Episode 96 │ Tri-Continental Girl (MERIDA/LONDON/CAPE TOWN)
Updated: 15 hours ago
"Going on a study abroad is one of the few times in your life where somebody will pay you to travel... it's just gonna be a completely different experience doing it as a student." (Naledi, Episode 96)
I took an extra week off for Easter, and now I'm back with a new guest and a new episode for Young, Gifted and Abroad! This week's guest is someone whom I remember interacting with in passing while we were both in the same political science/public affairs department (James Madison College) at Michigan State University. But I didn't get to know her very well at the time, so years later I'm thankful that my dear friend Marlee Sherrod (from episode 19) referred Naledi Makhene to me so we could re-meet! Naledi is a person of many interests who not only has a direct connection to South Africa—her dad is South African and she's visited the country numerous times—but she also studied abroad in Mexico, England, and South Africa while in undergrad. So I was eager to hear straight from her about all that and more!
For Naledi, "studying" abroad began with volunteering. Thanks to her parents, she and her brother had become well-traveled early in life, so by the time Naledi left her hometown of Grand Blanc, Michigan for Michigan State University, she already knew she wanted to go abroad in college. As a pre-med student who also majored in social relations & policy and tried to minor in French, she assumed a popular summer French program in Tours would be right for her. (Just like it was for Nyasha from episode 3.) Then, during her freshman year a friend of hers returned from a spring break trip to Mexico—more specifically, an alternative spring break volunteering in the city of Mérida—raving about how wonderful it was and insisting that Naledi go the following year. Naledi was intrigued by his enthusiasm and the strong bond he seemed to have formed with his trip mates in such a short period of time, so she applied to go on that same trip to the Yucatán capital during her sophomore year.
Of the various roles that student volunteers were assigned, Naledi's duties mostly involved washing dishes, sweeping, and mopping at a home for abandoned elderly people. And since she doesn't enjoy cleaning, she resented the work at first. But she got a much-needed attitude adjustment when she realized that she was frustrated about cleaning for only one week, whereas that place was real, everyday life for its residents. So for the rest of her time there, Naledi decided to give it her best and "mop like my grandparents are living here." She and her fellow volunteers also held a dance party with the elderly residents, procured items that the residents requested (such as shoes and a radio), and enjoyed partying and becoming friends during their free time.
Naledi was determined to keep in touch with the students she'd met on the trip, and since many of them were College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) scholars who came from Latino migrant working backgrounds, she was advised to check out a Latino student organization on MSU's campus called CRU (Culturas de Las Razas Unidas). Her first CRU meeting was so lively and its members were so friendly that Naledi gradually became enmeshed in CRU, and as of 2021 she has even launched her own scholarship fund (The Makhene Award) directed at MSU's Latino students and/or students involved in the Latino community on campus. She wants to give back to the community that gave her the sense of belonging that she'd been looking for, without the judgment of not being "Latino enough" to hang.
Being from a mostly-white town and having an African parent meant that throughout her youth Naledi had dealt with certain other Black American kids accusing her of somehow not being Black enough. She has grown to not be insecure about that anymore, and even proclaimed, "If anything, I'm the Black melting pot!" when telling me about her dad being from South Africa and her mom being from Flint, MI. Furthermore, her involvement with CRU actually led her to be more involved with the Black student community as well. When considering sororities, Naledi realized she was drawn to one that felt like the Latina version of Alpha Kappa Alpha—the very first sorority founded as part of the "Divine Nine" historically Black fraternities and sororities—so she decided to go for the real thing and pledge AKA instead. She crossed in 2016, reaffirming for herself that no one could deny her her Blackness.
May 2015 saw Naledi going abroad again, this time for a comparative social policy program in London, England with a few days solo traveling in Spain beforehand. (Hers was the same Regent's University London-based program that Christen from episode 91 had done the previous year). Much of the class was taught on campus at MSU, followed by two weeks in London after the end of the semester (the end of Naledi's junior year). Naledi was fascinated by the comparisons she was able to draw between America and the UK's approaches to maternity leave, healthcare, food stamps, and education. During our conversation, we joked about the "side effects of being American" regarding how shocked she was to learn from a young British student that carrying guns isn't allowed in the UK and other countries the same way it is in the US.
