Updated: Jan 26, 2021
It's too cliché to write, but I couldn't help myself. If there's interest, I can write a more literal "step-by-step/how to guide" with my internship experiences, interviews etc. but that's a different blog post for another day. This reads more as a soliloquy with an English-lilt and mostly American spelling, aka me living as the main character in my own life. If you consider this clickbait my sincerest apologies in advance, you don't have to read it.
You know the phrase: "Jack of all trades, master of none"? I'm not sure that anything has ever resonated so deeply, outside of the Enneagram and the Kermit meme (hyperbolic sentiments fully intended here). At 14, when the UK government informed me that I must "choose" what and who I wanted to be, they ignited a mental tug of war between the arts, namely creativity, and science. I thought choosing one meant sacrificing the other.* Now in my mid-twenties, elderly to some, infantile according to others; the gross number of years elapsed (10+) would suggest much has occurred between national subject selection and Strategic Partner Manager. The title is true, but it's a linear storyline. It rarely ever is; which leads us to this blog post. Let's begin:
THE ENGLISH YEARS
A quick recap for those not privy to the UK educational system: Back in the 2000s a gangly teen came home with a piece of paper stating all the subjects she could choose from to sit exams that would allow her to exit secondary school, commonly known as GCSEs. There were some easy choices: History vs. Geography - got to be History, hands down the best department - French vs. German - oui, oui, mon ami. Je choisis le français! A couple of subjects were picked for you - English Lang, English Lit, Maths (not Math, the s is crucial for Brits) and some form of science, either Double or Triple. The difference? Double = 1 exam, 3 sections split into Chemistry, Biology & Physics, worth 20 marks apiece. Triple = 3 exams, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, all as separate entities. Physics and I were not friends, plus Double meant I could select another subject that I found more interesting; the decision made itself really.
Most finish with 8-10 GCSEs, I finished with something like 12-13; needless to say "low-key** overachiever" would be an accurate moniker. My GCSE selection favored the arts: French, Graphics, Drama, Art - my interests were disparate and varied, all worthy of being explored! So that's what I studied. Individuality and artistry, free from mindless control - ya girl was an artisté! Heavy emphasis on the e.
BAIT AND SWITCH
Unlike the American system that says: "YOU HAVE ABUNDANT TIME, YOU SHOULD BE WELL-ROUNDED, WHAT IS LIMITATION? NEVER CHOOSE, LEARN EVERYTHING, KEEP PAYING", the English system advocates for early specialization. Yes, every 16-year-old is well-equipped, and abundantly aware of their needs to make trajectory-shaping decisions; said no one. TL;DR: 🇬🇧 - Learn a lot about a little vs. 🇺🇸 - Learn a little about a lot. When it came time to select my subjects for 6th Form (an antiquated term referring to the last two years of education) naturally I chose: Chemistry, Biology, Maths & Art. Confused? Me too.
With 15 and a half years of experience before me, I'd concluded that becoming a Doctor was my destiny. Yes, the girl who just talked about creativity, the arts, the one akin to a flair for the dramatic; she was to become a doctor. Interestingly never to practice, only to understand the system so that I knew how to change it. With hindsight I know this came from a place of not understanding what careers could exist outside of the traditional paths, but in 2011 I was 15 going on 16 and needed to make a decision. I'd (accurately) deduced that I didn't much care for things without finite answers or proof, and I wanted to banish all subjects that required self-declared "pointless" reading. For British uni purposes I needed two sciences + mathematics in order to be eligible for medicine, or something along those lines. It seemed like an added benefit that I was a fan of Chemistry and Maths (Biology was more of a necessary evil). Ét voilà - the rigid scientist was born! No time for creativity, we've got serious subjects to attend to. Hard science and logic is what real people do (people with paying jobs).
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Somewhere in the midst of it all, another choice was made. Apply to American colleges alongside British universities. I was born in sunny California and up until this point I'd never much associated with my American birthplace outside of visiting during the summers, but they were willing (and wanted) to take me. When else would you randomly get the chance to up and move to America for the quintessential college experience? It'd be just like the movies! I never actually thought that, it's not really my style, but for literary purposes "I was enthralled at the idea of American living". Back to England.
