Episode 68 │ Planting Those Seeds (EUROPE/SYDNEY)
Updated: Sep 22
"You may not never get this opportunity again, and you don't know what that opportunity could turn into or what can happen for you in the long term." (Aijalon, Episode 68)
It's autumn now! And the guest for this first episode of autumn came by way of a friend. A while back I was on Facebook and saw that my friend Kristi (Kristianna from episode 5) shared a YouTube video that was made by one of her friends, Aijalon Wallace. The video was about being Black in Australia, and upon watching it I learned that Aijalon had moved to Australia to earn his master's degree and then continued living and working there for a few years afterward. I was actively seeking new guests at the time, and when I asked Kristi if she thought Aijalon would be interested in being on Young, Gifted and Abroad, she enthusiastically encouraged me to invite him! I did, and I learned that Aijalon not only earned his master's degree in Sydney, Australia but had also studied in England and traveled extensively throughout Europe as well.
Aijalon is from Detroit, and as an undergraduate student he studied arts management and communications at Eastern Michigan University. While at Eastern, he began feeling like he needed to get away. He'd been inspired by reading Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist, and had also recently become close friends with a British-Nigerian international student from Oxford Brookes University. So Aijalon decided to study at Oxford Brookes too. Eastern had an exchange partnership with Oxford Brookes, and at the age of 20 Aijalon moved to Oxford, England to take general education courses and explore where his friend was from. What was only supposed to be a semester turned into a full year in the UK—this was his first time outside of the States, and he was enjoying the experience so much that he extended his time in Oxford. During that year Aijalon partied, spent a lot of time in London, hung out with his British-Nigerian friend, went to visit another friend in France, and also worked retail to help cover living and recreational expenses. The novelty of him being American (and apparently resembling the entertainer will.i.am at the time) worked in his favor when it came to getting his retail jobs and getting acquainted with new people. As for school, assignments at Oxford Brookes were less frequent than back at Eastern and also weren't due until the end of each semester. The increased autonomy that Aijalon had over his time did make it difficult to be consistent academically, but in the end he managed to have his fun and complete his studies as well.
Something else Aijlaon did while in the UK was start making connections that would help him go on his next adventure. He knew that instead of going home right away, he wanted to stay in Europe a bit longer. In fact, he wanted to go backpacking! Two months before the end of his year in Oxford he started looking online for people he could potentially couch-surf with. He also interacted often with tourists and made known that he intended on visiting their home countries. As a result, Aijalon backpacked around Europe for three months and stayed with 17 or 18 different people during his journey. He started out by going from London to Paris, and his other destinations included Nice, Croatia (Zagreb), Greece (Thessaloniki and Athens), Hungary (Budapest), Austria, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey (Istanbul). Even during our conversation he still marveled at the hospitality he experienced seemingly everywhere he went. Of course, this journey was also not without challenges. Money was tight ("I was broke"), a couple of his couch-surfing experiences were more unsettling than others, and sometimes when he couldn't find a place to stay he would sleep on beaches or in train stations. Furthermore, logistical issues had him somewhat stuck in his last stop of Madrid, where he stayed with his former retail co-workers for two weeks before he could get a flight home. But the way Aijalon saw it, those experiences just made for an even richer journey and even more fascinating stories to tell later on.
Living and traveling in Europe made Aijalon realize that he wanted a life where he could live abroad, travel as much as he wanted, and have as much freedom over his time as possible. It also made him realize that the States was not where he wanted to be, so after graduating from Eastern Michigan he went back to Spain for a year. He worked as a volunteer English teacher for CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange), and in return for volunteering he lived and had meals with a host family in Guadalajara, about an hour outside of Madrid. His host was a mother of two and a French teacher; she and Aijalon actually taught at the same school. Because anti-Black discrimination in Spain was so prevalent, Aijalon's host mom insisted that he introduce himself to their neighbors right away so that they wouldn't be "scared" of him. Whatever ignorance he may have dealt with, and even though he ended up moving to Toledo for a change of pace and scenery, Aijalon recalls getting along incredibly well with his neighbors and host family. In Toledo he lived on the campus of the school he taught at, and also enjoyed teaching with a bunch of fellow Americans at a local summer camp. He was planning to stay in Spain for another year, until he learned that he'd been accepted to business school in Australia.
