Global citizen

Examining my understanding of the world.

Renee Bertrand '21
May 5, 2022
Renee Bertrand

When I first learned about the Perrin Fellowship, which gives the recipient a grant for independent postgraduate study, I thought of my grandparents. If they hadn’t left their respective homelands for new educational opportunities, I wouldn’t be here. Because of them, my family is a mixture of different cultures, nationalities and ethnicities. My grandparents were the ones who assured me it was OK to leave home at 14 to attend Phillips Exeter Academy. They have taught me to unabashedly pursue the world, to find love in new languages and to empathize with cultures I didn’t understand.


When I accepted the Perrin Fellowship, in April 2021, I had just received my first COVID vaccine shot. The overwhelming feeling at the time was positive. Borders would open by the summer. Graduation was in-person and maskless. Unfortunately, that perspective was exceedingly optimistic.

When I began to make travel plans in late July and early August, I contacted dozens of university professors from countries across the globe with specializations in anthropology, history, political science and archaeology. I desired to secure a position as a research assistant or an intern, so that I would have a knowledgeable mentor and vast resources to help guide my exploration. As an 18-year-old solo female traveler, I thought staying on a university campus for a few months, rather than traditional globetrotting, would be the safest bet for both COVID and personal security. And even though it would be more difficult, I wanted to explore cultures that are harder to access, like those in Africa and Polynesia.

I received a surprising number of welcoming and enthusiastic responses from universities in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Mexico, Peru, Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and French Polynesia. But as the Delta variant shocked the world, those enthusiastic yeses turned into apologetic noes. By mid-August, a cycle kept repeating itself: A professor would say yes, I would meet with them over Zoom and begin setting plans, then receive the fateful email. At one point, I received 12 refusals in one week. And as someone who had just escaped the unprecedentedly competitive college admission cycle unscathed, that level of rejection felt soul crushing.

But there was one Nigerian university that remained consistently supportive in having me as a visiting researcher. Set in the heart of the ancient Oyo Empire, the university had a botanical garden, a zoo, a dam and multiple security checkpoints. I would be studying under a professor in both Nigerian history and development studies, and I was incredibly excited. Nigeria was high on my list to visit because of the impact of neocolonialism. 

I also knew a little bit about the Oyo Empire from one of my Exeter English projects. It was a vast and complex empire before colonization, and aspects of the culture were still prominent across West Africa today. I would also be the first in my family to step back on the African continent. So, in late August, I agreed to visit for two months starting in October.

Planning for a two-month stay in a developing country was a big undertaking. This included multiple vaccinations, personal security considerations and proper documentation. At one point, I had to fly down to the Nigerian Consulate in Washington, D.C., to fight for my visa. Due to COVID, Nigeria was accepting only essential travel, and on a case-by-case basis. I would not take no for an answer, and I told them I would not leave the building without a visa. Finally, after months of planning and two rescheduled flights, I boarded a plane for Lagos in mid-October.

One of the buildings on the Nigerian university campus.

A market I passed through in Lagos on my way up to the university.


One of the first monumental shifts in my understanding happened on my first day out of quarantine during a tour of the campus. My tour guide and I were walking along one of the trails in the botanical garden and I asked her if I would be allowed to go on runs there. She looked at me confused, and I explained that I usually jog during the mornings as a form of exercise. She then gave a little laugh and explained, “Here in Nigeria, people do not go on runs. If you have enough food to eat, if you are full, what business do you have going and making yourself hungry again?” That’s when I realized I was in a very different place than I had ever experienced. 

The incredible professor I worked with shared vast amounts of knowledge and resources about Nigeria. I began to learn basic Yoruba, which was exciting for me as a language enthusiast. I also had the opportunity to attend an interview with the Alaafin (king) of the Yoruba people, where he discussed current political and cultural affairs. I learned about the importance of religious and cultural leaders in Nigeria. Even though the Oyo Kingdom no longer controls the government, it has a large amount of political and cultural influence over the people. Cultural leaders are often overlooked, but they are the heart of their people.