My stringent criteria for British unis was as follows:
Must have pretty buildings.
Must have lots of trees.
This rigorous standard came about since the unis I'd applied to were academically identical, and my proposed course of study in the UK - Biomedical Sciences, Medicine had melted away but science still prevailed - almost indistinguishable at said institutions. Except The University of Nottingham. They had a Medicinal and Biological Chemistry BSc (+trees) that had me hooked, even if they wound up as my second choice behind The University of Warwick. After touring London universities, where I thought I'd most definitely apply (I did not), I'd found myself wanting for greenery and open spaces. I couldn't hack the city life that countryside upbringing and all. This will sound wildly ironic in a moment.
Cut to me on an aeroplane (yes that is correct, I cannot get behind airplane) headed to orientation at the University of Southern California, smack bang in the middle of Downtown Los Angeles. As I said, the irony is not lost on me. The shiny cardinal (red to the layperson) admissions packet with its golden crest and promise of picture perfect palm trees had won me over - I was going to be a Trojan. *Fight On* At this time I was still under the fading illusion that I'd pursue medicine post-grad. There she was, a fresh, young, naive, Chemistry-majoring gal off to college.
THE CALIFORNIA YEARS
I'd applied as a Chemistry major to all my US schools, because I didn't know that in America, anything goes. They even had an "Undecided" major, which I legitimately couldn't even process. What does it mean to be Undecided and pursuing a degree at college?? I soon learnt*** there's a difference between going to college vs. starting at university. The former is an extension of high school, a place that's designed for you to "choose your own multifaceted experience" with a side of education. The latter is more draconian in nature, featuring deep and rich exploration in your chosen field.
Finding out I could major in something other than Chemistry was a game changer. I printed off all the majors at USC, sat down and poured through every. single. one. Crossing out majors that didn't make any sense and honing in on others that sounded intriguing. After researching each major that took my fancy I landed on "Health & Humanity", in my opinion the perfect mix of social and natural sciences. At orientation, I didn't even make it to the first day of class as a Chemistry major, I switched into the program. Health & Humanity had different tracks and emphases, this was my first taste of intersectionality. A concept that would become woven deeply intertwined with who I am; it already was I just couldn't see it yet.
THE GENESIS OF THE BLOG
I flew back to the UK during my sophomore winter break (second year Christmas holidays) and spent much of the time returning to the roots of any well-raised British human - tea. I explored my home country in a way you typically don't as a local; experiencing England through the eyes of a tourist. Finding new places to try, bringing people along with me. We enjoyed some tea, conversation and paused for a moment to take stock of what was happening around us (sometimes there was the occasional coffee, sacrilege).
On returning to the US, at the encouragement of a late Uncle, I began this blog to discover LA's hidden gems and continue the chasing that high I'd felt whilst in England. Well not this blog. The British Giraffe has had many iterations prior to this specific site, but you catch my drift. He sent me articles and books about blogging, provided a space to brainstorm and ideate, as well as think about monetizing, growing the brand, expanding beyond writing. While this has never been a monetary pursuit, he did provide me with something unexpected. A space to creatively explore beyond the classroom and arbitrary lines I'd drawn in the sand. A place free of expectation and uniquely primed to be turned into whatever my mind could conjure. There were no labels, no boxes, I was the only limiting factor. So I wrote and I laughed and I developed friendships, all under the guise of a hobby.
BACK TO THE [ACADEMIC] GRIND
By junior year I knew I didn't want to pursue medicine, but I was struggling to admit that to myself, and be ok with not having a clear cut track. Studying science was supposed to mean that you would know where you would land, right? Wrong. I had to learn to let go of what I'd perceived to be the right thing, because ultimately, it wasn't right for me. I took a Medical Sociology class that first semester of 3rd year and was captivated. We spent hours learning the nuances of the American healthcare system, how and why such a system came to be, as well as what the current health landscape looked like. More than anything, I would leave class wanting it to look different; it simply didn't make sense.
