Episode 97 │ This Feeling Is Different (AFRICA/ASIA)
"But really understanding that once you travel, you have so many limitless opportunities in front of you and ahead of you... You feel like once you travel, you got a secret that you wanna share with other foster youth, other people who never got the chance to travel... It's a life-changing experience that kinda feels like you're unstoppable." (Justin, Episode 97)
This episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad makes three in a row where the guest was referred to me by someone else! I'm always thankful when folks send new guests my way! This week, I have a former high school classmate named Gary Williams to thank for suggesting Justin Black to me on LinkedIn when I was putting out feelers for new potential guests back in autumn 2021. Justin is the co-founder of Redefining Normal, a business he runs with his wife Alexis, through which they promote their book of the same name and do speaking engagements about healing from trauma and overcoming challenges that they each faced as foster youth. They met each other in college and began traveling internationally by studying abroad multiple times. For his part, Justin has now been to 30 countries, and during his university years he did five study abroad programs: South Korea, the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Hong Kong, and South Africa.
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, for a long time Justin was actually afraid of traveling overseas. His mom warned him against it due to the frightening news stories she saw, and being raised in a religious family made him fear having his Christian beliefs influenced or corrupted by meeting people who were too different from him. However, as time went on, Justin accomplished several "firsts" that made him want to push beyond what he thought he knew about the world and his place in it. By studying African studies and public relations at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Justin became the first person in his family to leave Detroit, and the first to go to college. Being exposed to various ways of thinking in undergrad taught him that he could in fact respect, appreciate, and love others' differences without losing himself, and he internalized that lesson even more deeply through studying abroad.
Having spent much of his youth in foster care by the time he arrived at Western, going abroad was somewhat of a necessity; Justin couldn't simply "go home" during school breaks, and rather than remaining on campus or finding somewhere else to stay or something else to do... why not go abroad? And why not challenge some of the limiting beliefs he was brought up on? If he could make it through growing up in Detroit back when it was one of America's most dangerous cities, then couldn't he handle visiting another country? For Justin, studying abroad was a way to "go against the grain because these fears that are put on me are not true. So I feel like my life was kinda leading me abroad and to travel and do those type of things."
He found extra motivation to go when his then-girlfriend of six months decided to spend summer of 2017 studying at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea. Justin didn't want to go all summer without her, so he signed up for the same program. Together, they visited a few European countries on the way to South Korea, and from then on it became customary for them to do extra traveling before or after their study abroad programs. (Except for a research trip to the Dominican Republic and some personal travel to East Africa, all of Justin's travels so far have been with his now-wife.) At Kyung Hee University, Justin took a course on urban development that examined gentrification in Seoul, including the Korean government's contributions to it and the impact that it's had on local businesses and communities. Though South Korea was merely the first of many international adventures to come, for Justin in remains the home of the best food he's ever had in his life, "I'm a fiend for ramen [ramyeon]."
Next came 10-14 days in the Dominican Republic, where Justin and his professor-led group of classmates from Western researched communication and ethnography. The Spanish-speaking professor and teaching assistant arranged local interview subjects ahead of time, but Justin and his fellows formulated their research on Dominican cultural values, ways of communicating, and family relations independently. And while the group did have pockets of fun time, they prioritized non-touristy areas and even did some volunteering while they were there too.
After the DR, Justin's next trip was a 3-4 week program studying globalization in Senegal. This was his first time in Africa, and he recalls going to the beach his first day there and becoming emotional, crying while thinking to himself, "Man, this feeling is different. Like the sky just feels different, the air... Man, I'm in Africa. This is the craziest feeling ever." Similar to to the DR trip, Justin and his peers from Western each had their own research projects, and Justin focused his on the enduring effects of French imperialism on Senegal, and how local Senegalese businesses are frequently hampered by the dominance of European and other Western companies that basically got a head-start to establish themselves there. Justin also stayed with a host family during this time—a Muslim family of four where only one person spoke English, and even then only so-so—which gave him a chance to break down religious prejudices from his childhood even more than he already had. Senegal is around 96% Muslim and Justin was there during Ramadan, so he got to intimately observe various traditions including mosque attendance, the food that his host family ate, and their entire city shutting down for Friday prayer.
