We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Kayla Stewart, an award-winning food & travel writer and Breakthrough Atlanta student alumna (’04-’09). We talked about her work, passions, education, and the importance of having diverse teachers in the classroom.
Q: So you’re an award-winning food and travel writer? Amazing. How did you find your way into that dream job?
A: Yes, I would definitely say it is a dream job. I’ve always been really interested in travel, for example, I studied abroad in Ghana during my undergraduate program and I ended up doing a grant program in Indonesia. So I always assumed I would do either diplomacy or become some sort of foreign correspondent, but the love of food and travel kept coming back up.
I wasn’t sure if I should pursue food and travel as a career for fear that it wouldn’t be serious enough. There was a moment, however, when I was tasked with pitching ideas to my editors in my journalism program, and after a number of serious story ideas, I gave a soft pitch where I looked at the connections between jambalaya and jollof rice by way of the Trans Atlantic slave trade – and they loved it! This story allowed me to see how food can open up conversations around politics, history, culture, economics, and the difficult histories that we have. This work has allowed me to explore some interesting places – both geographic and conversational.
Q: That’s so interesting! I think I take cuisine for granted and often underestimate its power to be a gateway into cultural conversations. Have you always enjoyed writing?
A: Absolutely. In fact, writing was a big part of my Breakthrough experience. I struggled in math and science quite a bit growing up, and I realized early on that I just wasn’t going to be a STEM person. I had a Teaching Fellow when I was a Breakthrough student who was a college student at Rice University. She organized a trip for a group of us to visit the library at Rice and it was an incredible experience. It only reinforced my love of learning and allowed me to create a passion for writing. As I continued through the Breakthrough program, from middle school to high school, they helped me hone my writing skills by formulating essays and helping me find my voice. Now it’s what I do for a living and I love it.
Q: It’s always fascinating to hear how people get involved with Breakthrough and how it impacts their lives. In what ways has Breakthrough helped you in your professional trajectory?
A: Thinking back on my career, Breakthrough really gave me a foundation of belonging. It allowed me to engage in different interests and created a space where I could read, learn, and embrace being a “nerd.” I was also exposed to different cultures, and being around like-minded students who were open to new experiences was really influential for me. Breakthrough is a program that fosters growth and looking back on my experience, I grew so much personally and as a student. It really impacted my life in a positive way.
Breakthrough has also been the reason why I’ve pursued various teaching opportunities throughout my career. The summer after my Ghana experience, I taught English at a summer camp in the Italian Alps to students ages 5-12. Currently, I am an adjunct professor at NYU, teaching a course on food writing. Seeing how happy my Breakthrough teachers were every day as they greeted us, and then seeing the joy that they brought to their classrooms, introduced me to what a fun classroom setting could be.
Q: Why is it important to have programs like Breakthrough, given the state of education today?
A: My mom was a teacher and my parents were both first-generation college students at an HBCU, so growing up I knew how important education was. It’s important for kids to see and meet people with a wide-range of perspectives and at Breakthrough, I had a group of teachers who came from diverse backgrounds with various identities. I learned at Breakthrough that I could have an impact wherever I went, as long as I stayed true to myself.
Kayla is part of our dynamic, national network of 40,000+ alumni who have gone on to become educators, leaders, and changemakers in the world. Click here to learn more about our amazing alumni network.