There have been rare moments in my life, “aha” moments if you will, in which I have literally been jolted into realizing the beauty of my ancestry and my race.

Moments like when President Barack Obama was elected not only once, but twice as President of the United States. Moments like when the media reports that Oprah Winfrey continues to be a key player in the media industry and remains a pillar in leading minorities to see their potential. Moments like when I see African-Americans graduate at the top of their class or succeed in STEM fields.

To me, these moments represent the great beauty of life, triumphs, self-acceptance and even an understanding of my history.

When I traveled to South Africa for the first time, I remember being almost overwhelmed by the feeling and realization that the country–and surely the continent–had played a major role in my life. It was an intense spiritual connection I have never felt anywhere else. I was filled with peace and truth as I ventured throughout the country, taking in the beauty of the animals there, but more importantly the beauty of the people.

In the most unforgettable journey of my life, I finally felt happy and wonderful for being…me.

Understand that as a child, I grew up around a race different from my own. As a result, it was difficult for me to understand who I was, as those around me seemed to consistently pinpoint the differences between us. Sometimes the students would share racial comments or make racial jokes that often left me feeling hurt and even sometimes ashamed for being who I was.

However as I began to grow older, through school and extracurricular activities, I began to surround myself with more people like me. I also became more aware of the different ethnicities and groups of people in the world. This gave me not only great pride in being of the race and ethnicity that I was, but also made me want to learn more about other cultures and to share my joy with the world.

I could have never guessed that just years later, I would have the opportunity to visit what many call the Motherland. It was an experience that would forever indent my life because of the people I came across.

There were people from all walks of life in Africa, people from all over the world, of different socioeconomic, cultural and racial backgrounds. But what touched me the most was to see so many people like me. These people were not only successful, but they also took great pride in who they were and what future generations could be. The people who I met had such a remarkable understanding of history and life. They were so eager to have intellectually stimulating conversations about race, various social issues within the country, and what youth could do to help solve them.

I was especially touched by the families that I met while in South Africa. My friend whom I was traveling with and I stayed at three homes while in South Africa. In each home, I felt nothing but love and kindness. The people took us in as if we were their family, although they had never met us before in their lives. When I got sick, one of the moms in the home offered me tea and helped to take care of me.

Their warmth and kindness forever touched my spirit in ways that helped me to believe that even through hard times that there is great human kindness in the world. I believe that the negative moments that leave us beside ourselves are merely distractions.

I also remember meeting children in an orphanage and the fun I enjoyed with the men who took me and my friend on a safari. Their kindness, selflessness, and beauty touched my soul. Their beautiful smiles, openness, and joy of life made me realize the importance of using my life to positively change the world.

From these life-changing experiences, I have realized that although there are many events and people that often try to break us, we can always rise above them. Yes, it is hard to try to rise, to grasp for air as we are suffering, but there is still greatness that lies within us. My ancestors taught me this. Visiting South Africa taught me this and ingrained in me the power that self-acceptance and self-love can generate–not only into one’s life, but in the lives of future generations to come.

I hope to use these truths I have gained not only for the betterment of my own life, but also for the lives of those to come, especially African-Americans and Africans.

Now more than ever, we are all truly connected and we must use our lives to help each other realize our potential, to help each other rise above and become true heirs and heiresses of our ancestors, who fought for many years for us to have a better life.