I also attended development classes during my stay at the university. One of my favorite classes at Exeter was Dr. Russell’s "Why Are Poor Nations Poor?", which offers an introduction to development studies. Even though in both classes we learned the same models, the way the Nigerian professor and students analyzed development was completely different. For one thing, the Nigerian students acknowledged problems in developed countries that Nigeria does not have. One student brought up the issue of obesity in the United States. Everyone in the U.S. has a car, while most people in Nigeria walk, they said. The U.S. also doesn’t have localized agriculture, so food contains preservatives so it can travel across large distances. This can lead to heart problems, cancer, diabetes and obesity. When the students were imagining a further-developed Nigeria, they were not glorifying countries like the U.S. and treating them as the standard. Instead, they designed their own standard for Nigeria’s future.

Overall, my experience in Nigeria was completely unforgettable, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the right time for me to be there. From when I agreed to visit in late August to arriving in mid-October, the civil situation in Nigeria had significantly eroded. Their COVID positive rates were still well below the global average, but terrorist and kidnapping activity in northern Nigeria had increased. Civil unrest was on the rise, and would only grow more violent during my time there, most notably during the EndSARS protests against police brutality.

There were multiple unsafe encounters on campus, along with serious political unrest. I had to make the incredibly difficult decision to stay and continue the amazing research I was doing or to leave. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life because if I stayed, I would risk my safety, but if I left, I would destroy the relationship that I had spent the past three months cultivating.

This was the first time I had ever experienced true diplomacy. I juggled meetings, emails and speeches with my adviser, the professor, university officials, the fellowship committee and my freaked-out parents. In the end, I decided to leave, and the university decided to cut ties. I no longer had a place to stay, and I had to leave the country in 48 hours due to COVID testing requirements. I was originally not allowed to board the flight due to my last-minute booking. I almost didn’t make it home.


That experience was devastating to me for multiple reasons. Not only was it an incredibly traumatic experience, but it was also a destruction of ideals. Every time I had to explain what happened, I was adding to the narrative that developing countries were unsafe, violent and desolate places. As a Black person, who has fought their whole life against the idea that my people are inherently dangerous, I felt like I failed. In all my 18 years, I have always tried to see the good in the world, so it was very hard to lose some of that hope.

In retrospect, I do think I was too young, naive and inexperienced to travel to Nigeria alone, especially during a global crisis. I thought my experiences staying with family in the Caribbean and South America would prepare me, but I was wrong. I should have followed the advice of the U.S. government and loved ones and replanned a trip in a more politically stable country.

Throughout the holidays, I fought a failure mindset. I decided to move out of my bedroom because that was where I’d spent much of the rejection-filled August. I started trauma therapy, which had its positive and negative effects. Omicron arrived and cases skyrocketed globally. Borders closed again, severely limiting where I could travel. But through it all, I was determined to continue this fellowship.


Back in August, many Australian and Polynesian professors had given me contacts at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. UHM prides itself on being the leading Indigenous institution in the U.S. The Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge continues to be the center of modern Hawaiian scholarship. However, I had never truly considered visiting. The Perrin Fellowship is supposed to push my boundaries of travel, and Hawaii, being a U.S. state, always felt too safe. More importantly, I had always found the story of Hawaii to be upsetting. I knew of the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the U.S., the over-tourism problems and the commodification of Hawaiian culture. As someone whose family hails from independent island nations, I had always silently considered Hawaii to still be under colonial rule. Considering the sandy beaches and smiling hula dancers presented in pop culture, it was tremendously depressing. However, after finding all the great academic works that came out of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement and the Hawaiian Renaissance, I decided to go.

I reached out to Jamaica Heoli Osorio because she is a Stanford alum and kumu (professor) of political science at UHM. I soon found out that she is an award-winning Native Hawaiian poet, activist scholar and an unapologetic Hawaiian nationalist. She graciously let me audit her spring semester Native Hawaiian Politics class.

The class focused on the change of governance, culture and land over Hawaii’s history. Kumu Osorio started with the pillars of pre-contact society, such as the importance of genealogy, the Akua (religious pantheon) and societal structure. She then moved through the history of colonization and military occupation, and how it impacts current events like homelessness and public health. Now we’re learning about the legal theories of Indigenous self-governance and land restitution. We’ve read the great academic works of Native Hawaiian scholars such as Trask, Pukui, Kame’eleihiwa, Young, and Osorio, all of whom push the boundaries of political science.

