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Khai Nelson - Kultural Kurator

Khai Nelson


Ethnicity - African American

Occupation - Alumna, New York University

What global experiences have you taken part in when you were a student and/or as a young professional?

During the summer of my junior year in undergraduate school, I had the pleasure of being invited to work as a research assistant in the Philippines. I was part of a team conducting research in poverty reduction and, to this day, it is one of the best experiences I have had in my life. Memories that come to mind when reflecting on that trip are surprisingly not the big planned events that were in our itinerary though. Rather, it is the fleeting moments on the way to those events that often replay themselves the most in my mind. Of course, it was great following the itinerary when it meant I was able to run in international marathons or visit one of the island’s mayors, but the smaller moments in between were more precious because I didn’t feel like I was working.

For instance, I remember walking to a mini-mart in Manila for water bottles with a small group of my fellow researchers. At some point, I turned my head to the side, noticing there was a little boy trailing beside us who seemed in awe of myself and another black woman on our team. Both of us just so happened to have our hair in box braids for the trip and the little boy excitedly waved at us. If I recall this story correctly, he even gave the other woman a high-five. So, he continued to walk alongside us with big eyes and a bright smile, going so far as to follow us into the store with his mother not too far behind. While our group was collecting water and preparing to pay, he came up to us (the two black women of the group) and what he did next made the language barrier between us practically invisible. He turned to me, turned to her, placed his little palm on the top of his head, ran his fingertips from his hairline to the middle of his back all the while twisting his body with attitude, and fanned his hand out to emulate hair blowing in the wind.

I kid you not, no English words were spoken. The little boy simply acted out his message, held his head up high with a smile before turning away to exit the mini-mart, and gave us one last wave good-bye. After he left, the other woman and I shared a look before busting out in giggles and cooing over the precious little boy. Now, we weren’t Filipina and he wasn’t black, but we all understood each other in that moment. He basically said our hair gave him life in the cutest possible way. It was in these kinds of moments where I would smile at children intrigued by my hair, or spend 20 minutes just talking about basketball with a local that brought me the most joy. I can’t tell you how many Laker jerseys I saw on quite a few islands with a sprinkle of Warrior jerseys too. In fact, the majority of my most recent Facebook requests probably came from those brief, but meaningful interactions with locals.

How has Global Education impacted you personally, academically, & professionally?

After my trip to the Philippines, I believe that I became a better version of myself as a professional and in general. On the one hand, I gained valuable qualitative research skills to utilize for the rest of my professional career. I engaged in one-on-one interviews, facilitated focus groups, and constructed field notes throughout my stay there. That hands-on experience has been extremely useful in the classroom setting and in my field work. On the other hand, the trip was good for my personal life as far as exposure goes. I became more historically, culturally, and spiritually informed. On a superficial level, that varied from me doing simple acts such as going on tours in the area, reading more, and learning basic phrases in the language. On a deeper level, this translated into me practicing cultural sensitivity, checking my American privilege, and, lastly, making sure to stay centered in myself whilst being appreciative of all I experienced in this unfamiliar place.

Traveling to the Philippines was 1) the first time I traveled outside of the country as an adult, 2) the first time I really traveled alone internationally, and 3) the farthest I had ever been away from home. I was equally excited and anxious about the whole ordeal. As a child, I had gone on a cruise once that stopped in a few unfamiliar countries that I hadn’t really explored aside from maybe two to three excursions with family. This trip was fairly different in the sense that I was able to stay in a foreign place for a longer period of time. Even though I spent some parts in a hotel setting, I also spent a significant portion living in a room within the local community that had *friendly* geckos to keep me company. In other words, I guess I felt more immersed this time around. I could literally walk to the schools half the community went to, which I couldn’t say I did on the cruise. While this opportunity was incredible, I certainly felt homesick at times and, due to poor wi-fi, I was fairly disconnected from loved ones. Being in this position forced me to rely on my spirituality/faith to get through times in the instances in which I may have felt out of balance or uncomfortable. Granted, it was rare when I felt that way because there was an abundance of beauty in the Philippines, and I happened to be in the company of extraordinary people. That being said, I did become sick while there for a few days and that’s a perfect example of how I personally think my faith/spirituality is what kept me in high spirits even when my peers were nervous for me. I should add that I recovered quickly and think of it now as a minor bump in an overall amazing experience.

