I grew up in the segregated North-side of Tulsa, Oklahoma, eating powdered eggs from welfare subsidies and stuffing my holey shoes with pieces of cardboard. Though I was determined to beat the norm of teenage pregnancy and graduate from high school, I wasn’t sure how I could escape poverty and attain the life of independence and stability that I’d been imagining for myself since I was 13. I’d been a straight-A student, but no one had ever talked to me about the possibility, or opportunity, of going to college. Financial support from anyone in my family was an impossibility, and the only kind of encouragement to better myself while at school, or in the community, was to earn a high school diploma (without becoming pregnant).
Though with maturity I learned to be proud of my Tulsa roots and its legacy as the “Black Wall Street” of the 1920s, back then, I wanted to run as far away from Tulsa as I could get–physically, mentally, and behaviorally. Upon graduation from Central High School, I bought a one-way ticket to Portland, Oregon, and worked three jobs to send myself to the John Robert Powers finishing school. There, I learned how to “sit like a lady” at a dinner party, and which fork and knife to use for different courses. I also recorded my voice each day for two years and worked on enunciating every syllable so that I could speak without my Southern drawl.
By 19, I had grown weary working three jobs, so I began applying for a new one, the one, and stumbled upon an interview with United Airlines for a coveted flight attendant position–a job reserved for the most polished and worldly of ladies. Much to my surprise and delight, I was selected and sent to Chicago for training. I couldn’t believe it! I was traveling the world, finally living the life I had dreamed of.
Suddenly, my life took another unexpected turn. A first-class passenger on one of my flights from Chicago to Los Angeles had noticed me boarding the flight but had not seen me after take-off. He made his desire to meet me known to my colleagues, who informed me. When I reluctantly went up to meet him, I was not impressed or interested in knowing him. Though he had a nice-looking face and was clad in a classy suit, sporting a 4-inch afro and 2-inch platform shoes (the style for that period in time), he was in his early 40s, more than 20 years older than me. I learned that he was recently widowed with four children–not quite the prince I had in mind.
He was very charming though. His infectious laugh grabbed me in the few minutes we enjoyed talking. He asked me for my phone number, but I was hesitant since I had a rule not to date passengers or pilots. The other flight attendants urged me, and so I did. Although I was based in Seattle, he was a persistent long distance admirer, showering me with flowers, chocolate, and surprise visits on my flights through Los Angeles.
After a few months, I found myself in love with this brilliant man, eager to do anything he asked of me. Then came his request for me to move to L.A. to be closer to him, which I did, and few months later, the marriage proposal. He happened to be the first Black vice chancellor of a major university, and that meant I had to assume the social responsibilities of faculty wife and social hostess for my prominent husband.
Overnight, I was required to join and participate in the Faculty Women’s Club, and entertain academic scholars on a regular basis. I was hosting dinner parties in our beautiful Pacific Palisades home for other university administrators, faculty, students who were around my age, and other prominent guests. I was dressing up in long designer gowns, and attending black-tie affairs several times each week at prestigious museums and other high-profile community events with the movers and shakers in Los Angeles. Though some of the other faculty wives embraced me and shared their knowledge of how to navigate this new world, others still were extremely skeptical of me and uninviting.
Even more important–and intimidating–was my new role as instant step-mother to four teenagers, two boys and two girls, and I was only four years older than the eldest. Though the boys were delighted to have a young, cute step-mom, the girls were less enthusiastic. On top of this, about a year later, my husband and I welcomed a fifth child. Between learning the role of a vice chancellor’s wife in a completely foreign environment and learning how to parent both an infant and teenagers, I was absolutely out of my element.
I quickly learned that the words and gestures in my new world had different meanings than the world I had come from. I was not only crossing racial and cultural lines with many of the relationships in our neighborhood, but also social and economic boundaries, as well.
It took a lot of listening, watching, reading, and even mimicking, at times, to survive and thrive. I had to practice various new behaviors every day, and not feel too proud to ask lots of questions. In the early days, I felt very nervous and insecure when we went to dressy affairs and high-level dinner parties, but I eventually learned that I actually like people and am interested in their lives, and when I didn’t know what to say, all I had to do was smile genuinely and ask them about themselves to break the ice.
I also learned that my travels yielded plenty of interesting stories and insights, and I could hold my own in a conversation. My self-confidence grew the more I engaged with others and accepted that I was just as important as anyone else in those high-brow circles–irrespective of my lack of a college education (at that time), and no matter which fork or knife I used. Day-by-day, I grew to love and appreciate myself for who I am, embracing and exploring my God-given talents and gifts.
Julia’s Fearless Living Tips:
So how do you move confidently, no matter where you find yourself? You:
1. Educate yourself on the rules of the new culture– formally and informally with classes and practice, if necessary.
2. Pay close attention to how people behave in unfamiliar environments and listen intently so you can learn and not offend, always asking questions when the answers are not readily or independently available to you.
3. Are genuine. You don’t pretend to be anything you're not. Eventually, you will meld and integrate with your new environment, and over time, you and who you want to evolve into will become one.
4. Research your new acquaintances and their work so you are prepared for conversation with them.
5. Seek opportunities consistently to place yourself in environments and situations where you can meet and engage with the kinds of people that support your vision for yourself.
Julia A. Wilson is the CEO and Founder of Wilson Global Communications, an international public affairs consulting firm founded in South Africa in 1994 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. A U.S. Department of State Fulbright Grant recipient and international lecturer, Wilson has lived, studied and/or worked in more than 13 countries. Follow her on Twitter @Juliawilson_dc.