An MIT Alumni Association Publication

A Trip Around the World Inspires a Work Reboot

  • Angie Chatman SM ’88
  • Slice of MIT

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According to her high school counselor, Jamila Smith-Dell ’16, Course 10, shouldn’t have even applied to MIT―she had no chance of being accepted. But Smith-Dell isn’t afraid of taking chances and always bets on herself. She applied anyway. During her time at the Institute, she traveled to Mexico as part of Global Teaching Labs. It was her first time leaving the United States. She also was a member of MIT’s sailing team and traveled for competitions. These experiences stirred in her a desire to see more of the world. 

After graduation, she worked for ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a process engineer, investigating systems improvement opportunities, then developing and implementing them. But the work wasn’t satisfying because the oil manufacturer was improving too slowly. Plus, after seven years of hard work—between MIT and ExxonMobil—Smith-Dell wanted a break. Now, she could take the time, and she had the money, to follow her dream to see the world. So she did.

“I’m still processing all that I experienced. This trip was life changing.”

Jamila Smith-Dell taking a selfie on a tarmac with a plane behind her

Her journey began in November 2019. The first stop was Africa. As part of an international tour group, she and her fellow explorers rode overland in a big yellow truck. Smith-Dell climbed, camped, and roamed across the Eastern horn of the African continent. She hiked the hills of Kenya where Maasai warriors roasted chicken and vegetables on a campfire for the group’s dinner. In Uganda, she hiked 12 grueling hours to spot silverback mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. In Zambia, she was chased by a teenage elephant. Other stops included Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. “I’m still processing all that I experienced,” Smith-Dell said. “This trip was life changing.”

At the end of that 54-day leg of the journey, Smith-Dell flew from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg, South Africa, where she treated herself to an Airbnb and two long, hot showers…taken only hours apart. Then she flew to East Asia. After stays in India and Sri Lanka―where she operated a tuk tuk to drive around the country―Smith-Dell was forced to reevaluate her itinerary due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. She chose Tokyo as her next destination. 

Six months later, with her Japanese visa nearing expiration, Smith-Dell used a multivariate analysis to choose where to go next. The primary criteria were whether the country was open to visitors, whether she could obtain a tourist visa quickly, and what the locale’s policies and procedures were regarding pandemic protocols. 

Turkey was her best option because, in addition to meeting the primary criteria, Istanbul’s modern airport offers regular flights to European countries, Smith-Dell’s next desired destination. After five weeks in Turkey, she spent another six months hopscotching across eastern Europe and western Asia receiving passport stamps for Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Georgia, and Uzbekistan.

Smith-Dell takes in the view of the mountains of Cappadocia in Turkey from a hot air balloon.

Smith-Dell takes in the view of the mountains of Cappadocia in Turkey from a hot air balloon.

After a year and a half of traveling without any major negative incidents during a global pandemic, Smith-Dell’s charmed journey neared its end. She started planning her return to the States, knowing that she was almost out of money.

She set off to Brazil, followed by Mexico—using it as her base in order to be closer to US time zones. She then taught herself to code through a boot camp called Data Science for All, which provides free training to underrepresented groups looking to pivot into tech. “I looked at trends and noticed that jobs in tech were becoming very prevalent. Strategically, I knew that learning to code would give me an advantage when re-entering the job market, especially after the time I spent away.”

Smith-Dell is now an insights program manager at LinkedIn. “LinkedIn has one of the richest datasets in the world,” she explains. “I use my data analysis skills, passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion and my global mindset to create impactful and insightful thought leadership content.” 

Now, after opening her eyes to the world by traveling to 21 different countries over 18 months during a global pandemic, insights seems like the perfect place for Smith-Dell to land. 

Top photo: Smith-Dell stands atop a safari Jeep in Kenya. 

Middle photo: Smith-Dell on the tarmac waiting to board a propeller plane in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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