Episode 91 │ Two Miracles at Once (LONDON/BARCELONA)
"Your whole world is just gonna expand and explode when you study abroad, when you really take a step out of your norm. And then in some ways, your world's gonna kind of narrow in the way that you see, like, there are some things that are common to just all humans no matter where you live, too... Being abroad changes your world, for the better." (Christen, Episode 91)
This episode is doubly special to me because: 1) I recorded this interview (my 91st) from my uncle and aunt's house while I was in Indianapolis recently, the same house where I recorded my 1st interview ever with my cousin Kayla back in 2018. And 2) The guest of this episode is a dear college friend of mine named Christen Richardson, who is part of the brilliant cluster of Black girls whom I met as an undergraduate student within Michigan State University's James Madison College. Others in that cluster include Hope (episode 7), Sirrita (episode 8), Salem (episode 17), Gerena (episode 18), Marlee (episode 19), and Jo (episode 40). And now, it's finally Christen's turn to be a guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad! We talked about the study abroad programs she did in London and Barcelona, as well as her nonlinear path toward law school, which she's attending right now in California.
Christen hails from Beaumont, in Southeast Texas, and while she had been to Canada several times by the time she reached Michigan State University—she has relatives in Chatham, Ontario, which was the northernmost stop on the Underground Railroad—she hadn't traveled overseas yet. Luckily for her, MSU consistently boasts about its abundant study abroad options, and actively encourages students to take advantage of those options. With a study abroad scholarship from James Madison College, Christen was able to spend three weeks in Europe in 2014. For fun and exploration's sake, she and a handful of her Madison classmates spent a few days exploring Paris before heading across the English Channel to begin their program, studying public policy with Regent's University London as their home base. And while she did take the quintessential London tours and learn lessons about Britain's government, healthcare system, and monarchy, her most impactful discoveries in Europe occurred outside of class. From meeting a Black French guy in Paris who identified with his Frenchness before his Blackness, to meeting a white British woman who strongly admired the versatility of Black hair (and of Christen's in particular), to noticing the varied racial and ethnic combinations of people who publicly socialized with each other in London, Christen found her American notions of racial identity, beauty standards, and belonging challenged in an eye-opening way.
The following year, Christen spent spring break 2015 in Barcelona, Spain, studying marketing and international business through a program organized by MSU's Broad College of Business. During their week and a half there, she and her group spent much of their time observing American businesses, so Spanish proficiency wasn't strictly necessary. Yet and still, being in a Spanish-speaking culture reminded Christen of home. Having grown up in Texas where Latino populations are prevalent and Spanish instruction was consistent in her middle and high school years, even with the language barrier in Barcelona she found comfort in being surrounded by Spanish speakers who valued togetherness, and who enjoyed the simple things in life at an intentionally slow pace. She was so taken with Spain's culture and the beauty of Barcelona, that even now she still regards Spain as the #2 country in the world (after Canada) that she would consider relocating to. Aside from studying Mandarin during her freshman year of undergrad, Spanish is the only other language that Christen's previously put concerted effort into learning, and in the future she hopes to reinvest in studying it so that she can better engage with Spanish-speaking communities over the course of her legal career, in California and beyond.
Since returning from Europe the second time and completing her dual bachelor's degrees in accounting and social relations & policy, Christen has taken a nonlinear path toward her years-long goal of attending law school. At first she missed her home state, so she worked in accounting in the Houston area for three years. And although she enjoyed that time, she felt the pressing need for a greater sense of purpose, "I did not see impact with my work, and I'm somebody that really needs to know I'm out there helping people for me to really put in a care to do good work. And that's just how I'm wired." By this point she felt drawn to Michigan again, and the resources that the University of Michigan is renowned for having made U of M Law her top choice among law schools that she was considering. But she applied late in the admissions cycle, and amidst resolving to apply again the following year, she happened to see an ad for U of M's Master of Public Policy (MPP) program within its Ford School of Public Policy. She applied on a whim just to see what would happen, and the program found her so exceptional that they not only accepted her but also offered her a full ride scholarship! (This surprise was made even more wondrous by the fact that Christen had not even taken the graduate record examination, or GRE, which is traditionally required for most MPP programs. Instead, U of M accepted the score she'd submitted from her Law School Admission Test, or LSAT.)
"I got my real passion"
But the grad school acceptances didn't stop there. Two weeks later, Christen found out that even despite applying late, her application to the University of Southern California Gould School of Law was successful. After she explained her situation to USC, the school agreed to hold her spot (as well as the 50% scholarship they'd offered), deferring her admission for two years so she could pursue her MPP in Michigan first. In other words, Christen unexpectedly secured her place in two separate graduate programs at the same time, receiving "two miracles at once", as I phrased it when listening to her story with astonishment. 2019-2021 saw Christen at U of M, through which she participated in a policy competition at the University of Toronto, and where a course on "financing equitable development" (focused on affordable housing) made her realize what she truly wanted to do with her life, and what kind of law she wanted to practice. That turns out to be project law, or public finance law, which she describes as putting together different mechanisms of financing that help fund social change and get communities the resources they need. She maintains that her MPP program changed her life ("If nothing else, I got my real passion"), and after completing that degree she moved to Los Angeles in July 2021 to begin pursuing her juris doctor (JD) degree. Her vision now as a lawyer-in-training centers around the question, "How do we use the built environment as a source of healing, and particularly for communities of color?"
Besides traveling to Canada, France, the UK, and Spain, Christen has also been to Mexico. After the pandemic caused her to miss out on opportunities to visit Kenya, China, and Israel during her MPP program, she's "manifesting" that she will spend the fall semester of 2023 in Australia. (USC Gould has partnerships with multiple universities around the globe, including Bond University in Queensland.) To this day she remains humbled by the international travel that she's been able to experience thus far, acknowledging them as opportunities that not everyone in her family back in Texas—or in the wider Black community, for that matter—have been able to have. Christen can be found on LinkedIn (Christen Richardson) and on Instagram (@christenrich).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Two Miracles at Once (LONDON/BARCELONA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Dr. Lisa D. Cook (website / Twitter / JMC bio / article 1 / article 2)
Prof. Curtis Stokes (JMC bio / endowment / retirement celebration)
JMC Education Abroad (homepage / scholarships)
MSU Broad College of Business (accounting / study abroad / study abroad IG)
U of M Ford School of Public Policy (homepage / MPP program / Christen's research / commencement speech by our former JMC classmate)
University of Toronto Munk case competitions / Ford + Munk Conference
London Lit (trailer)
Lori Tharps, Spain (blog / YGA episode 34 / Danielle's review of Lori's book)
Brittany Pruitt, Australia (YGA episode 51)
Broad Art Museum (MSU) / The Broad (Los Angeles)
"The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl" (Issa Rae web series)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.