As a first generation college student intent on working for himself, Aijalon's desire to get bachelor's and master's degrees was less about appealing to future employers and more about setting a new precedent in his family. In his words, "For me, going to college was more personal than professional." While he was still at Eastern, one of his mentors suggested that he consider graduate school in Australia. Aijalon balked at this idea at first, "No way! I'm Black, I can't swim, I don't like sharks. Hell naw!" But his mentor encouraged him to give it a chance, and the more Aijalon researched it, the more he got excited about the possibility. He applied to the University of Sydney Business School, and then he moved to Spain and didn't think anything of it. He didn't really expect to be accepted... and then he was. So Aijalon left Spain, moved back to Michigan for a year to work and save up money, and then moved to Sydney in 2016.
Aijalon's program at the University of Sydney was an intensive and accelerated one-year master's program geared toward students of any area of study who wanted to launch their careers in business. Aijalon was in class eight hours a day, five days a week, and would frequently find himself doing most of the work for group projects. A good portion of the people in his program were wealthy students from China who struggled to write well in English, and at first Aijalon was frustrated about having to pick up the slack on group assignments. However, rather than being taken advantage of, Aijalon now views those occurrences as him taking one for the team. Because when Aijalon later launched a career coaching business that was partially aimed at Chinese students, those same classmates of his were eager to help him set up a WeChat business account and they even sent business referrals his way. He still considers those classmates to be his friends, and might go visit them in China one day.
Networking and street smarts are what Aijalon credits for enabling him to successfully get sponsored to work in Australia, while everyone else in his program went back to their home countries. He started out making six figures in this new corporate role, earning more money than he'd ever earned working in America. When not working he enjoyed circumventing Sydney's 1:30 a.m. lockout laws by living and partying in an area called the Inner West, where the nightlife wasn't subject to said laws. Being a Black American seemed to help him appeal to the ladies he met, and surprisingly he was able to find a solid and supportive community of fellow Black men hailing from the States, the UK, and elsewhere. Aijalon was mostly preoccupied with all there was to do and see in Sydney, but he also visited Melbourne and appreciated how chill and relationship-oriented it was compared to Sydney.
"Comfortable with making ourselves happy first"
Today Aijalon is 30 years old and living in Michigan. He loved his life in Australia, but ultimately his dream was to become a full-time entrepreneur. He returned to the States in 2019 to focus on his career coaching and IT recruitment businesses, and he told me that if he'd known 2020 would bring a global pandemic and travel restrictions, "I'd be in Australia right now." His life was cushier over there, and he didn't have to worry about gun violence or as much virulent racism. On top of that, his plans to move to the Czech Republic this year had to be scrapped. But he's doing the best he can with is current situation, and is still committed to never working for someone else again. He's certain that he wouldn't be where he is in life without all that he learned and experienced from traveling, and especially from studying and working in Australia. In fact, he believes everyone should be able to travel before starting their careers, "We need to be comfortable with making ourselves happy first before we can truly immerse or dedicate ourselves to a career or lifestyle."
Aijalon wants to travel even more around the world in the future, and is still keeping his options open for Australia. Yet and still, he most appreciates Europe and how easy it is to go from one country to another in that region. His favorite country is France, and currently he's considering applying for a freelance visa in Germany for 2022. Aijalon can be found by his name (Aijalon Wallace) on Facebook, LinkedIn, and his YouTube channel. He can also be found on Instagram (@aijalon_wallace).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Planting Those Seeds (EUROPE/SYDNEY)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Aijalon's "Being Black in Australia" video
Eurail (train passes)