I think I'm continually in pursuit of that sense of awe. The one that accompanies gaining knowledge while fighting injustice you're personally convicted about. SOCI-475 was a portal into a different world I had yet to explore, a tangible a-ha moment. What was the name of this new dimension yet to be unearthed? Public Health. I'd also met some peers along the way who seemed to be doing really cool things, like interning at the World Health Organization; and I knew I wanted to do what they were doing. Turns out they were in the Master's of Public Health progressive degree. You guessed it, that's what I did next (how are you so good at tracking each of my steps?!).
SO YOU WANT TO BE A PUBLIC HEALTH PERSON?
Time is an odd construct that momentarily doesn't exist as we skip back and forth between different stages of my life. I believe in you, you can keep up.
Put succinctly, here's what I thought I knew about myself & public health, all that was left was to figure out if these aspirations were the right fit.
I wanted to work at a nonprofit
I wanted to work on the ground in a foreign country
I did not want to work for the government
Aspiration #1 - The very semester where I had all these revelations, applied to the progressive MPH (progressive = starting while still an undergrad. In my case only taking an additional year instead of two), generally set fire to everything around me (jk), I also interned at the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Interning was a requirement to graduate for undergrad, so it worked out nicely that it could pair with an organization I'd been interested in for a while. Core lessons learnt at Make-A-Wish: The ethos of the company is something I can get behind. Fulfilling and draining can be used in the same sentence to describe the same situation. Money is hard to come by paired with high-turnover, it can be difficult to actualize the full vision and mission. Questions that plagued my mind: Instead of working for a nonprofit, maybe I should think more about private sector and corporate social responsibility? Money + meaning = getting stuff done? Is this the winning formula or is this selling out? Too many thoughts, must keep moving.
Aspiration #2 - Work on the ground with vulnerable communities to enact change. The peace corps was too far away (post-grad), and not a viable option since I was in the prime of life. While surfing the internet on a trip in Norway (an unnecessary detail) I stumbled across a 3-month summer internship with a company called MEDLIFE. In Peru. Yes, you read that right, Peru. The summer between Junior and Senior year I headed to the land with the most potato varieties, a key detail for someone with a keen affinity for french fries.
Core lessons from this experience: Peru and its people are beautiful. Everyone should go to Peru. Other things: The internship involved a level of voluntourism. Some questions that I had throughout my time: Is voluntourism more helpful or hurtful to the communities involved? How much "good" are you doing? Even with a company that employs Peruvians for the majority of the work conducted, I still had this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that our actions, no matter how well intentioned, would lead to more harm than good. There are many pros and cons to the industry, but I will save that soapbox speech for another day. Furthermore, I wanted to have a home base, to be rooted, grounded. The lifestyle that accompanies humanitarian aid work was in direct opposition my newfound realizations.
Aspiration #3 - The government was never a viable option. I do not like bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, or arbitrary rules that do not appear to serve a purpose. For me, that is government work - stable, important, slow and not the place that I would thrive. We need people within these roles, I admire these skilled, angelic individuals, but I also know that I am not the one. Predictability is not my calling.
Ok, so, I've moved through my whole (short) list of public health aspirations and all that's been discovered is what I don't want to do. What now? Sit, twiddle thumbs, think about the meaning of life? If you've not learnt by now, I could never. Though my mocking tone would have you believe otherwise, I am convinced that finding out what you don't like is just as important, if not more so, as what you want to do. It means you've explored avenues that once piqued your interest but aren't the right fit, you've investigated the possibilities.
NOT ALL RESEARCH INVOLVES TEST TUBES
It's the summer after senior year, I'm done with undergrad and have one year of grad school under my belt. Like any good Nigerian child and par for the course of most USC students - summers are for interning. (They don't ask you how your summer was at 'SC, they ask: What did you do this summer? A myriad of problems exist here including why is this the pervasive culture, but I digress). All of my best stories have come from perusing the internet and randomly stumbling upon opportunities that seem too good to pass up. This summer was no different. I found a posting on the USC student intranet, which read:
If you love entertainment and you want amazing experience in studying the impact of entertainment, we want to hear from you. The USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center is currently seeking a paid intern to join our team this summer. The Lear Center is a research institution that studies and shapes the impact of entertainment and media on society.
