In Warpworld, Cultural Theorists travel across the dimensions to explore new worlds and blend in with Outer civilizations. It’s a dangerous job and only a handful of People are smart enough, or tough enough, to do it. On our world, travel to some parts of the globe is still considered exotic, glamorous, and, yes, sometimes dangerous. Leslie MacKeen, has traveled to many of those places, not to steal vita but to lend a helping hand.
Fittingly, I met Leslie in 2003, in Costa Rica, while she was backpacking from the tip of South America to her home in the United States. When we met, Leslie was volunteering at a turtle enhancement project and I was lucky enough to spend a few days helping her, and others, collect eggs and release hatchlings into the ocean. Little did we know that both Leslie and the baby turtles were at the start of an adventure that would take them thousands of miles from home in the years to come.
WWC: Welcome to the Warpworld Comm, Leslie! Let’s jump right in and find out some of the things you’ve done in your life that challenged what society believed women were “supposed” to do.
[pullquote] I was “supposed” to be in a high powered “business” career, not wearing flip flops and working in rural health care clinics without running water or electricity.[/pullquote]
LESLIE: Coming from a traditional background, I always felt like a bit of a black sheep in my family – the simple act of not being married with kids by my early/mid-twenties felt like I was challenging female stereotypes. Add to that my penchant for traveling and living abroad, which challenged my family’s perspective of how a woman should live but also challenged expectations on my professional trajectory based upon my educational background. I was always encouraged in my educational pursuits but applying this education in an untraditional manner – working in third world countries, often for little to no money, while living and traveling alone – was not in line with what I felt like I was “supposed” to do. I was “supposed” to be in a high powered “business” career, not wearing flip flops and working in rural health care clinics without running water or electricity.
WWC: What project or accomplishment are you most proud of?
LESLIE: I cannot pinpoint one exact project or accomplishment that I am most proud of. But, in sum, I am proud of myself each time I move to a new country and learn to live in another culture. I have gone through this process countless times and before each instance I am terrified and riddled with self-doubt, but each time I find myself thriving in my new environment. How I thrive (personally or professionally) differs in each place, but living outside my comfort zone and learning from these experiences is what I am most proud of as it has made me the person I am today.
WWC: Who were your heroes or role models when you were growing up?
LESLIE: I didn’t have any one role model or hero as a child. But I admired and sought approval from my parents and grandparents. With or without approval, however, as I grew into a more confident adult, I started to branch out and pursue my dreams in life according to my interests and rules. Rather than one particular role model, my best friend and family have always kept me grounded and are the sounding board against which I bounce my ideas, I might not always have everyone’s approval but their perspective helps keep me grounded.
WWC: Were there any times in your life where you felt you were either held back or discouraged from pursuing a goal because you were female?
LESLIE: There were probably more times, and more significant times, than this example, but I think one of the challenges of being a woman in today’s world is that we face discrimination so often and it becomes so regular that we are not always as aware of it as we could be.
One memory stands out; I was about seven or eight years old and standing outside my grandparents’ house. My grandfather was working on the roof and invited my younger brother up to help him but I was firmly instructed to stay on the ground because I was a girl. I loved my grandfather, he is one of the best men I’ve ever known, so this isn’t meant to disparage him, as he is from a different generation. Nonetheless, this example sticks out in my head because I think it was the first concrete experience I had as child where I remember realizing I could be treated differently for simply being female. I didn’t climb the ladder that day but I remember being upset about it. If it happened again today, I would definitely climb that ladder, if for no other reason than I was told I can’t.
WWC: Do you have a favourite female character–either in books, television, or movies? What do you like about her?
LESLIE: This is the question I probably struggled with the most; because any strong heroine becomes my favorite character until I meet a new one in the next book, television series, or movie. But I have always been drawn towards female superheroes or female characters with supernatural powers.
WWC: What do you think it means to be a “strong” woman?
LESLIE: Being yourself unapologetically, remain true to your goals, aspirations, and beliefs despite expectations imposed on you.
WWC: What words of advice would you offer girls or young women today?
[pullquote]Follow your heart, even if you aren’t sure where it’s going to take you.[/pullquote]
LESLIE: Be adventurous, travel, you’ll learn more than you ever can in a book or classroom. Take time out from your career to live your life; don’t be singularly focused on reaching a career goal so you don’t have the time to enjoy the journey. Don’t waste time on regret, embrace your mistakes as learning experiences and move forward. Follow your heart even if you aren’t sure where it’s going to take you. And finally value and treasure your close friendship with other women, they will sustain you through your best and worst times.
WWC: What does the future hold for Leslie MacKeen?
LESLIE: I’m not sure but I’m excited about it – I am going to be moving back to the United States after having lived abroad off and on for the past 10 years (more outside the U.S. than inside), and will be embarking on a new career and life (with my fiancé/soon-to-be husband) and starting a family. It’s an entirely new and exciting chapter and one which will hopefully include many more adventures around the world.
WWC: We hope so, too! Thanks again for talking to us.
Currently, Leslie MacKeen is working as a Foreign Service Officer with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), she is specialized in public health and serving as the Deputy Office Director for the Health Office at USAID South Sudan. Before this assignment she served as a Health Officer in Amman, Jordan. Prior to joining USAID, she worked in Kisumu, Kenya as a Project Manager for Health Economics Research Project. She earned her Masters from Columbia University and Bachelors from Johns Hopkins University.
Some of Leslie’s favorite experiences abroad, however, have been in less formalized working environments – she volunteered and taught English in Ecuador, conducted research in The Gambia on access to primary school education and research in Bolivia on the effectiveness of programs to transition coca farmers from coca to other cash crops. She also spent a year backpacking around South America, Central America and Mexico – during which time she sold handmade hats on the street, did a lot of car camping, and volunteered for a project working to save the sea turtles in Costa Rica.
In her free time, Leslie, enjoys running, yoga, reading watching sci-fi and fantasy movies or reading books of the same subject, traveling (of course) and taking photos and spending time with friends.
Stay tuned for more Women of Character, coming soon!