Many of the students in the class are Native Hawaiian, so they have a personal stake in not only the history of Hawaii but the future as well. Kumu herself does not pretend to take an objective view of Hawaiian politics. She argues that no one is truly objective, and when scholars attempt to be so, they still hold a white, Western, elitist, academic gaze. She’s shown me that my own personal connection to history and to world affairs is an advantage, not a disadvantage. I am not the same scholar walking out of her class that I was walking in.

Reading at the Hawaii Pacific Collections at UHM.

Kayaking on a weekend adventure in Hawaii.

Even though time and again I was pushed beyond my limits, my drive was stronger than my fear.
Renee Bertrand '21

Phillips Exeter alumni also played a huge part in the success of this leg of my trip. Kate Lingley ’89, department chair of Art and Art History at UHM, was another one of my first contacts. She gave me great advice about my trip and connected me with the Honolulu Museum of Art. There I met with Tory Laitila, head curator of Hawaiian Art and Historical Artifacts. We had a great conversation about the role of art and fashion in establishing global recognition of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and how art about Hawaii changed over the 19th and 20th centuries under U.S. rule.

I would not be in Hawaii if not for Robert Littman ’61, an award-winning UHM classics professor and archaeologist. Not only did he help me find a place to stay, but he also welcomed me into his Native Hawaiian family. From there I met Liloa Dunn, land manager and ethnobotanist at Lyon Arboretum. He cares for endangered native plants, maintains taro fields, which were the foundation for the pre-contact Hawaiian agriculture system, and creates educational activities for visiting school children. Malama ‘Aina, or caring for the land, is a pillar of Hawaiian culture. As a visitor, I am taking from the land, so I try to give back. I volunteer with Liloa at the arboretum every other week. We are currently working on rebuilding a traditional Hawaiian hale (house) using invasive species of trees, rather than endangered, indigenous ones. Studying Indigenous agricultural and architectural practices through hands-on learning has been a highlight of the year.

In March, I began working as a docent at the Queen Emma Summer Palace, a house museum dedicated to the Hawaiian monarchy. I give museum tours and help with community events like lei making, hula dancing and mele (song) performances. At the museum, I explore the idea of nationhood: how an Indigenous society gains or loses international recognition. The monarchs Westernized so much about Hawaii in order for it to be recognized as a sovereign state by Western nations. It was for a time, but then it too was colonized. An Indigenous society can check all the boxes of the Western standard and still not be independent. These are the exact ideas I set out to explore on this fellowship.

The drive up to the Hawaiian and Ethnobotany sections fo the Lyon Arboretum. 

Though I originally planned to stay in Hawaii only until the end of March, I decided to extend my stay until the end of May. For one thing, I still have a dozen books to read on my ever-expanding list, and my Hawaiian-language skills are still subpar. I have only just begun working through the Hawaiian Pacific Archives Collection. And at the end of March I was invited to the Lahui Hawaii Research Conference, where professors, visiting scholars and students present research projects about the theme Mapping Aloha Aina. On the practical side, I got a part-time barista job to pay for all the fun weekend adventures my friends and I are having. My coffee shop is only a block from the beach, so I’m always facing the ocean. For the first time all year, I feel at peace.

I wanted to take a gap year because I wanted to push the boundaries of my own education. Whether I become a diplomat, an economist or an international lawyer, I want to enter that field already understanding my own biases having grown up in the West. My goal for this year was to reexamine my own understanding of the world and the way it should work. If I’m going to be working with developing countries or countries with histories of colonization, it’s not enough to learn at institutions in developed colonizer countries. No matter how much Googling I do, or how many TED Talks I listen to, the knowledge will be the most authentic at its source. Even though time and again I was pushed beyond my limits, my drive was stronger than my fear. Through all the ups and downs, I took a year to figure out what type of global citizen I want to be. I found that.


Editor's note: This feature, a student's firsthand account, appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.