Occupation: I am currently an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Malaysia as a part of a Fulbright Fellowship. I majored in public relations and history at the University of Miami and graduated in May of 2012.
Hometown: Washington, DC
I have been blessed to travel to 28 countries: Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Honduras, El Salvador, Senegal, The Gambia, South Africa, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain (lived here for 5 months. Whattup Barcelona!), Italy, the Netherlands, Malaysia (my current home), Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), India, the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan. I have also been to over 40 states in the US.
What inspired you to go abroad?
I really owe it all to my family. Although I am born and raised in DC, my family has always thought it was important to expose my sister and I to the rest of the world. I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but there were summers when my friends would be playing with the newest Sega games or hanging out at recreation centers and instead I was taking road trips across the country with my family or going to Europe, Africa, etc. My parents are not materialistic at all so I was never one to have the newest clothes or toys but what I realize now is that they were giving me life experiences that has encouraged me to seek out what the rest of the world has to offer.
A lot of these trips were very short but still amazing. Some of my longer trips were in Spanish speaking countries because I have always wanted to learn Spanish. I spent a summer in between Honduras and El Salvador doing service projects and a semester my junior year college in Spain. When I applied for my Fulbright grant I initially wanted to return to Spain, but when my grant adviser recommended Malaysia as something different I decided to give it a shot. This is my second year teaching in Malaysia and I have really enjoyed exploring the country as well as Asia as a whole. Definitely an amazing part of the world! Once I’m in an area if there are countries close by I will most likely try to get there, whether I know much about the country or not. There’s always an adventure to be had.
What has been your best experience? Worst experience?
I absolutely loved Spain! I think a piece of my heart is still over there and I cannot wait to go back and find it. Barcelona is completely different than the Spain I learned about in school, so I enjoyed living there and learning from a Catalonian perspective.
I thoroughly enjoyed the two weeks I spent in Santa Marta, El Salvador, just a beautiful rural area where it gets dark at 5 p.m. and the stories of the civil war are rich. I stayed with an abuela and her daughter and granddaughter, none of whom spoke English, and by the end of it was able to converse with family about how most of the abuela’s family was killed trying to flee during the civil war, including her husband. Although I was only 14 or 15 when I went, this experience still stands out as one of the richest I’ve had traveling.
Living in Malaysia has been one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had but also one of the most challenging. I have not run into many race related issues being an African-American female, but race tension throughout the country is very prevalent making for some hostile and unpleasant interactions. The gender differences can also be very taxing. Malaysia is a country where a majority of the Muslim women wear head coverings (here they’re called tudongs), and clothing that covers everything from the neck down, but there’s still a sizeable percentage of the population that is Chinese or Indian and don’t adhere to these clothing restrictions. This makes being a foreigner engaged in the teaching culture very difficult, but then exercising your freedom of personal expression through dress outside of school is also difficult because no matter what you wearing you will almost always feel objectified. There have been times when my housemate and I have been walking back from the gym wearing a long skirt and a long sleeve shirt and still have still had to hastily walk to our home due to people following us on motorbikes or cars. I feel very safe here, but there are some things I’m extra alert about just because of how I know I’m perceived as a foreign female.
How did you hear about these opportunities?
My high school presented me with a lot of international service trips so I went to Honduras and South Africa with members from my high school. I always knew about studying abroad but I had to seek it out in college. Because a lot of students from the University of Miami are from other countries I didn’t feel like information was readily available, but once I found the office I never left. My best friend Kelly actually told me about Fulbright. I remember sitting in my sister’s apartment the summer before senior year of college and freaking out because I knew I wanted to live abroad after college but just didn’t know how I financially could. Kelly mentioned that Fulbright was a fully funded government program and that I could virtually go anywhere in the world. I’d heard of Fulbright Grants but was not aware that there was an English teaching fellowship as well. That day I contacted Kefryn Reese, the adviser at the University of Miami, and she helped me tremendously to make my dreams become a reality.
Some of the service trips in high school were able to be included in my tuition (I attended a private school). The study abroad program I did (CEA Global Education) actually cost less than a semester’s tuition at UM so my parents paid for my semester. And yea big ups to all the tax payers for bringing me out to Malaysia because my Fulbright grant is fully funded by the American and Malaysian government. Once I get to my initial destination though any additional travel I pay for or my parents help me out.
What have you learned from your travels?
Through traveling I’ve learned how humans are inherently all the same. Yes you may come across different customs and experiences, but the fundamentals are all the same. When I travel I enjoy wandering and meeting people more than visiting the sites that are included in tour books. It’s when you meet the people that you realize how much you have in common with the inhabitants of a place that is so far from home. The architecture tells one story, which I will not discredit, but the personal interactions tell something a little more powerful for me. Traveling throughout Asia has taught me to be a lot more flexible. Almost nothing will go according to plan, so you just have to be open and accepting to whatever adventure you are about to embark on.
Where do you plan to visit in the future?
We have a school break coming up at the end of May, so I have tickets to go to Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and back to Thailand. Before I leave Asia I would like to check out Nepal because I’ve heard amazing things. Next up on my big adventure list is South America. I have heard nothing but positive things about the people and beauty in South America so I would like to try and spend some time there. Also Prague is high on my list as well as Germany, Greece, and Egypt. Pretty much I want to see the world. Every place has beauty and a story to tell and I would consider myself truly blessed if I am able to even get a snippet of those narratives.
Want to get in touch with Leah?
Facebook: Leah Imani
Website: (Still in progress) http://ldanville.wix/the-eta-exchange