"Honestly, just take the leap. It is so rewarding, it's so empowering, especially when you figure it out... just go, because what you get out of it is so much more rewarding than all the fear and everything beforehand that you put into it." (Kendra, Episode 94)
This week's guest on Young, Gifted and Abroad is someone I found by accident, and I'm so glad that I did! Earlier this year, while listening to short romantic comedy stories produced by a podcast company called Meet Cute, I discovered that they'd also launched a film review podcast in late January called The Rom-Com Room. And Kendra Okereke is the co-host of that podcast! I've since listened to the entirety of The Rom-Com Room's episode catalogue, and after hearing Kendra mention visiting this country here and that country there, something told me to look her up online. When I did, I found out that: 1) She studied film in the Czech Republic, and 2) She had a very unpleasant time there due to people being racist toward her, which turned her off from international travel in general. I wanted to know more about that experience, and also how her approach to traveling has become what it is now. Because rather than never traveling again, to date Kendra has been to 20 countries, and has a large social media following from creating content about her solo travels and her status as a self-described romantic "late bloomer". So how did she go from point A to point B?
Coming from Washington state and having developed a sense of independence from a young age, Kendra wanted to get the full college experience in a space she could call her own. So she moved clear across the country to New York state, where she pursued her undergraduate education at Syracuse University. Her life as "Kendra the film nerd" who wanted to be an actress led her to study film, and she and her Syracuse classmates received a well-rounded education in all things filmmaking, from scriptwriting to directing to acting for the camera to shooting on different film gauges. Going abroad was another one of her goals, and she secured a two-week internship with the American Pavilion at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in France, which was "freaking everything that I've ever dreamed of." Furthermore, one of Kendra's professors was from the Czech Republic, and through this person Syracuse had a relationship with a famous film school in Prague (The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, or FAMU). As a result, film students would often study abroad there, and Kendra herself was there from January through May of 2013 (the spring semester of her junior year).
Kendra expected to have the same amazing experiences that she'd heard previous students rave about when reminiscing about Prague. However, what she hadn't taken into account before arriving was that those students were not Black, whereas Kendra is. She was shocked and confused to find herself on the receiving end of racism in various forms. People would stop in their tracks and stare at her. ("Just imagine, right, if you're walking outside and all of a sudden a velociraptor walks past you. Like, not doing anything, not looking threatening, just walks past you... That's how people would stare at me!") On one occasion a woman turned tail and fled from Kendra, supposedly terrified, after crossing paths with Kendra while she was on a jog. Not only that, but Kendra denied entry to multiple places including trams and a Tesco supermarket, and once when she and the three other Black girls in her study abroad program sat down at a restaurant together, the waitstaff whispered about them before telling them to leave. Additionally, while Kendra was at a bar that hosted an art show for FAMU's photography students, some drunk man pulled her arm and made a deplorable remark about her being a "g*psy" and having "black bones".
Now of course, as a dark-skinned young woman who grew up in predominantly white spaces with African immigrant parents, Kendra had already known very well that she was Black. But she was never forced to be hyper-aware of it until she got to Prague, and she hadn't yet matured in her sense of self enough to not let Czech people's behavior affect her like it did. So after two months of aggressive and nonsensical mistreatment while out in public, for the remainder of that semester Kendra limited her activity to either attending class or watching the sitcom 'Modern Family' in her dorm room. She even cancelled a six-country tour of Europe, a trip she'd booked surrounding her 21st birthday, because she assumed every European country would be like the Czech Republic—and why bother traveling around just to be mistreated everywhere?
Fortunately for Kendra, there were a few bright spots even during this challenging time. Slightly redeeming factors, one could say. 'Modern Family' helped keep a smile on her face when she wanted to cry every day, Prague's nightlife was "insane" in the best way, food and drink were incredibly affordable, she spent a weekend in Germany for the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) and loved it there, and those three other Black girls in her program offered her a lot of empathy and support since they were each dealing with Czech racism in their own way. And for her own part, Kendra wasn't about to let people in authority be ignorant to what happened to her. Before going to Prague, Kendra's program director had made a joke about a student of color getting spat on while riding public transportation in Prague—as if it was a funny little anecdote and not a serious occurrence that warranted concern. Having now gone through it herself, Kendra explained her "terrible" situation to that same program director and told the woman that staff needed to warn students of color before coming to Prague. Once back at Syracuse, Kendra followed that up by meeting with the aforementioned Czech film professor and creating a program to prepare students of color going abroad so they'd know what to expect.
"That is so much more worth traveling than anything else."
It took nearly four years before courage and circumstances made it possible for Kendra to try traveling abroad again. She started teaching herself Italian during her last semester of college, meanwhile researching sights like the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo's statue of David that she dreamed of visiting. Three years after graduating, she finally had a post-college job that would enable her to take a substantive vacation, so she went on a two-week trip to Italy for her 25th birthday. She did exactly what she'd dreamed of (which included going to Rome and Florence and even doing a wine tour while in Tuscany), and it was during this trip that she found a new motivation to continue traveling. While in Rome, Kendra stayed at a women-only hostel and was so blown away by the women she met there, how quickly they she formed enduring friendships, and how deeply they connected on so many different topics, that she made staying at hostels a key part of her traveling style. She realized that connecting with fellow travelers outweighs whatever potential fears she might have. "That is so much more worth traveling than anything else. So now my primary motivation for solo traveling is to stay in hostels and meet people and just have a connection with them."
Interning at a talent management company during her Syracuse years made Kendra realize that pursuing an acting career wouldn't suit her after all, and today she is a talent producer in Los Angeles, California. After going around to production companies and pitching her own original international dating series—where she would travel the world, have people teach her about love, and also interview fellow late bloomers like herself in those countries—Kendra followed a friend's suggestion to create TikTok videos to prove that her show idea is viable, and highlighting hostels became a major theme of her content as well. In other words, she's found her niche as a travel influencer and hopeless romantic (or hopeful romantic, as I've chosen to phrase it for this episode). Creating that TV show is still "the biggest priority of my life" for Kendra, but in the meantime she's enjoying the opportunities and media buzz that have come to her as a result of growing her TikTok platform (which has over 260,000 followers as of this writing). And after expressing a desire to get more involved with romance-related media, a playwright friend of hers told her about an opening for a podcast host at Meet Cute, which is how Kendra became the co-host of The Rom-Com Room along with Mercedes Gonzales-Bazan.
As an avid solo traveler, Kendra has some countries that she keeps coming back to (such as Italy and Ireland, her favorite country) and others that she's fine with categorizing as one-offs (such as Mongolia, Estonia, Scandinavian countries, and of course the Czech Republic). Since her job is fully remote, she wants to do an extended stay in Central America next. Kendra also has plans for Indonesia, Denmark, and Italy this year, and naturally she hopes to visit many new places in the future. These include Nepal (ideally for a month), Samoa and American Samoa (she's fascinated by Polynesian cultures), the Netherlands (the pandemic forced her to cancel a trip to the Netherlands and Belgium that she'd planned for her 28th birthday in 2020), and a Southeast Asia tour of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Kendra can be found as @Ken10hollywood on TikTok, Instagram, and Linktree. The Rom-Com Room can be found on Meet Cute, Spotify, and all other podcast platforms.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Film Nerd. Velociraptor. Hopeful Romantic. (PRAGUE)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!