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  • Writer's pictureDanielle G.

Episode 39 │ Don't Let Them Tell You No (FRANCE/S. KOREA/ENGLAND)

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

photos courtesy of Nailah Brown

"I feel like I'm a very smart person but I'm not a good student. I do well when I'm inspired... Don't let people tell you 'no'. Literally, don't let them tell you no." (Nailah, Episode 39)

Apparently Nailah Brown and I were students at Michigan State University at overlapping times and were in similar circles on campus, but we didn't get to become acquainted until earlier this year. I'd ended up following her on Instagram (Nailah uses her account to post her own modeling and blogging content), and was vaguely aware of who she was. At some point I noticed that her Instagram bio mentioned her being from Detroit, living previously in France and South Korea, and currently living in the U.K. So I sent her a message introducing myself as a fellow Spartan and inviting her to be a guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad, and here we are today.

Growing up in Detroit, Nailah was exposed to other languages at a young age. She attended an elementary school that required students to take three years of German before having the option to take three years of French, which Nailah was seriously looking forward to. Perhaps she was influenced by the animated film 'Anastasia' ("Pah-ree holds the key to your heart!"), she's not sure, but she remembers wanting to learn French and even be French since she was a child. She changed elementary schools before she got the chance to take those French classes, but she did eventually start studying French in high school and continued through college, making French her minor to accompany her major in psychology.

photos courtesy of Nailah Brown

Nailah originally had no desire to study abroad, believing that it was a waste of money. But her college roommate was frequently in her ear about how studying abroad was her dream, and Nailah became thoroughly aware of what programs were available through her job at MSU's international student office, which shared space with the study abroad office. What truly convinced her, however, is when she got to 300-level French classes and realized that while she got passing grades on the written work, she couldn't really understand what her professors were saying. This was followed by the realization that most of her classmates didn't have the same issue as her because they had already studied in France. She felt like if she was going to take French seriously and understand what was going on in class, she needed to study in France too. At the time MSU offered two main options: doing an internship in Paris, or studying French three hours southwest of Paris in the town of Tours (the same program that Nyasha from episode 3 did). Since her proficiency needed improvement she was advised to go to Tours, and so she went in the summer of 2012.

For Nailah, going to France meant that her childhood dream had come true. Though now she advises people not to go to France with too many preconceived notions, she recalls her time there being everything she'd dreamed of and more. In addition to classes at Institut de Touraine, her French improved immensely through day-to-day activities like frequenting a favorite panini shop and meeting French people while hanging out with fellow MSU students at La Guinguette, a summer open-air bar on the banks of the Loire River. Thanks to her program and her best friend who happens to be from Tours, Nailah also got to visit other parts of France. These included Paris, towns around Tours, Limoges, Montpellier, and elsewhere in the south of France.

photos courtesy of Nailah Brown

Her time in France gave Nailah the travel bug, and the recent boom in travel content on Instagram just made her want to go somewhere else even more. Through her proximity to the study abroad office she heard about the option of teaching English abroad, and she learned that teaching in Asia pays the most. She graduated in 2013, and after not being selected for a teaching program in Japan, she was hired by EPIK (English Teaching in Korea, the same program that Ande from episode 22 first moved to Korea with). EPIK placed Nailah in Wontong, a military town that is near the North Korean border. For a year she taught 30 third-graders who were all children of either military personnel or farmers. She generally followed the townspeople's lead, so if they didn't seem alarmed by the presence of tanks or helicopters, for the most part neither was she. She was paid well and had a lot of free time in Wontong, but the Korean government was starting to cut budgets and limit how many foreign English teachers could be in a school, and her job basically disappeared. As an aspiring model, it had been difficult for her to pursue modeling due to the time and distance it took commuting to and from Seoul, and since her job was gone anyway, she got a different teaching job with a private school and moved to Namyangju.

Now that she was close to Seoul, Nailah thought she'd have more time to pursue modeling, but the school she worked for was exploitative so she actually worked more hours for less pay than she did in Wontong. She made friends with other teachers and foreigners and even took up pole dancing to relieve stress, but eventually enough was enough. Plus, she felt like she'd grown enough to not need teaching English as a safety net from the full responsibility of "adulthood" anymore, which is what many expats use the job for. So after a year in Namyangju and two years in Korea total, Nailah returned to the States and got started on working toward her next dream: graduate school in London.

Not done exploring yet

After three years of researching programs that she thought she'd be passionate enough about to pursue a Master's degree in, Nailah landed on the "psychological and psychiatric anthropology MSc" program at Brunel University in London. It's the only degree of its kind in the world. Using her five years of multi-faceted work experience since graduating in 2013, she advocated for herself to be given a fair shot after the university at first tried to reject her application based on her GPA from undergrad, which was only slightly below the minimum requirement. The admissions people listened to her, she got a Skype interview with the department, and she was ultimately accepted. Her program started in September 2018 and goes until December 2019. It took a lot of time, money, and stress for her to get situated, and when we spoke in April of this year she still wasn't sure how she felt about London yet.

As for her aspirations, Nailah started pursuing psychology because she wants to help people, and so she is strongly leaning toward working for the United Nations or in some similar capacity after her current studies. Ideally, she would like to work with immigrant and refugee populations, and/or work in another country altogether. She continues to put a lot of thought and planning into her Instagram account, and though she feels like a "small fish in a big ocean" when it comes to the modeling industry in London, she hopes to keep putting herself out there and eventually get gigs. After completing her Master's degree, she hopes to spend a year living in France to finally become fluent in the language, and then spend a year in Japan becoming conversationally fluent in Japanese. She'd like to give Africa and Latin America a try as well. Suffice it to say that she's not done exploring yet. Nailah can be found on Instagram (@nailahbisou) or via her modeling portfolio (here).

Be sure to listen to this episode, "Don't Let Them Tell You No (FRANCE/S. KOREA/ENGLAND)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!


Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at The music in this episode is by ProleteR.



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