On an interpersonal note, irritating cliquiness within her group led to some safety concerns and personality clashes that almost ruined the trip for Naledi. Thankfully, she blocked out the drama and focused on ensuring that she'd remember London positively. One of her standout memories from those two weeks is a nighttime adventure with a classmate that included witnessing a scene from a James Bond film (Spectre) being filmed at the Thames River, and getting her photo taken in front of Buckingham Palace without the usual crowds present.
Since all James Madison College (JMC) students must fulfill a field experience requirement in order to graduate, and Naledi was a pre-med student with aspirations of working in public health, she opted for a three-month internship in Cape Town, South Africa during the summer of 2016. Her previous trips to visit relatives in South Africa had prompted her to resist doing her internship there initially; she figured that she would gain more from working in a country that she wasn't already so familiar with. However, her advisor convinced her that spending three months, on her own, in a different city than Johannesburg (where her dad's folks are) could be completely different from traveling with family. And fortunately for Naledi, that proved to be true!
JMC collaborated with an organization called Connect 123 to place Naledi at a children's hospital in Cape Town. This internship wound up being more like another volunteer situation—because there's only so much that undergraduate pre-med students can do to help in a medical capacity—and her duties included looking after children, playing learning games with them, fundraising for diapers and toys, and attempting to institute certain public health protocols (like replacing used toothbrushes).
Outside of work, Naledi found herself integrating into South African society more than she had on previous stays there. Being outside her family bubble meant that she could do more touristy things, get to know local people better, experience South African nightlife for the first time, and pick up lingo like "keen" and "Howzit?". And when Naledi's parents came to visit her before they all flew back to the US together, Naledi got to act as their Cape Town tour guide. Being able to experience South Africa in a new context only made Naledi love the country more, to the point where she now envisions living a tri-continental life where she can enjoy "warm climates and beaches, baby!" Her future homes of choice are Southern California, the South of France (which she'll visit for the first time as part of a September 2022 European cruise), and Camps Bay (a suburb of Cape Town that her aunt recently bought a house in).
"I have to be responsible for my life... so I need to do what makes me happy."
After graduating and working a public health job that she mostly hated (except for the events and focus group parts), Naledi accepted the truth that had been simmering deep down within her heart even back when she first entered MSU: she didn't truly want to be a doctor. Coming to terms with her multitude of interests (travel, languages, makeup, singing), Naledi had a revelation that remains her ethos to this day, "I have to be responsible for my life. I have to wake up and go to work and enjoy my job every day, so I need to do what makes me happy." Through moving to Los Angeles, California and coordinating events for travelers at Hostelling International USA (HIUSA), she discovered a new passion in marketing. The pandemic-related slowdown in the travel industry resulted in Naledi being furloughed in 2020, and she now does events and marketing for a university that makes graduate school affordable for its employees. Having the option to attend grad school for cheap ("almost free") made Naledi realize how much she actually did desire a master's degree, so she enrolled in an online master's program in digital audience strategy through Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She looks forward to graduating next month, and transitioning to a full-on marketing career.
As an aspiring polyglot, Naledi also looks forward to learning as many languages as she can, including French (to satisfy her Francophile tendencies), Spanish (to take advantage of living in LA), Setswana (her father's language), plus Mandarin and Arabic (for business purposes). Naledi would most like to go to Asia next since she hasn't been yet (plus being on the West Coast makes flights more affordable), and she also hopes to explore Eastern Europe and more of Africa beyond South Africa and Eswatini. While she's currently on a social media break as she embraces some big life changes, Naledi can be found through her cavapoo's Instagram page (@soleilthepup).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Tri-Continental Girl (MERIDA/LONDON/CAPE TOWN)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
MSU Student Affairs Scholarship article (featuring Naledi)
Leticia Gittens (Naledi's line sister, YGA episode 25)
Internships in Cape Town (MSU program details)
Tjing Tjing (Cape Town restaurant)
Apartheid Museum (Johannesburg)
Hostelling International USA (HIUSA)