Updated: Mar 26
"You have to walk with people, you don't lead them. Especially when you're from somewhere else... I know absolutely nothing. There's no amount of reading that you can ever do that can replace lived experiences." (Isabelle, Episode 30)
I met Isabelle (Dany) Masado when our respective student orgs at Michigan State University collaborated to put on a small film screening and discussion on campus, and I'm so glad that we've kept in touch since then! And what a compassionate person to have as the guest featured in this milestone—the 30th episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad!
Originally from Cameroon, in ninth grade Isabelle moved to Detroit to follow her family who'd relocated there shortly before her. She regards high school as a particularly tumultuous time in her life, what with a language barrier (her native language is French), cultural adjustments, bullying, and self-esteem issues compounding the already difficult stressors of being a teenaged girl. But as time went on, Isabelle mastered English (she's always had a knack for language, especially in written form), she learned the ropes, she braved many a Michigan winter, and went on to college.
At Michigan State, Isabelle studied biochemistry and molecular biology with aspirations to become a doctor. But as she became more intimately aware of her desire to prevent health problems instead of only helping people after problems arise, and as she became acquainted with epidemiology and public health, she realized that being a doctor was not for her. This ushered in an identity crisis, as she had to mourn what she thought she wanted in order to follow what she calls, "a nudge that I couldn't ignore," while at the same time contending with her parents' disappointment. It especially hurt to let her mom down. But she and her parents are on better terms now, and she still remembers undergrad as a time where she explored everything that she wanted to do. From getting to know people from all over the world, to choreographing and teaching dance, to watching her activism grow, to developing her event and campaign organizing skills (fun fact: she organized the first TEDxMSU). Giving up the doctor route was a difficult decision, but it was the right one for her, and it led her to stay at MSU to earn her Master's in Public Health.
Isabelle traveled to Morocco as part of her graduate studies and did an internship in Kenya as well, but it was her month-and-a-half research trip to Ghana in 2012 that caused her to profoundly (and painfully) reckon with her identity and intentions. Her Master's thesis was on water and sanitation, and she admits having to confront with her own "diaspora savior complex"; the fact that coming back to Africa with the knowledge she'd gained didn't mean she was going to save people was a hard pill to swallow. Plus, given how out of place she still felt in America, she was shocked to realize that she'd changed; she wasn't as unequivocally African as she'd thought. It had been 10 years since she'd been to the continent, after all. Not only that, but returning to Cameroon later that same year emphasized how much of her connection to home she'd lost due to time, distance, and colonization. Though she has since come to terms with being an in-between person and knows that all is not lost, to this day she remains especially and rightfully resentful about how much, for her and many students in Cameroon in particular, success was tied to her forsaking her native language and culture.
Today Isabelle has a valuable online presence as a compassionate writer and coach, focusing her work on body image, mental health, relationships, her personal reflections, and human dynamics. However, it wasn't always this way. While at MSU, a period of numbness after a bad breakup somehow caused her to stumble upon the concepts of "self love" and "body positivity", and the more she learned the more she felt compelled to share. So she started a blog called "The Dear Body Project", in addition to posting her writing and photos (yoga and travel inspo!) on various online mediums. In a whirlwind kind of way, that led her to her next destination: Senegal.
To be useful to others, to be a "fixer", to be part of the solution
After completing her Master's degree, Isabelle moved to Austin, Texas, where she serendipitously met Magatte Wade, a Senegalese businesswoman whose dedication to making life better for Africans and empowering African woman and youth made Isabelle an enthusiastic admirer. Through gradually developing a mentor-mentee relationship with Magatte and demonstrating how her skills could help the cause, Isabelle was invited to join Magatte in Senegal for a month in the autumn of 2018. During that time she observed Magatte's business operations but also made herself useful however she could. She ended up helping a lot with the school that Magatte runs, teaching the students yoga and languages in addition to providing other support as needed.
By the time this episode and blog post are published, Isabelle will be back in Senegal, this time for a three-month stay. She'll be doing a ton of photo, video, and storytelling work to help with the school's marketing, as well as streamlining the school's processes and probably helping with whatever else Magatte needs. She's always endeavored to be useful to others, to be a "fixer", to be part of the solution, and this new extended experience in Senegal will allow her another opportunity to do just that. Isabelle can be found on Instagram (@bellahappyfeet), Twitter (@bellahappyfeet), and Medium (@bellahappyfeet), as well as on Facebook (Isabelle Masado) and her blog (The Dear Body Project).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Part of the Solution (CAMEROON/GHANA/SENEGAL)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
"What It's Like to Work with an Impatient Businesswoman" (piece that Isabelle wrote about her month-long stay in Senegal)
Danielle G. is the creator and host of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.