William & Mary

In First Person

Q&A with Keabra OpongBrown '16

  •  La Feria de San Telmo in Buenos Aires, a street fair  Keabra OpongBrown
  •  Me eating pastel, a fried savory pastry in a street fair in São Paulo  Keabra OpongBrown
  •  Cataratas del Iguazu (Iguazu Falls) one of the 7 natural wonders of the world that is a natural border between Argentina and Brazil  Keabra OpongBrown
  •  Escadaria Selaron (Selaron Staircase) in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro. This was built by Jorge Selarón, a Chilean born Brazilian painter and ceramist who decorated the staircase tile by tile, and soon tiles from around the world were sent to him.  Keabra OpongBrown
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Keabra OpongBrown ’16 was a student in W&M’s semester program in La Plata, Argentina in 2015. A thoughtful and insightful young woman, OpongBrown agreed to share some of what she observed and experienced during her study abroad as well as her advice to other students.

Where were you born? What do you consider your home town?

I was born in Spokane, WA, but I would consider Woodbridge, VA (NoVA) and Seattle, WA, to be my home town. Both places because as a military child, your concept of home is heavily impacted not only by the duration of a place you were in, but also by the people there. My mother’s side of the family has been in the Seattle area since I was born, and it really feels like home to me, but Northern Virginia is where I went to school and where I have most of my friends from high school and college.

What was your major at W&M?

Government and Hispanic Studies

Did you have a favorite course or professor while you were at W&M?

Anything with Professor Kathleen Boyle. 2015-16 was her last year at the College but she is an amazing scholar, a skilled professor, and just a great person in general. Andrea Castellucio taught Argentine Cinema during spring 2014, and that was the first time I really understood how films allow us to better understand various perspectives of the time period in which a particular film was made. Lastly, Culture and Cuisine with Brad Weiss in the Anthropology Department really allowed me to question food: how we make it, with whom, when, and how we consume it, what we consume, what is considered edible vs food, and food justice and the environment. It really challenged how I think of food.

Why did you want to study abroad?

Being a military child, I was used to living in very different areas, and my father made it clear that we are all enriched by becoming aware of other people’s experiences; a 10-day vacation only shows a microcosm of life in a place you visit, but living there allows you to truly understand what that life and culture is about.

Did you have a location or program in mind when you began investigating study abroad?

I knew I wanted to be in a Spanish or Portuguese speaking country to see how well my language
skills worked.

What appealed to you about the program in La Plata?

After living in the Spanish House for a year, with a woman from the La Plata program, it only made sense for me to go there. The big deciding factor, however, was the fact that I was able to use my William & Mary Scholars Award to pay for the tuition. Also, there was much less paperwork than a third party program.

Do you have any favorite memories of La Plata?

I had the opportunity to work as an English teacher at Instituto Anglo-Frances in La Plata, and it all happened very unexpectedly. It was two blocks from my house, and while getting to know the area, I walked past the school with my roommate Savannah Stevens (‘17), rang the doorbell, asked to volunteer, and we got a placement. Being able to help 100+ students work on their English--such an important skill for them--made me feel my impact would extend well after I left. The students and staff welcomed Savannah and me with open arms. My boss and her mother have come to visit the States twice during 2016!

Were there any surprises?

I was shocked to see for the first time the middle ground between a developed and a developing country. There were days where we did not have hot water or wifi (which meant we could not talk to our families. The poor infrastructure and political corruption leave Argentina in a difficult situation to improve.

I was also surprised to see that so many Argentines do not identify with being ‘Latin-American’, claiming that their (predominantly) Italian heritage and fair skin made them different from the rest of Central and South America.

Did you have any concerns about the program or about study abroad? How did you cope?

As a result of the media, and preferences, when most people around the world think of a young American girl studying abroad, they picture a white, averaged height, cute, and most likely blonde girl. I am short and African-American, and in a country as homogenous as Argentina, I knew I would stand out, and this was a large concern of mine prior to leaving.

Most study-abroad related difficulties stem from lack of familiarity with culture, or with the language, but that usually subsides significantly after a few months in the country. For me, however, I would never not be black, and my identity was constantly put into question. On my way to class, in the train station, people would take pictures of me without my permission, and would point and laugh and stare; it was brutal.

You can never really cope with something like that, but I cried quite a bit, and talked with people close to me who would care. Race is a sensitive subject, and a lot of people do not care to talk about it because it makes them uncomfortable, they think you’re complaining, or they do not believe that physical characteristics can really change your experiences, so I unfortunately was not able to talk about it with many people. I tried to realize that since Argentina is so homogenous, my being an anomaly simply sparked curiosity, but that is hard when you identify so strongly as an American, and your appearance seems to contradict that identity.

How do you think your study abroad experience has affected your life and future plans?

Well first off, it really allowed me to appreciate the diversity of the Northern Virginia area, and how I know in the future, I need to be in an area where my leaving the house has me fearful of how people react to the color of my skin.

I also have reaffirmed my desire to spend at least one more year abroad while working to experience another country as an adult, instead of a student, and I really hope to work for the Foreign Service.

Do you have any advice for current students?

START EARLY. If you even think you want to study abroad as a freshman, look into it. See what time of year you want to go, which usually impacts those in the Science, Math and B-School because your classes are only offered at certain times of the year. Read blogs, talk to your peers who have studied abroad, do research, and ask your parents. Also, understand the country you are going to: How are women treated? Is there verbal street harassment? Will my faith/race be accepted? Is my diet feasible in this area? Those are the questions that usually get addressed once in country, and it’s much better to know prior.

Do you think international experience as a student is helpful in future life and career?
YES. In an increasingly globalized world, it is important to understand how different cultures work so that we as a nation are not offended by differences. Also, being in Argentina, and in Brazil (where I spent a week) really allowed me to see that not everyone looks up to the US that way we make think they do; people in Latin American still feel the wounds of neocolonialism, and really question our assumed hegemony and importance in the global world. It is important to recognize these scars, and let countries be sovereign states without intervening at a moment’s notice.

Anything else you’d like to add?
STUDY ABROAD. Especially for those who feel that they are not independent, are home-bodies, or have never really left their comfort zones; studying abroad is a wonderful, challenging, mind-blowing, one of a kind experience that leaves you so enriched and shows you your strengths. I wish it was an experience everyone could enjoy, and for that reason, to those reading this article, if you have extra finances to help a student make this a reality, please consider donating to the Reves or Charles Centers to help students experience this wonderful opportunity.

If you were designing a study abroad program – what elements would you make sure to include?

I would make sure to include a trip/excursion in country that was far away from the main tourist hub that most study abroad programs are in. I would make sure that students are immersed in the culture, instead of staying with the American students in their program. Finally, I would allow for some flexibility in programming. My being able to decide to volunteer at a language institute, something I am very passionate about, was such an important experience to me that I think about almost every day. It is imperative that students are able to find their passions that they have at home, while abroad. The growth and learning from that is unparalleled.

After graduation, OpongBrown continues to pursue her passions. She had an internship at the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C. Currently, she’s teaching violin lessons and playing for weddings and other events in the Washington area while waiting to hear back from job applications.