Wait, you can research entertainment?! Oh and there's a sub-unit housed within the larger organization called "Hollywood, Health and Society" and they provide the entertainment industry with free expert information on health, safety, and security?! How have I not heard of this before??? I cannot tell you why they hired me but I am incredibly grateful that they did. The summer turned into a year-long placement working with organizations such as Define American and Color of Change, researching things such as race representation within police procedural programming, and the portrayal of the African continent in the US media. My days consisted of logging data, conducting base analysis for codebooks, turning qualitative into quantitative; and I loved it. To close out my time at the Lear Center and for my MPH capstone project, I dove into gun violence and it's representation in entertainment. It may seem odd but gun violence is a public health issue, a leading cause of premature and preventable deaths in the U.S. for all age groups.
I can confirm that my time at the Lear Center was not only amazing, they'd delivered on the promise from the original posting, but also eye-opening. Here was a policy institute whose sole purpose was, in their own words, to study the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment on the world. Then translate those findings into action through testimony, journalism, strategic research and innovative public outreach campaigns.
I'd happened upon a different side of fact-finding that did not use petri dishes or laboratories. The impact of these findings were just as powerful, if not more so, as other forms of academic research. I learnt about what it meant to work in an intersectional field and how it plays out in real time. There's no going back now.
BYE COLLEGE 👋🏾 HI WORLD
With college now officially over, had the random conglomeration of experiences all been a waste? Did I really learn anything that could serve me beyond college? I mean I did, otherwise we wouldn't be here, but at the time I had my feet firmly planted in the camp of "I'm not too sure". What did I learn from all of this? What's the hidden through-line? I like data with a side of entertainment and people. How they work, why they behave the way they do, what impacts their thoughts and actions. I like working with content, and I want the content I interact with to have an impact, change systems - make it matter, make it better. Less than enamored by the traditional uses of an MPH, I needed out. To social media we go!
Thanks to writing this blog from time to time, and running different social media accounts for friends, I made the switch. It wasn't as straightforward as it sounds, but we did the thing. I didn't realize I'd obtained hirable skills while drinking steaming hot leaf water, it had always been "just for fun", until it wasn't. The "hobby" was to take center stage. Cue the BuzzFeed era.
THE ONE WHERE IT ALL CLICKED
How often do you meet a Black, British, American girl who studied health through her masters and lands at a digital media company known for eccentric quizzes as a social media strategist post-grad? Oh and she's Christian with really long legs - exactly, it's not an ordinary sighting, I've checked. However, by this point I'm used to the slight head tilt, quizzical look and brief pause, followed by a look of clarity once all the pieces are fit together, which to so many others don't appear to work at first sight. My personhood is the antithesis of conventional.
When asked about the how and why behind my resume, I explain the following: health and social aren't all that different. When you strip them back to their core components, they're both about people, specifically human behavior, and data. Two things I love, two things that for most are separate; but not me. They intersect. Humans are creative beings but we're also predictable, with patterns that can be tracked and traced. Analyze the patterns, deduce the similarities where others only see differences - you've got yourself a creative analyst. The marrying of science and creativity, an illustrious blend that I didn't think possible to combine.
I studied public health because people are important, systems matter, they shape our everyday circumstances. I chose BuzzFeed because it's a company that undeniably "gets" social media. Whether or not you like BuzzFeed is a different question, you cannot argue with the fact that they understand the symbiotic relationship between people and data - I wanted to learn what was behind the curtain. At BuzzFeed I learnt about content strategy, video development, and how to cater diverse and disparate audiences across multiple platforms; as well as how to communicate key findings to a range of stakeholders. There was growth, frustration, mentorship, admiration. Above all, there were good people who afforded me opportunities to dive deeper into random niche areas of interest, create revenue-driving strategies or simply run experiments purely for engagement. I learnt to launch, to build, to let go, to change, to fail, to succeed, all in the way that promoted ownership over the process.
