That summer evening, the auditorium was packed with parents eager to listen to what the school had planned for the next academic year. Even though the air conditioners were on full blast, I could still feel that August, Louisiana humidity engulfing my body. The principal had just given a heartfelt speech about how the school was making impressive strides towards being more culturally diverse, and how it was hosting a record ten exchange students that year. Just when we thought she was done, she then started telling us about this Kenyan exchange student she had met earlier during the week and for a few seconds, there was dead silence as she paused to scan the room. It wasn’t long after she spoke of how this exchange student’s English was fair and how proper he was for an African that she called him on stage. Well, it just so happened that I was the only Kenyan in the room and even though I tried not to remember the sound of my name when our eyes met, I knew I was going to be in for an interesting evening.
I had spent the day on a swamp mud riding with my host sister’s fiancée, and since all my clothes were dirty, he’d graciously offered to be my stylist that evening. I had faded wrangler jeans tucked into Ariat boots and a black embroidered cowboy shirt. Despite my outward calmness, I was in an internal emotional turmoil. So I put on a smile and up I went. At the time, I didn’t quite understand how big of a role that experience was going to play in reshaping my personality. I have always found beauty in culture and diversity, but to say that I was naïve of the harsh reality that awaited me as a black teenager in a small Southern town would be an understatement. It was just a few months to an election propelled by two non-traditional candidates, the political atmosphere was highly polarizing, the black lives matter rallying cry had gone global and I just happened to live in a white community. I can’t recall a period throughout my life when I was entirely comfortable navigating social interactions. I have always had to struggle with my social anxiety and although I may not be anti-social, building and sustaining relationships has always been something of a challenge to me. I didn’t ask for all the challenges that were thrown my way as a result of my desire to experience diversity, but I appreciated every single one of them.
Seeing how my race, ideologies, and beliefs shaped my interaction with privilege and systemic oppression shifted my outlook to life. As the months went by, I realized I was getting myself involved in activities that I had previously either had no interest in or just found outrightly challenging for me. I had one of the most fulfilling experiences whilst volunteering for the Make-A-Wish foundation. I haven’t had any life-threatening illnesses in my lifetime, neither have I had to live with conditions that curtailed my ability to have a ‘normal’ life, but the time I spent experiencing life through my wish kids’ eyes has since served as an inspiration to me. I met Savannah: a sixteen-year-old girl with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on one of my wish-granting experiences. She wasn’t any older than I was at the time, but her bravery amidst all the adversity she faced was incredible. She had lost all her hair, her frail body let her down every time she was invited to a birthday party or lunch with the few friends she had left, and she had just spent the past week at the hospital. All she wanted to do with the one wish that she had was to pay for her family to go to Italy for the summer, even though her doctors wouldn’t approve of her tagging along with them. Seeing the hope written on the smiles of the people I worked for sparked my passion for volunteerism. I loved every day I got to spend time with my wish kids because I got new bouts of hope.
As my interactions with diverse groups of people increased, so did my grip on my social anxiety. I found it easier to make friends, work with people and I loved being in teams. As I look back at all these experiences, I realize that I was not as culturally sensitive as I am today before all these new experiences.