Episode 40 │ A Blue Madagascar (ALL 7 CONTINENTS)
Updated: Sep 22
"You really do have it... I encourage everyone to apply, because you deserve to be there. And what you'll find is that, you're a lot higher than the bar. For real, for real." (Jo, Episode 40)
With Juneteenth (Young, Gifted and Abroad's first anniversary) approaching next week, we're rounding out this first year with our 40th episode! As such, this episode is special for a number of reasons. One, it features my former undergraduate classmate Jolisa (Jo) Brooks, who has been to all seven continents of the world. Two, we've reached 40 episodes! I can't believe I've interviewed 40 people for this podcast in the past year. And three, today's interview is one that I originally thought was a goner. Recorded in July 2018, technical issues during the recording made it so that Jo's voice could barely be heard, and not knowing how to "fix" it at the time, I concluded that the audio was unusable. But time and practice had me convinced earlier this year that I could try balancing out the recording to the best of my ability, and try I did. So while episode 40 is new, in a way this interview takes us back to the beginning of Young, Gifted and Abroad. Like I said, a very special episode indeed!
I met Jo Brooks during our first year at Michigan State University. We were part of a small cohort of Black girls in James Madison College, and Jo always stood out for being an ambitious person and an incredibly involved student on campus. A native of Detroit, she currently lives in Washington, D.C. training for her first assignment as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. And in those eight years between freshman year and now, she's managed to visit 26 countries and all 7 continents. It started with studying abroad in Madagascar during the summer after freshman year in 2012.
Like many well-written Black kids who care about social justice and are from where she's from, Jo was encouraged to become a lawyer and started college with every intention to go to law school afterward. She started developing an interest in environmental policy in freshman year, and while she wanted to study abroad, she knew that she didn't want her first time abroad to be in Europe. So the fisheries and wildlife department's biodiversity-focused program in Madagascar was right up her alley. She maintains that Madagascar is one of the most naturally beautiful places she's ever been, and it was her first time truly seeing the connection between environmentalism and humanism. For her, the environment is inextricable from systems like colonialism, capitalism, and even white supremacy, and over time she's become especially passionate about how environmental policy affects women, people of color, and the African diaspora. She decided to concentrate her studies on political theory and science policy.
Next came China in 2013, during the spring break of her sophomore year. As an RA (resident assistant), Jo was among six RAs sent to visit Beijing universities and see how MSU could better adapt its campus for a recent influx of international students from China. Though she wasn't getting paid to be there (MSU foot the bill but it was technically a study trip), to her it felt like a work trip. In addition to learning about China outside of a classroom, she and her fellows acted in a diplomatic capacity through meeting and observing local university presidents and trustees. She recalls being impressed by how deftly ancient and modern meet in China, and how accessible certain areas are thanks to signage and labeling in multiple languages.
In the 2014 summer between junior and senior year, Jo went on a corporate tour of Europe that was organized by MSU's business and engineering schools. Over one month the group visited notable sights and corporate headquarters in England, Italy, Luxembourg, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. This trip exposed her to the global market and got her thinking about what place environment-related policy and activism have in the business realm. During this time, she became interested in corporate social responsibility and even met the company that would later be her first employer after college.
Then, for winter break of senior year Jo went to Argentina and Antarctica with MSU's residential school of natural sciences. Her group spent a month studying a combination of botany, zoology, conservation, forestry, and geology, spending a week in the southern city of Ushuaia and the rest of the time in Antarctica. Her dramamine patch proved to be no match for the rough waters of the Drake Passage, but after arriving on the frozen continent she had wonderful time. She never knew that ice could be so beautiful and remembers Antarctica as being majestic in its natural beauty, "like a blue Madagascar". She also remembers yielding to FOMO (the fear of missing out) and spending the night sleeping out on the snow with her fellow students on Christmas Eve. "Never again," she says, but at least she has a fun story to tell! After the European tour, Jo realized that she'd already been to four continents and had an inkling that she could possibly reach all seven. Upon knocking out South America and Antarctica at age 21, she was more sure of her goal than ever: she would hit all seven continents by age 25. She only had one left!
Halfway through college, Jo had realized she didn't want to be a lawyer anymore. She thought she wanted a PhD, and after graduation in 2015 she kept in touch with a handful of professors who helped her figure out her future plans. She ended up applying to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, as well as the USAID Payne International Development Fellowship. She got accepted into both, which meant that her Master of Environmental Science degree (MESc) was fully paid for by USAID (The United States Agency for International Development), and that she would become a foreign service officer after graduation. She moved to New Haven in 2016. At Yale she learned to "play the game" and took advantage of the ample resources that were available to her, meaning that she frequently got paid to travel internationally or at least had her costs covered. Through student jobs, she was also able to pay off all her debt from undergrad.
Even more to look forward to than continent-hopping
First, Jo got to return to China in early 2017 as the director of student life, diversity, and inclusion for that year's Yale Young Global Scholars program in Beijing. She and other members of the team taught high school students from around the world about leadership during this winter academic enrichment program. Then, she spent two weeks in March studying the Amazon rainforest in Yasuní, Ecuador. And then she spent that summer living in Kosovo for four months, working on behalf of USAID. That is an experience that she doesn't enjoy talking about, as the intense racism there made her fear for her safety. It also solidified her previous impression of Europe, which is that she doesn't understand the hype. While she'd never turn down a chance to go, she wouldn't go out of her way and spend her own coin to go there. Except for Italy, the 14 European countries she's been to have left her unimpressed. And then in the fall of that same year (what a busy year 2017 was!), she went to New Zealand for her first professional academic conference. There she and a partner presented their joint research on oceans and climate change, and later they made a three-day detour to Australia to make sure there'd be no questioning the fact that she'd finally reached her seventh continent! She was 24 years old.
Surprisingly, getting to all seven continents didn't feel as monumental as Jo had hyped herself up to think it would be when she first set the goal. It was an emotional time and she was proud of the accomplishment, but it wasn't the be-all and end-all. She was actually more appreciative of the small things, and of home, than ever before. Furthermore, she took joy in the fact that there would be even more to look forward to in life than continent-hopping. When I interviewed Jo in July 2018, she had just graduated from Yale and was preparing to move from New Haven to D.C. so she could be sworn in and start foreign service training. She didn't even know where she'd be stationed yet, and had her personal travel sights set on Latin America, the Caribbean, southeast Asia and more U.S. states (her childhood goal had been to visit all 50 states). Now she's nearing the end of months of language training, and her first station will be in a certain Spanish-speaking country. She recently went on a birthday trip to Paris with her mom, and there's no telling where else she will go. Jo can be found on Instagram (@jo_muffin) or LinkedIn (Jolisa Brooks).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "A Blue Madagascar (ALL 7 CONTINENTS)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
MSU Fisheries and Wildlife study abroad (includes Madagascar and Antarctica)
MSU Madagascar Study Abroad (FB page)
MSU Lyman Briggs College study abroad (includes Antarctica)
Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation (environmental grant funding)