Jamaica Pouncy was the National Fellowships Coordinator in LAUNCH and advisor for University Scholars from 2012-2016, and continued to work with our office on a part time basis through 2017. In the post below (part 1 of 2), she reflects on how travel and reflection on her professional goals led her to pursue a career abroad.
By Jamaica Pouncy –
My intention in writing this piece is twofold: first, I want to tell my story because I hope that it can inspire and help others and because it is immensely gratifying to work with those who believe my experiences are worth hearing about (thank you, Dr. Kotinek!).
My first international trip was technically as a baby. My parents were leaving a military base in Germany and they brought me on the plane where my mother tells me I slept…. well, like a baby, for the entire journey. Hardly worth mentioning except that I really like the story my parents tell about my birth and trip to the U.S. And since it fit with my theme of international travel I thought, ‘why not?’ However, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this trip doesn’t really count, at least in my opinion, as international travel. I wasn’t required to navigate the complicated bureaucracy and paperwork related to visas and passports; repack my suitcase three or four times; or figure out how to ask for the bathroom when the person I’m talking to doesn’t speak English and I don’t know the word for bathroom in any other language. So I think my story of international travel and what it has taught me should really begin with my time at A&M.
I had been in the LAUNCH office (Honors and Undergraduate Research at the time) for about 6 months when Dr. Datta and Dr. Kotinek approached me about co-leading the Champe Fitzhugh trip in Italy. I jumped at the opportunity to have my first “real” international trip. I learned a lot in that initial experience; much of it before I even left Texas. I had never been through the passport process or attempted to convert currency or had to decide what to pack when you couldn’t be guaranteed a quick trip to the corner store to pick up anything you forgot. In some weird way I didn’t really believe I was going to go. And that feeling persisted until the plane actually left the runway. Honestly, even while I was in the air it didn’t feel real. But several hours later we touched down in Germany for our layover and I was walking through customs (where I had a fascinating conversation about my inability to speak German despite having Germany listed as my place of birth on my passport).
The Champe Fitzhugh trip was everything you could want for your first international trip; Italy was beautiful, my traveling companions were delightful, and we had few mishaps. I think, for many people and certainly for me, international travel holds equal parts fascination and fear. There is the desire to see other parts of the world combined with the idea that, somehow, something might go wrong and you will simply be out of your element and incapable of functioning. That trip taught me not to be fearful of the international landscape and I left Italy hooked on international travel and thinking about where I might go next. As it turns out, my next international trip was also related to my work in the LAUNCH office.
It was during my first year as fellowships coordinator that I was able to recognize a large gap in my professional understanding. I was working with students as they applied to awards that would fund graduate study in the UK and Ireland. Naturally we would talk about the British and Irish educational systems; the best programs; and the appropriate fit for each student. Except I really had no experience with either educational system. The information I was providing could really have been found online and I felt superfluous. I spoke to Dr. Datta and she suggested that I submit a proposal detailing my ideas for changing that situation.
The proposal, which asked the university to fund a trip to the UK and Ireland, was my first experience with grant writing. And that experience was transformative. I didn’t really expect the proposal to be successful. I was there to do a job for the university, why would any of the upper administration be interested in my inability to do that job except as it relates to my employability? But, they were interested. Not only were they interested in what was best for the students but they were interested in helping me cultivate and refine my skillset. They agreed, Dr. Datta said, because they saw something worthwhile in me; something that was worth investing in. So I packed my bags and headed off to the UK and Ireland.
My mother was much more worried about my trip to the UK and Ireland than I was. It was after all my first international trip completely alone. I would be responsible for myself and there would be no one to lean on if something went wrong. But it was Great Britain. An English-speaking, first world country. I assured her I’d be fine and the worst thing that would happen would be spending Thanksgiving in a hotel instead of at home with family. I boarded my flight with no problems and relaxed into my seat where I slept for the majority of the 6 hours. I landed in Heathrow and sailed through customs. I strolled through the airport to pick up my luggage and approached the carousel to grab my bag. Only to discover that my luggage had been damaged on the trip. And not just a few bumps and scrapes, it was absolutely, completely, destroyed and clearly couldn’t fly anymore. Heck it couldn’t even roll anymore. I couldn’t lug that thing around a foreign country for 4 weeks!
Oh well. It was getting late and dark and I decided to tackle the problem in the morning. I figured there was nothing to be done about it then so I went to the information desk to ask about a shuttle to my hotel. I walked up, asked about the shuttle, and the desk attendant smiled and started to speak…. And I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Was that really English? It was so fast and…. different. Cue my first (of many) international freak-outs. I’m proud to say that, after several opportunities to practice and hone the ability over the years, I’ve now mastered the art of the internal freak-out. No need to disturb (and terrify) everyone around you when the entire episode can happen in your head! I asked him to repeat the information (twice!) and finally figured out that I needed to buy a shuttle ticket. I went to the ATM to pull out money and discovered that all of my cards were frozen for international use. A word to the wise: always remember to tell your banks when you plan to travel out of the country, my friends. So, there I was, in the airport as night descended with a busted suitcase and no money.
Luckily the shuttle agent took pity on me and let me ride to my hotel for free where, after a night of sleep, I was able to straighten things out. I like to think that by frontloading all of my issues into the first day at the airport I managed to avoid having constant mishaps throughout my journey. Apart from getting lost and wandering the oddly deserted streets of Edinburgh for a few hours, the rest of my trip went off without a hitch. I think I will always feel that my time in the UK and Ireland struck a perfect balance between the acquisition of professional knowledge and personal confidence. I learned a lot about the UK and Irish education systems (which, of course, was the goal after all). But I also learned that when things do go wrong (as they often do) I am capable of finding solutions and pushing forward. It’s a lesson I have been able to take and apply to all parts of my life.