"I'm just so grateful and thankful that I was brave enough to go, honestly... Because maybe I would've been too scared, or not have done any of those things, and I may have been very miserable because deep down I wanted to do something different." (Kristin, Episode 63)
Another fortnight, another Tuesday, means another new episode! This week's guest is a lawyer and entrepreneur named Kristin Tellis Quaye. She reached out to me back in March about sharing her study abroad experience in Ghana (apparently we're in the same Facebook group, you know the one, and that's how she heard about Young, Gifted and Abroad). After taking a pause from interviewing, I was finally able to speak with her in June. Kristin not only studied in Ghana while she was in law school, but she also did a clerkship at the Supreme Court of Ghana and met her now husband, with whom she runs a travel company called Certified Africa.
Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, Kristin did her undergraduate studies at Howard University. Thanks to a previous high school internship experience, she had a keen interest in both media and law, but didn't realize what she really wanted to do until going on an Alternative Spring Break trip to Chicago. While there, she and other Howard students did a service project through which they learned about young Chicagoans contending with violence in their communities. It was through this week-long experience that Kristin realized she wanted to support policy change and advocate for people and their rights through the legal system, so she decided to become an attorney.
After graduating from Howard, Kristin pursued her law degree at Florida State University College of Law. During a trip to Trinidad where she visited family and learned more about the country that her mom came from, Kristin was inspired to make a declaration to herself, "Next year, I'm going to Ghana." She'd never been to Africa and didn't know anyone in Ghana, but nonetheless she felt a strong urge to go there. A law school friend encouraged her to aim for an extended amount of time so that she could be more immersed in Ghanaian culture, so Kristin researched law-focused study abroad programs in Africa. She found one through Fordham University School of Law, whose Ghana Summer Law Program was open to participants from all over. So in the summer of 2016, one year after making her declaration, she went to Accra, Ghana for three months.
Students in this program could choose between the "human rights and advocacy" track and the "oil and gas" track, and Kristin chose the former. She spent two weeks taking classes not only with her fellow program participants but with local Ghanaian law students as well. Conversing with the Ghanaian students in particular motivated Kristin to become more of a global citizen; she was impressed by their knowledge about world issues and she wanted to step her game up in that regard. After those two weeks of classes, Fordham program participants had the option to stay in Ghana to do internships lasting at least five weeks. Kristin chose this option, and was placed as a clerk at the Supreme Court of Ghana. During this clerkship she worked directly under Chief Justice Georgina Wood, who was the first woman to ever hold that position in Ghana. Kristin observed firsthand how committed Chief Justice Wood was to reducing corruption and correcting inefficiencies in the court system.
Fordham program students who stayed to do internships also had to find their own housing (previously everyone was staying on the campus of a local university known as GIMPA). So Kristin went from rooming with classmates to living on her own in Accra. Fortunately, she was not alone. A friend of a friend had connected her with a Ghanaian woman living in Accra who quickly became "so crucial" to Kristin's experience there. Kristin often hung out at the woman's house with her family, experiencing Ghanaian cuisine and learning the slang and ways of life of an average Ghanaian person. In addition to making a new friend, Kristin unexpectedly found love. One of the Fordham program assistants—a Ghanaian man whose job was to help participants get situated in Ghana and address any logistical or cultural issues during their stay—took a liking to Kristin. And she took a liking to him too! They started out as acquaintances and spent more time together once Kristin started her clerkship. By the time Kristin's three months in Ghana were coming to a close, they'd decided that they wanted to get married.
Kristin's parents were coming to visit Ghana during her last week there, and the company that Kristin and her fiancé had chosen to organize a tour for them cancelled shortly before their arrival. So the couple organized a 10-day tour for Kristin's parents on their own. And instead of telling her parents right away that the guy leading their tour was their potential son-in-law, she let them get to know him as a person first before filling them in at the end. Her parents liked him right away, and when she finally told them about her marriage plans, they were very supportive. Kristin returned to the States, her fiancé relocated there about a year later, and today as a married couple they run their own business. Putting together that first tour for her parents inspired Kristin and her husband to start a travel company, Certified Africa, which would not only immerse people of the African diaspora in Ghanaian culture, but also help them form business connections with people in Ghana and elsewhere on the continent.
"10 times better"
After the study abroad program in Ghana, Kristin completed her law degree, passed the bar exam, and started down the path that would've had her working primarily in civil rights/public interest law. But eventually she realized that a traditional legal role wasn't the right fit for her, and running Certified Africa with her husband has helped Kristin embrace herself as an entrepreneur. They ran their first tours in 2019 (a.k.a. "The Year of Return"), and in their first year of business they took nearly 100 people to Ghana. Though the travel industry is at a standstill currently in 2020, Kristin is excited about taking more people to Africa, doing more collaborations, and expanding Certified Africa to include media/storytelling and youth outreach in the future.
A major factor in Kristin's decision to study abroad was that she felt it might be her last chance to travel and do what she truly desired before entering a phase of life that would put more constraints on her time (legal career, future family, etc.). Going to Ghana not only changed her life, but as a result she's also been able to discover what she really wants out of life and pursue that instead of her original plan. As Kristin put it to me, "That's what happens. When you give yourself permission to do what you really want deep down, it can be 10 times better." In the future, Kristin hopes to relocate with her husband to Ghana long-term. She would also like to see as much of Africa as possible (she's also been to Togo and Benin), and visit Bali and India among other places. Kristin can be reached on Instagram (@blackwealthesq) or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Certified Africa can be found on Instagram (@certifiedafrica), YouTube (Certified Africa), and certifiedafrica.com.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Give Yourself Permission (CERTIFIED AFRICA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!