The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: International social entrepreneurship

May 22nd, 2013

Dear Prospective Student,

My name is Kyra Seay; I am a third year student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Interdepartmental Studies Program. It is through this program that I am in the process of creating my own major with an intellectual focus on international social entrepreneurship, a business enterprise exercised in a global context that aims to provide a solution to a particular social issue, in addition to profit. It is through this individualized plan of study that I will combine my passions of international studies, social work, human rights, and entrepreneurship.

I’ve grown up in a handful of different places but I have spent the majority of my life in Keokuk, Iowa a town in the southernmost part of Iowa.

The first time that I traveled abroad I was only 13 years old. I spent two weeks in Kai, Yamanashi Japan on a Sister-city exchange trip. This experience shaped my life in many ways, but most prominently it transformed my interest for other cultures into a passion for the nations. It showed me that even someone like me could see the world, that traveling wasn’t just reserved for the rich kids and their families’ vacations. I also learned that there were people out there that were willing to give in order for me to reach my dreams. My community was extremely generous, they responded to my letter in the newspaper (my grandma’s idea) with checks and thoughtful letters. My family was extremely supportive, but also very vocal about their fears of plane crashes, kidnapping, or terrorist attacks. Barely anyone in my family had been on a plane, and no one had traveled outside of the United States, so it made sense that they were scared of the unknown. However, that is exactly what was so appealing to me. I felt like I was doing something different. My time in Japan was way too short, I found myself in tears leaving my host family once my experience came to an end. I was ready to see my family and have some of my mom’s cooking, but I wasn’t exactly excited to leave Japan or my new family and friends.

During my freshman year of high school, I returned to Japan through a similar program. It was during this trip that I noted, very frequently, that I was the only black person for miles. In Iowa it was never rare to be the only black student in a class, but this was a little different. I felt as if the blonde girl with her blue eyes and I were tied for our rarity and the amount of attention that we drew from the locals. The attention varied from fear to utter amusement. It was a strange feeling to have someone explain to you that the reason their child is frightened is because they have never seen anyone that looks like you before. For the most part, the attention that all of us Americans received resembled that of celebrities and paparazzi.  Of course as a teenage girl, I loved it!

I know that in America it is a little harder to tell if someone is a foreigner or not just by looking at them, because of our vast and heterogeneous population. In Japan the way I was treated as a foreigner was a lot different than how I’ve seen foreigners treated in the states. In my experience, whether or not someone was a foreigner was just something to take note of, and wonder about, no action was taken. In Japan, after I got through all of the impromptu photo-shoots, I was often approached and asked about how I was enjoying the country. I received warm welcomes, and was asked of my plans to return. I know that each society has their reasons for doing what they do in this situation. Personally, I have decided to adopt the Japanese way of acknowledging foreigners (minus the camera action). I can honestly say it has served me well, and I have met a lot of really amazing people because of this.

More Experiences Abroad: I left the country one more time during my high school career by joining my school’s science club to travel with them to Costa Rica to do research with leatherback sea turtles.  It wasn’t until the summer of my sophomore year in college that I returned to Japan. I participated in an intensive language program for two and a half months. Directly after this program I flew into the U.S. for one day and then flew out to the Dominican Republic.  

In the D.R. I stayed with a host family. One day my host sister begged to play with my phone. By this time I learned how to keep my phone on and avoid the roaming charges so I let her play with it. My 13 year old host sister became obsessed with asking me to use or have all of my electronics, which mostly included my laptop, and my cell phone. It actually was beginning to be really annoying to me. I wanted to shout at her that, “No, I can’t just buy a new one!” To her, I was rich. If I wanted I could just give her my laptop and buy a new one the second I stepped back into the U.S. This definitely was not my case at all.  After this incessant behavior, I made an effort to keep all my technology tucked away when I was at the house. I began trying to distract her with my eye shadow skills, crazy patterned clothes, and childhood stories. In both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, I stared poverty and injustice in the eyes. From this trip forward I would never refer to myself as poor ever again. My family doesn’t have a lot of cash to spare much for things outside of the necessities, but it has never been a situation with question of survival. The next time my little sister asked for my cell phone I decided to explain to her that I was not the type of rich she thought I was. I explained that America too has its problems, and that although she deserved the world I could not give my things to her. I shared with her that I was there for her to share her culture with me, and not to infect her world with things that steal personal face-to-face interaction. I then shared with her in more detail about my family and the way I grew up. We ended the night with her in my bed begging Mama for just five more minutes. She later apologized and proceeded to tell me my phone wasn’t that cool anyways (in a joking manner).

As you can imagine this particular experience put me in a strange place. All too often in my normal daily life I am put into a position where I feel financially disadvantaged. But never have I been outright considered privileged in terms economic status. Facing the reality that I was rich in comparison to her was difficult. Looking back, I am not so sure that I said the right things to her, but I do know that both she and I walked away with a lesson that night. She now knows that not all Americans live in mansions, especially not her hermana mayor. It became clear that I was being careless about my technology usage and insensitive to the delicate environment. My hermanita looked up to me; she wanted to be like me. If I’m walking around with a cell phone in one hand and an ipod in the other, what do I expect her to desire? For the rest of the trip I labeled myself unplugged. I was sure to spend time with mi hermanita and her amigas listening to their dreams and being the best role model I could be with a book in my hands instead.

China: In March 2013 I was so honored to be selected to travel to China with the Rivers as Bridges program for spring break. People are so quick to label people by their outside appearance. I think that in our minds subconsciously we group Asians together as if separate cultures and histories don’t exist. Although I knew that China and Japan are two very different countries with very distinct differences in culture, this knowledge did not stop me from being surprised with just how different the two were. It was so cool to see China come to live before me. Seeing the Forbidden City, a panda bear, and the Great Wall was unreal, and I still have to look at my pictures for affirmation that I had the honor to be there.

Over the years I have been blessed with an abundant amount of opportunity to travel, and to learn from those who do and see things differently. Studying and traveling abroad has truly had an effect on the way I see the world, and the way I see myself. There is no telling when I may be challenged to use a skill that I gained abroad, or inspired to draw from my experience in other countries.

Next semester I plan to travel to the Dominican Republic to go to finish my minor in Spanish, and to do an internship. I am not sure what to expect except for, but I know it will be worthwhile.