I turned 20 in London. It was junior year of college, and I was on an internship program at the U.S. Embassy. The night before turning 20, I met a boy. That boy liked me and we had a lot of fun for 4 months. He liked me so much that we carried on. I felt very adult carrying on a trans-Atlantic relationship after my semester there.
The following summer, I turned down an internship at a Fortune 100 company, got myself a temporary working visa through BUNAC, and went back to London. Within a week, I found myself a temp job, an apartment, a bank account, and was properly working and living in a different country, with pay. That summer opened up a world of possibilities. I liked the challenge of figuring out life, and not following a predetermined path.
And that led me to realize I did not want to spend the rest of my life in London, as great of a city as it is. I went back to St. Louis for my senior year, single, in search for life after college. For weeks, I would google “international career” everyday for inspiration. Just before my 21st birthday, I applied for the Peace Corps, and never looked back. I did not apply for a single “real” job in my senior year.
Two years in Cameroon was significant in a way that I did not realize until long after I departed. I learned about what it means to be human. I embraced that very different life with an open heart, and as a result, I respected and loved that life. Yet, it wasn’t until my late 20s did I realize that lesson on humanity made me see fancy degrees, cars, houses, and job titles differently. At the time, I was still chasing after the American dream.
I applied to grad school during my second year in Cameroon in 2009, and was accepted by fancy schools. But none of my friends in my Cameroonian village know about my fancy school. That should have been a sign. Yet my naive self thought a fancy school degree would be the key that solves all potential roadblocks I’d face in life.
Six weeks after leaving Cameroon, I started grad school back in London. I was 25. I suffered from reverse culture shock back in the “real world”. I did not care about grades. Arbitrary marks on assignments seem inconsequential when I think back on that life just six weeks prior, living each day hoping the electricity wouldn’t cut, or that there would be enough water supply. Despite pursuing a degree in international development, few classmates wanted to talk about what it means to live in a developing world. Most, instead, were chasing after jobs in banking or consulting. I couldn’t connect theories taught with the realities experienced over the prior two years. I knew I chose the wrong program. I was blinded by the big scholarship dangled in front of me.
I enjoyed the second year of the graduate program in New York immensely more. I found my place, with people who I could relate to and understood me. A year after leaving Cameroon, I began to grasp how the experience had changed me. I yearned to be back in that setting, where my work has direct impact every single day. Yet, I struggle to define my place in that world. My ideal had always been to leverage private sector practices for global development. I searched for work that practiced this ideal.
Yet, reality beckoned. I spent the summer after graduation working for an African bank’s International Development Group, collecting $2,000 a month in New York City. Meanwhile, interviewing left and right for positions in international development that appeared to align with my ideals. It didn’t take long for my ideals to crumble into basic survival needs – the need to escape that mountain of debt. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs had never seemed more applicable.
The survival instinct scanned through options, and made the bold move for China. That was four year ago, and I was 26. The journey has been challenging, but now I have reaped the benefit. Recently, that negative net worth turned positive. I’ve spent the last three years corporate grinding in one of the most admired companies in the world. My basic needs on Maslow’s triangle have been met, and now I have the freedom to self-actualize.
Every trip that I’ve taken over the past four years have reminded me the need to step outside of the comfort zone. My interaction with humanity outside of the glittering metropolis have reminded me that fancy degrees and corporate ladders will not lead me to fulfillment. But what will? That’s the task for the next decade.
As much as career and life decisions have shaped me, navigating through the hot waters of relationships impacted me even more. I had spent the last decade transforming from a helplessly romantic girl to a confident woman who enjoys being on her own as much as sharing life with a partner. Dating stories from the decade were plentiful; some heartwarming, some heart wrenching, some were downright bizarre, and most challenged me to become the better version of myself.
The twenties have taken me to a place I could not have ever imagined. I’ve traveled through twenty countries and crossed path with incredible individuals, each with their unique story, and inspires me in different ways. My friend Gabe once told me, “30 is the new 20”. I can’t wait to live this new 20. To mark this momentous occasion, I am checking myself into a yoga retreat in a sleepy village 30 kilometers outside of Kochi, India. I have no idea what will happen, both on this trip and the next decade, but that’s exactly how I like it.