StoriesBack to Stories
Catching up with YES Abroad Alumna Wawa
After spending a year in Thailand with YES Abroad, Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru (YES Abroad 2014-2015, Thailand) has gone on to accomplish many milestones, including becoming the first Black person to receive both the Truman and Udall Scholarships and now spending a year in England on a Rhodes Scholarship studying Nature, Society and Environmental Governance.
Wawa is also the founder of BlackGirlEnvironmentalist (BGE), a community for Black girls, women, and non-binary environmental activists to support one another. In honor of Black History Month, BGE is currently leading the Reclaiming Our Time campaign to highlight Black climate activists at the forefront of addressing the climate crisis. “Black Girl Environmentalist envisions a world in which Black environmentalists are centered in the sustainability narrative. While many of us exist, our work is rarely highlighted. We hope to change this with Reclaiming Our Time.”
As part of the initiative, BGE activists, including Wawa, have hosted Live interviews with prominent brands, individuals, and organizations to educate people on the intersections between social justice and environmentalism. During a Reclaiming Our Time interview with actor Mark Ruffalo, Wawa discussed what it looks like to decolonize environmentalism and why intersectional environmentalism is crucial to ensuring justice for all.
Wawa was also recently featured during an interview with Katherine David-Fox, Program Officer of the Youth Programs Division at the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), about her YES Abroad experience. Wawa says that YES Abroad taught her relationship building and communication skills, “Those skills...were things I don’t think I could have gotten anywhere else.” The mission of YES Abroad resonated greatly with Wawa and the experience of living in Thailand for one year helped her see the world in different contexts.“Having those experiences of getting to really communicate with people all the time, really gave me the confidence to put myself out there more, and also pushed me to learn the language.”
Wawa also shared her perspective on not seeing many people like her going on exchange programs. “I do remember feeling as though there was a barrier internally in which I didn’t see many Black and Brown faces participating in exchange programs...and I remember thinking well, does that mean I can’t do this? If I didn’t see myself there maybe I’m not the right person for this experience. And what I want to say for any of y’all of color that are watching this and are thinking about applying to something like YES Abroad and might feel this way, is that your experiences as an American are extremely valid...submit that application because your narrative matters.”
Wawa’s plans for the future “are to live without expectations…[in Thailand], I really didn’t have any expectations and I think that was the best thing for me because I got there and just lived every single day to the best of my ability.”
Read more about Wawa’s YES Abroad experience here!