. She got along well with her classmates and greatly admired the expertise and thoughtfulness of her professor, plus she had always wanted to go to London anyway.
As she ventured further into her undergraduate career, Gerena became certain of two things: she wanted (needed) to work in educational policy, and she wanted (needed) to do her required field experience in Washington, D.C. She had always wanted to do something that saved people's lives, and until high school she thought she could achieve that by becoming a doctor. Not long before going to college, however, she developed a greater interest in politics, and a particularly low point that she experienced while in college showed her that she cared about people's quality of life even beyond physical health.
During freshman year, she had to temporarily withdraw due to health issues (Gerena has lupus, but wasn't diagnosed until after returning to school and after going to London). These issues caused her to become depressed and eventually reflect deeply on what love was, especially within the context of self-love and love expressed through service. Then, an early childhood memory of her teacher sending food home when her family was struggling brought to mind how much that one act helped Gerena care more and become more engaged in school. Even today she wholeheartedly believes that education can mobilize someone and affect their lives (as it did for her), and after that low point, educational policy became her passion. And she had already developed a great fondness for D.C. by that time, so she spent a semester there during the 2016 election season working as an intern at the U.S. Department of Education while also taking classes (study away).
After walking in her graduation ceremony in May 2018, Gerena did another study abroad program but this time in Sri Lanka, where she spent three weeks this summer studying political economy and agricultural development. That program was much more demanding than London, both physically (challenging hikes and temples with innumerable steps) and academically (expectations to regularly produce a lot of work even with occasionally limited resources). But Gerena had wanted to go to a nonwhite, developing country so that she could see what it was like for herself, outside of American perceptions and media bias. So she'd jumped at the chance to go to Sri Lanka, and said that her favorite part of it was getting to know Sri Lankan people and how nice they were to her.
"Relationships are important in the beginning, and not just when you need something."
Now that she's graduated, Gerena plans to move to Georgia early next year and later enroll at The University of Georgia to begin earning her Master's in Public Administration. She's quick to acknowledge the value of connections in both a professional and personal sense. From all the people she met while working in D.C., to the financial aid employees who helped her get the funding she needed, to the classmates and professors who accommodated her in London and Sri Lanka when she got tired and had to slow down (or even sit activities out), to the people she's hoping will admit her into her program of choice at UGA, etc. The relationships that Gerena has formed along the way have helped make all of these things possible. She likes to make sure she knows peoples names and that they know hers as early as possible, which makes her experiences more enjoyable and can work in her favor if she needs to ask for help later on. As she wisely stated to me, "Relationships are important in the beginning, and not just when you need something". Gerena can be reached on Facebook (Gerena Walker) and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Connections, Connections (D.C./SRI LANKA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Dr. Anna Pegler-Gordon (MSU James Madison College)
Study Away in D.C. info (MSU College of Social Science)
Study Away in D.C. info (MSU Department of Political Science)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.