An Opportunity of a Lifetime

In the days leading up to December 20, 2018—I was a nervous wreck eager to hear news about whether I would be awarded the 2019 Cultural Vistas Fellowship to go to Hong Kong and spend a summer interning at Carbon Care InnoLab.

Though I had nothing to lose, I had so much to gain. And when the good news finally came—it changed my life forever.

Hands shaking with excitement, I dialed my Shimá to tell her the best news I had ever been able to give her.

“Mom, I’m going to Hong Kong!”

For Malia, a first-generation college student and the first from her family to travel outside the United States, the opportunity to be a Cultural Vistas Fellow has been life-changing.

Together, in that moment, we both cried tears of joy. For a first-generation college student from an underrepresented background who would be the first from her family to travel outside the United States, this opportunity meant more to me than could be described in words.

As a young fellow, I felt like I would be carving out new opportunities for future generations. And as a woman in a matriarchal society, I felt like I was also preparing myself to carry on the legacy of my community’s elders who pass down wisdom, guidance, and teachings from generation to generation.

While leaving Dinétah and my family for a city across the world, it was difficult to process what was happening. Now that I’m back, I can see just how much my experience has changed my life—and how it was truly the opportunity of a lifetime.

Malia explores Hong Kong with another Cultural Vistas Fellow.

A Larger Than Life Experience

The first time I set my eyes on the skyline of Hong Kong’s larger than life skyscrapers, I felt an overwhelming rush of emotions. In no time, I had gone from dusting dirt off my clothes to experiencing a new tropical climate.

The dazzling neon lights, the freshly steamed pork and vegetable dumplings, the hot humid air hitting my face—all of it felt real and dreamy at the same time.

Very soon after I began living abroad, I learned that the world is endlessly vast, crazy beautiful, scary, thrilling, and real.

This was a powerful realization that I never would have had without leaving the United States.

Malia with her Masani (grandmother) and Shimá (mother) on Christmas.

An All New World

As exciting as it is, experiencing a new culture can be hard. This is especially true for someone like me, coming from a small border town on the edge of the Navajo Nation.

I know my hometown like the back of my hand, and Dinétah will always hold the most special place in my heart and be where I feel most comfortable.

When I’m not home, I miss seeing people who look like me and I miss smelling the same fresh morning burritos being sold on the side of the road every day.

Coming to Hong Kong exposed me to a new world and made me realize that a different life exists beyond your zip code, but I also learned that leaving your home can provide you with new lessons and experiences.

For me, it has become very important that I also share these experiences with others so that I can try to inspire them to embark on their own journeys.

Advocating for Climate Change in Another Part of the World

Malia with her colleagues at Carbon InnoLab.

In Hong Kong, I interned at Carbon Care InnoLab, where I was involved with communication and advocacy efforts to create awareness and contribute to solving global climate challenges. Among other responsibilities, I was in charge of using digital media to raise awareness about how climate change is affecting different cultures and how everyone has a role to play in promoting sustainability.

Researching hard facts that show how climate change affects us spawned new personal and career goals for me. It made me realize, more than ever before, that Mother Earth is calling out to us and it is about time for us to respond.

Now that my experience at InnoLab is over, I want to work with tribal nations and government to implement policies and regulations to protect the environment and most importantly, the lands my people live on that are dealing with environmental justices daily. I feel like it’s more important now than ever before.

Lessons from Hong Kong

Malia represents the Navajo Nation while exploring Hong Kong.

The lessons of an international exchange program extend beyond professional knowledge. Though I found a new vision for my professional journey in Hong Kong, I also witnessed the power of stories, using our voice, and chasing dreams that take you to unimaginable places.

I met people, formed relationships, and heard stories of struggle that inspired me. I witnessed people’s utmost dedication to resolving and mitigating the climate crisis. This inspired me to continue on the path too. Among the many realizations I had in Hong Kong, I realized change doesn’t end with one person; it is passed along.

Just like the traditions, stories, and dreams passed down along the matriarchal family line, I came to understand my role as a Native woman with a unique international experience. Now, I feel that it is my responsibility to encourage and mentor other Native youth to chase their dreams and ambitions.

A Bittersweet Goodbye

Throughout my fellowship, I often thought about how I wanted to conclude my memorable experience.

So, on the last day of my internship, I dressed up in my traditional Diné dress and hopped onto the MTR railway system to explore the city and immerse it one last time before heading back.

On the last day of my internship, I dressed up in my traditional dine dress and went around the city.

In that moment, it occurred to me that I was a Diné woman taking on the world, one moccasin at a time.

It was then that I began realizing that this fellowship experience wasn’t just for me; it was for a whole community of Native people across the United States that support me. I was carrying the dreams of an entire community with me, and it was important that I inspire them to follow suit.

August 8th, 2019 is another date I’ll remember for a long time. It was the day when I returned home, and—for the first time—felt whole and full of hope with a future of endless possibilities.

There is no doubt that this summer experience will stick with me for a lifetime, adding a layer of complexity in my life that will push me to raise my voice and play my part in advocating for Indian Country and protecting Turtle Island for generations to come.

I am beyond grateful to the donors who support Cultural Vistas and help create life changing experiences for young people like me.

2019 Cultural Vistas Fellow Malia Simon shares her summer experience at the Cultural Vistas Awards Gala in New York City. View more photos

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