What challenges have you had to overcome as you gained your global experience(s)? The grandest obstacle for me in gaining global experience was financial. Essentially, my objective in school was to do the work and graduate. As much as I wanted to study abroad in my undergraduate years, it was too taxing to set it up while working part-time. I didn’t know how I was going to both maintain the job that was just barely supporting me in school and study away. For me, the issue was that there was no guarantee I’d find work that would pay the equivalent of what I was making at the time to support myself for school while in another country. Moreover, every semester (I couldn’t tell you why), there was an issue with my financial aid package. I’d always end up having to make numerous calls or in-person visits before a school semester started in order to resolve the problem. I was terrified that if I ever tried to study abroad during a school year, I wouldn’t be able to fix it because I wouldn’t be on my “home” campus physically. People would tell me that if I picked the right place, studying abroad could be cheaper in another country than living on campus, but it felt too risky. On campus, I knew of the exact fees I had to pay, I had a job that I knew would keep me afloat, and if the financial office gave me trouble as they often did, I knew exactly who to call/see to take care of it. That wouldn’t be the case in another country.

What or who inspired you to take part in a study/internship/work abroad experience?

My academic advisor inspired me and made it possible for me to study abroad. He presented me with the idea of working as a research assistant over the summer (as I was already doing at the time during the school year). That way, it wouldn’t affect my semesters in school being that I didn’t take summer classes. He had noticed the good work that I had been doing both in the classroom and in my job, which prompted him to connect me with the right people to go on this trip. It wasn’t quite an offer to go on a vacation, but it was the international experience I was craving. I just had to keep up the work I had been doing in order to go and cover me financially.

How has your identity impacted your global experience(s)?

As a black woman, I have come to accept that many of the things I choose to practice or do based off of my culture/ancestry are deemed outside of the norm. Traveling outside of the U.S. as an American already separates me in itself when it comes to preconceived notions, the privilege I have relative to other countries, etc., but adding my brown skin into the equation convoluted my identity globally. Although I was fortunate to not experience flagrant racism in the Philippines, it did not change the fact that I was still an “other” even in comparison to the research group (many of whom were also from the U.S.) I was accompanied by. I was one of three black students on that trip and wherever we traveled, we were the three who were consistently stared at.

Despite the staring, I must admit that I felt a different kind of admiration that I feel is less common in the U.S. For instance, a local on the street may have stared at me as I passed by, but then they would come up to me and say something like, “I’ve never seen anyone like you before. You’re beautiful.” In my opinion, there is quite a vast difference between scrunching up your nose and “othering” someone with insensitive questions versus having genuine curiosity about someone or asking politely to learn more about them. Many of the people in the Philippines who asked about my hair had not seen a black person before and there aren’t many black people there. I was told countless times by locals that they have only seen black people on television, if at all. Meanwhile, the U.S. has plenty of black people and whether or not one comes into contact with them, I think, is their choice. Plus, there is a wealth of resources accessible to learn about black people. All of this considered, it is fair to say that I grew accustomed to being perceived as an “other” outside of my community.

In some ways, I am grateful for this because it both has solidified the confidence I have in my identity, and been humbling to my character at the same time, essentially grounding me in who I am. I have grown to be unapologetically accepting of and content with my hair or the way that my body is shaped because I’ve been questioned about those parts of myself since I could walk. I had to learn how to love those parts of me more than anybody else, so that I would be okay in environments that loved me and environments that may not have known how to. If you ask me, that is probably how the concept of being “unapologetically black” became a widespread mantra.

How has/ had seeing other people of color/diverse backgrounds influenced your decision to study/ intern abroad?

Prior to traveling outside of the country for the first time, I had never met another person of color who regretted their decision to go abroad. When I saw people who looked like me return from international travel possessing newfound joy, wisdom, and passion for seeing more in the world, I thought it was beautiful and hoped to experience that for myself as well.

As a Kultural Kurator, what does culture mean to you?

Culture is a shared experience made up of the living, non-living, and intangible things in life that connect people to others while simultaneously reinforcing identity. It encompasses tradition, methods of survival, spirituality/faith, entities that make us feel good (food, art, fashion, etc.,), and so much more. Though I listed these components separately, through culture they can be intrinsically interconnected. What fascinates me about culture is that through it I can share an inexplicable bond varying in degrees of respect to downright love with not only loved ones, but complete strangers who identify with the same one that I do.

Self/Soul care is so important as we live our lives and grow in our professions. How do you incorporate self/soul care into your life?

I believe that learning and becoming in-tune with oneself is a never-ending journey. Therefore, I’m always discovering new things about self/soul care that work for me. Listening to music or my favorites podcast(s), reading, and praying are my primary go-to outlets. I’m currently searching for additional ones, but have also realized that anything that engages my senses positively is also great even if it is for a brief moment. Applying an aromatherapy lotion in the morning to start my day, stepping outside for fresh air when I have a chance, or sipping on tea when working at my desk on a stressful assignment/task are a few conscious decisions I may make on an average day to bring me some peace.

What advice would you give to a future Kultural Kurator as they think about taking opportunities to explore the world around them?

I would advise a future Kultural Kurator that’s intent on exploring the world to be open. I encourage being open to what is presented to you in the new place(s) you visit. Also, I encourage being open to what you can consciously bring or give to a new place. Mind you, there are various forms of giving ranging from the energy you bring to physical acts.

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