Before Kovey Coles ’15 came to Princeton, he had limited experience traveling internationally. During the past three years, he has taken advantage of three opportunities to go abroad to four countries through the University's international initiatives. These programs have helped him choose his major in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and set him on a career path in global politics.
An editor-in-chief of The Stripes, a website that promotes discourse on social and cultural issues, Coles is a contributor to the Nassau Weekly and the Princeton admission blog. He also performs in various student music groups, presents spoken word poetry with the Ellipses Slam Team, and dances with the hip-hop dance group, the Black Arts Company. He was an inaugural member of the Edwards Arts Collective at Mathey College, a community of writers, performers, and visual artists.
Where have you traveled since coming to Princeton, and what did you do in those countries?
I have traveled a lot in my time at Princeton. The summer after my freshman year—the year in which I began studying Mandarin Chinese—I was accepted as a participant in the Princeton in Beijing program. I traveled to China’s capital city to continue my language study in an immersive environment, pledging for two months to communicate only in Mandarin. The following summer I worked in Bangalore, India, through an internship provided by the International Internship Program. I spent nearly three months working on policy and advocacy in the realm of Internet governance, surveillance, and freedom of speech for India and other countries. Finally, I am in Asia once again, studying abroad through a Woodrow Wilson School program which traverses three East Asian nations, visiting the cities of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong. I’ve just begun my spring semester at Yonsei University, here in Seoul, South Korea.
Had you been abroad before coming to Princeton?
Before Princeton, I never had much experience traveling to other countries, nor did any of my immediate family members. My very first time abroad was during the summer before I entered college. My father and I went to Jamaica, the one country my parents have experience traveling to, and we visited family friends. I had no idea that I would begin traveling so much once I entered Princeton. In fact, I only registered for my passport during my senior year of high school.
What made you decide to go abroad?
I think that my decisions for going abroad were ultimately spurred by having these great opportunities for world travel suddenly within my reach. Before, going to these places was like a childlike fantasy, not a possibility I had seriously considered. Once I was presented with these possibilities, however, I couldn’t find a reason to overlook them. This is retrospection, of course, but at the time it all happened rather organically. I began Chinese as my foreign language study in freshman year, and decided to continue studying over the summer through the Princeton in Beijing program. Last year I wanted an internship that focused on Internet and technology policy, and I found a perfect organization that happened to be in Bangalore, India. I don’t know if I’m necessarily an active seeker of options abroad, but I am certainly open and receptive to leaving the comfort of my home country, and so I take advantage of the opportunity.
What do you regard as most valuable about your travels?
Perhaps the most valuable thing about traveling abroad comes from the opportunity to question things that are standard or normal in your own society. When you experience another culture, though you are witnessing the lives of others, you begin to notice the invisible or implicit customs of your own culture. Whether it is the lack of freedom to criticize the government in China, or women being socially repressed in India’s public settings, or the near-excessive politeness in Japan, cultural aspects that stand out as strange to us simply signify that we have a different norm for that facet of life. Traveling gives me a chance to objectively evaluate our cultural discrepancies, which I think is very difficult to do if we never step out of our own communities.
Will your international experiences have an influence on decisions about your plans after graduation?
I believe so. I went to China before I’d even declared my major, and I think that experience definitely set me on track for the Woodrow Wilson School and thinking of global politics in general. Though I’m not fully decided on what I may do after graduation, my time abroad has only further strengthened my aspirations to work in some form of diplomacy or policy. For example, I could see myself working on policy regarding Sino-American relations. At the same time, I have taken a liking to writing and recognize the importance of journalism and foreign correspondence. Regardless of what I ultimately do, in the years when I will be navigating the workforce, our society will be the most globalized it has ever been, and the experience, education, and empathy I have gained abroad will prove invaluable in so many ways.