Towards the end of my time, I was longing for content that resonated, content that I felt mattered and had lasting impact (a recurring theme it would seem), but I also wanted to continue with the energy of media and content strategy; reminiscent of my Lear Center days. Could all these things really come together in one role or was I asking for too much?
MAKE IT MAKE SENSE
Remember way back at the beginning when I subtly (read as tactlessly) eluded that I was a Jack of all trades? Or when I spoke about the tension between creativity and analytics? Didn't catch it? However not? I didn't randomly tack that on to the beginning for no reason. That tension, for me at times, still exists. But this blog post serves as a reminder that it's ok, some may even hasten to say normal, to have diverse interests, be good at more than one thing, and to want to try your hand at multiple things. If you're lucky, the disparate worlds that you are struggling to connect may find their way into divinely-orchestrated, harmonious balance.
When I read the job description of my now job I was convinced that someone had looked at the last 5 years of my life and said:
"make it make sense".
I do believe that God's hand has guided each decision and move, laying the groundwork that was the path I see today. Even if you're not a person of faith, you have to admit, after skimming some of the story above, the parallels to the job description below are uncanny; some may say too specific to be coincidental...
Strategic Partner Manager, Health
Bachelor's degree or equivalent practical experience.
2 years of experience building content strategy, audience development and content optimization.
Experience working with a diverse range of clients or partners to build impactful and collaborative relationships.
Experience in Health with a specific focus on Mental Health or Public Health topics.
Experience in the video, media, or entertainment industry.
Ability to think strategically and to develop a vision and strategy based on interpreting data and partner input.
Wait a minute, all those things that are listed above, that's me. I fit that criteria. Moreover, I am the criteria. It's not the norm but it is me. Have I had moments of doubt? Absolutely. Uncertainty in making the "right" decision? 100%. Wondering if I'm learning transferable skills that would help me past what I was doing right then and there? You bet. In fleeting moments, I even think about what if I'd decided to stay in the UK, gone to Warwick - where would I be now? But that's not the story I have to tell. I only have the life lived, I don't have access to the what ifs. I don't want access to them.
Currently, I have a brutal case of imposter syndrome from entering the "big leagues" [Google], starting this new role, as well as self-imposed lofty expectations; hoping to shake that soon with a prescribed dose of reality. Even still, I'm reminded that without each step I wouldn't be where I am now. I needed to experience and live each and every part of the story to land at YouTube. To be the words that appear on paper. 14-year-old me could never have known what I needed, most of my experiences and roles didn't exist when I was wee-lass (suddenly I'm Scottish) choosing subjects. I had to trust and do what I could with the information I had in front of me, the rest was blind faith (I also have a very supportive and loving family + community, 10/10, would recommend).
So maybe, just maybe - the thing that you're searching for doesn't exist yet. You're ahead of the game. You're ready to blaze a trail. But trailblazers typically don't know they're unique until they look up and see that they've done something that no one else is doing (I am not a trailblazer, this analogy just works for my closing remarks). Keep pursuing the things that interest you, looking for answers to questions that you can't help but wonder about and doing the things that may not make sense to others but they make sense for you. Own your choices, own the consequences, think through - why am I doing this, what patterns are emerging, do I have confidence in this next step? And go. Take the step.
That's what I did.
When I looked up I saw that all the jigsaw pieces did in fact fit together to create an intricately detailed puzzle. A larger picture that only God Himself could have orchestrated, and yet still, this is only just the beginning.
In summary, if you drink tea, you, too, could work at YouTube.
Till our thoughts inevitably meet again,
*yes, one can blame all things on governmental institutions. I have it here in writing.
**low-key because all of my friends way outperformed me, so I seemed run-of-the-mill by comparison, at least in my mind.
***past participle preference, learnt over learned, courtesy of my English education.
****PC: My sister requested she be mentioned.