Student Journey Series: Ilana Kegel

Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Ilana Kegel. Ilana is a Marketing Manager at Walmart working on digital media targeting and planning. She works to optimize marketing expenditures to ensure efficient and impactful media delivery. She recently graduated with her MBA from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business – Go Blue!

Global travel has been a part of my life and my sense of self since I was 6 months old. My parents are South African – born and bred – and moved to Seattle in the 1970s, leaving behind their parents, my dad’s sister, and many cousins. Because our family was spread across the globe, and my parents were big fans of travel, international trips have been a regular event and make up some of my fondest memories since I was six months old. I am very lucky to have been brought up with this privileged exposure to all the world has to offer. It is energizing and mind-opening and had me hooked.

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I made a traditional Senegalese meal for my friends and family and taught them how to eat with their hands.

Having lived and loved this travel-filled youth, I have since sought out pretty much every global education opportunity that passed my way. In 7th grade, I traveled to Russia for two weeks with a group of fellow middle school students from Lakeside School. In high school, I spent a month in Germany with a language immersion program and home stay through Concordia Language Villages. In college, I chose my major based largely on my desire to travel more (in addition to a love of international relations and a goal of having a positive impact on the world). This major led me to study abroad in Senegal for a semester with the School for International Training and to intern with a hospital in Tanzania for a summer. Most recently in my MBA program at the University of Michigan, I spent a week in Ethiopia conducting research for a class consulting project. These experiences have been highly varied, and all entirely worth it.

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Making chocolate chip cookies with slightly different ingredients and tools for my host family. They were not fans…

Global travel is a gift to the individual who is lucky enough to experience it, and it’s a gift to those he or she interacts with. With travel, you are exposed to people, places, foods, smells, modes of transportation, communication styles, lifestyles, life values, and many more facets of a reality that is different from your own. When you’re in the minority on each of these facets, you can’t as easily write everyone else off as crazy; you have to – if even for a second – consider that you might be the crazy one. Experiencing these differences, understanding them, accepting them as valid, and forcing yourself to live them teaches you empathy.

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One of my Senegalese hosts taught me how to carry a baby. It’s not as easy as it looks!

The ability to consider others’ approaches as valid and to be open to fully understanding before judging is an incredibly important skill. As we move faster and faster toward an age dependent on innovation, the ability to see the world through someone else’s perspective will become ever more critical. Not to mention that empathy makes us more compassionate and thoughtful citizens. Global education is one of the most effective ways to give yourself, and others you interact with, this gift.

So, you might wonder where all this travel landed me. After many twists and turns, my early dreams of working for the Foreign Service in a new country every two years, or for a non-profit in West Africa, meandered to my current reality: working in Marketing for Walmart. It turns out that empathy is also a really important skill in marketing. I love thinking about our customers and the communication styles that will speak to them. Just goes to show, you never know where your travels will take you or what they’ll teach you, but you can have no doubt that you will learn and grow. Here are a few take-aways from my travels that I think of often:

1)   It’s okay to just sit. In Senegal, one of my biggest challenges was to be comfortable with the significant amount of time we spent sitting without talking or doing anything. It was a completely foreign concept for me and was a fascinating reflection point.

2)   A sense of urgency is not a universal concept and you have to understand and respect how others view time. Cultures place varying emphasis on promptness. It’s always important to learn the unwritten rules that you are working within, whether they speak to time or something else.

3)   Often when things seem chaotic, there is an underlying system and organization, you just haven’t yet learned to read the patterns. It’s always important to listen and learn first, before assuming you understand. You might be surprised by the details you can miss.

4)   Those closest to the issues usually come up with the best solutions to the problem.  I had been passionate about pursuing a career in development abroad, but my travel experiences opened my eyes to the innovations and ingenuity of the locals in Senegal and Tanzania that were solving their own problems in more sustainable ways than I could provide. It’s always best to get as close to the core problem as you can and ask those living it for their ideas of solutions.

5)   It’s a big world – keep your perspective. It’s always helpful to take a step back from your current frustrations and challenges and remember you are a small player in a big world with a lot left to learn.

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My husband and I enjoying some sun and music at a Head and the Heart concert.

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