The Page About Firsts, Following Your Gut, and Senegal (feat. Ashlee Sang)

Episode 72

So often we want to know in advance what our life will look like, what decisions we will make along the way, and what results those decisions will lead to. We want to come up with the perfect plan today and then simply stick to it for the rest of our life.

But life is not meant to be lived by a plan.

And as much as we want to predict the future, it cannot be predicted.

Instead, we can shape our future – by the steps we take every day.

And it all starts with firsts – actions, decisions, and events that shift the direction of our lives forever. They show us who we are, what we are made of, and what we stand for.

In this episode, I am joined by a guest – an amazing, passionate, brave woman and my dear friend Ashlee Sang. She is sharing her story about how the 4 years she lived in Senegal, a country that many of us haven’t even heard about, shaped who she is, what she stands for, and how she sees the world today.

Tune in on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or continue reading.

This is a story about firsts more than anything, and what we learn from putting ourselves out of our comfort zone and following, following what feels right in the moment.

This is a story about me moving to and living and working in Senegal in West Africa. It is where I studied abroad. It is where I, very accidentally, met my now husband. And it has really changed the trajectory of my entire life, I think, those four years that I spent there.

So I moved to Senegal, like I said, for love. Although very true to my nature, I was extremely systematic and logical about getting there. I, yes, like I said, very accidentally met my now husband when I was studying abroad in Senegal in 2012, and he was not the plan. In fact, virtually nothing about my life has been planned. And I’m actually learning about human design right now and realizing that that’s okay. Even though I’m really amazing at making an action plan I’m not great at living my life by a plan.

So all that to say, I studied abroad in 2012 for just a single semester. We did a year apart, which is hard enough, let alone with pretty spotty internet at the time. Pretty expensive internet at the time on his end being very, very young, at least by my standards and at the same time I also kind of accidentally finished college a semester early.

I spent my final semester on campus with all of my peers, but I was actually working two jobs in the non profit sector and researching in all of my spare time for ways to get back to Senegal. I needed a job in Dakar upon graduation. It felt essential. I felt like my entire life would unfold if I could not move there again with a job the second I graduated.

So I looked at all the listservs, I followed the career center’s advice of doing informational interviews with literally anyone on LinkedIn I could find that had a single connection to either Wash U, which is my alma mater, or Senegal, or ideally both. And in these conversations, I noticed that everyone kept mentioning this organization called Tostan.

And turns out, Tostan was hiring as part of their volunteer program, which was absolutely a misnomer. Because the stipend we received was much more than local staff received. Plus, we got housing and some training, and we held full time, fairly essential roles. So, all that to say, I got the job after many, many interviews and maybe some tests I can’t remember in French and Wolof and English.

It felt like the first step of the rest of my life.

And it really was in a lot of ways. So I moved there I think a week after graduation. I was wide eyed and ready to, you know, “save the world”. I had so much to learn about office politics and cross cultural communication and non profit management and boards of directors and donor and media relations.

I had so much to learn about systemic change and do-gooding. Yeah, there are a lot of problems in the international development sector. There is also a lot of really wonderful work being done. So, really learning about both of those sides of that coin, too.

More than anything, I had so much to learn about myself, and what I want and need, what I’m willing to change and adapt – what are my non-negotiables, what I don’t want to let go of, simply because I am in a place that encourages me to let go of it. So I became wiser, a little bit more jaded, and much, much more confident, for sure, after those four years there. And this place, Dakar, really is a place of firsts for me, that has led to so much of my current life, without me really knowing the groundwork I was laying.

At the time it is where I had my first love.

It is where I had my first big girl job and subsequent jobs. I had, I think three different positions at the same organization over the four years I was there.

It was my first time living with a house full of strangers from all over the world.

It was my first time going months on end without running water. And let me tell you, I did not sign up for the Peace Corps for a reason. Like, I am not a no-running-water kind of person. It was very specific to our neighborhood and even our house. So that was not fun. But it made me happy I made it through that.

It was my first time negotiating contracts and a salary, and it was my first time heading up logistics from and with big wig visitors including, fun fact, the princess of Denmark. I didn’t even know they had a monarchy, but I was placed on a trip into the countryside of Senegal with an entire entourage of people surrounding the Princess of Denmark, so that was fun.

It was my first time living alone. Very, very briefly between moving out of an apartment with a very good friend of mine and moving in with my husband. I think I lived alone for maybe like two months or something. So that was new and different for me.

It was my first time living very officially abroad. Again, I had studied abroad twice, but it’s very different to be a student than it is to be a grown up living somewhere in a different country. It was my first time navigating immigration, mostly for my husband, but also a bit for myself in Senegal.

It was my first time blogging. Well, I actually had blogged a little bit when I was studying abroad but it was my first time also doing paid articles and freelancing on the side, which then led directly into the job, the career, the consulting business that I have now.

So really, all of these firsts made me wildly independent but also showed me the really intricate interconnections that are so, so important to my life and human existence in general.

Listen to the full story on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Do you want to share your story on the Breverie Handbook podcast?

Complete this form, and if your story is a good fit for the podcast at this time, I will reach out to you with the next steps. I cannot wait to learn more about you and your story!

Until next time,

Olena xx

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