As one of the first students in Western's relatively new African studies program at the time, and as someone who was profoundly touched by his experience in Senegal, Justin wanted to return to the continent but was all too aware that Western's African study abroad offerings needed a lot of improvement. First of all, the options were limited: Senegal, Ghana, and two programs in South Africa. Second of all, the leadership of these programs was sometimes questionable. During Justin's trip to Senegal, not enough consideration was given to helping students adjust to culture shock and/or leaving the US for the first time, so more experienced students like Justin and his wife had to comfort and reassure their classmates when professors wouldn't. Plus, there were rumors about professors in one of the South Africa programs being racist and not treating students fairly. In an attempt to remedy some of these issues, Justin took it upon himself to figure out how to create more African study abroad programs at Western.
He held an info night to gauge student interest and preferences, and through attending the Clinton Global Initiative previously, he'd already met a Ugandan person who was setting up a program for American students to study climate change in Uganda. Justin partnered with the person to expand that program, he flew to Uganda and Rwanda to check them out for himself, and after much planning and pitching he and a handful of collaborators eventually obtained Western's approval to send students to East Africa. In addition to spending a week centered on climate change in Uganda as originally planned, the trip would also include a week in Rwanda so students could learn about the 1994 genocide and how Rwandan society has recovered since than. Approval was granted in December 2019 to start running the program in December 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic the program has been on hold. Currently, Justin's goal is to have the first trip happen in December 2023.
Protests and a pandemic
Unfortunately, the East Africa program wasn't the first of Justin's major plans to be derailed by the pandemic. The last study abroad program that he was able to complete was during the summer after his junior year, when he spent a few weeks at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) studying political economy and Hong Kong history/world history. This was the 2019 iteration of The Fund for American Studies' annual TFAS Asia program, which happened to take place during a historic moment when many Hong Kongers were actively demonstrating against an extradition bill that would've increased the encroachment of China's power over Hong Kong. While Justin did observe and document a few of the protests for himself, he didn't participate in any, and HKU would occasionally encourage students to return to campus by a certain time of day and avoid certain metro stations so they wouldn't get caught up in the action.
With his fourth study abroad experience under his belt, Justin was all set to close out his senior in South Africa by spending the spring 2020 semester at the University of Cape Town. He arrived in late January to explore before classes started in late February, covering the political landscape of the country and the history of British/Dutch colonial influence on shaping Cape Town. After slightly over a month there, however, he was evacuated back to the States due to the pandemic ramping up. Nonetheless, even his shortened time in South Africa was enough for it to become one of his favorite countries, an opinion he now shares with his wife and others who'd raved about South Africa and encouraged him to go in the first place. As a couple, Justin and Alexis rank countries based on three criteria: how nice the people are, how amazing the food is, and how beautiful the natural scenery is. South Africa exceeds all of their criteria, and they hope to take a month-long family trip there with their future children one day. (When I spoke to Justin, he informed me that they're currently expecting their first child.)
Justin graduated from Western in 2020, and now in 2022 Redefining Normal is his full-time job. He started undergrad thinking he wanted to be a sports journalist, but learning about social issues made him want to discover how to use his communications and PR skills to directly impact his community. It's safe to say he's found his own way to do just that. His future travel dreams are many, including but not limited to Ghana (he's heard wonderful things), Mali, Nigeria (to spend time with his Nigerian friends), Ethiopia (to learn about the history of Christianity there), Singapore, Vietnam, Australia, and South Korea (once again). For now, Justin can be found wherever Redefining Normal is: re-definingnormal.com, Facebook, and @re.definingnormal on TikTok and Instagram.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "This Feeling Is Different (AFRICA/ASIA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Clinton Global Initiative University (Twitter)
University of Cape Town (WMU program info)
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.