My second day of being 23, I had the opportunity to participate as a panelist for GPI US Future Leaders Program. The audience included a bright and brave group of 16/17 year old Japanese high school boys. The topics we discussed together were: experience in high school/college, career/school experience in a global setting, struggles as a student, definition of success, what makes a global leader, and parting advice.

The topics I was most excited answering were my high school and college experiences. Although there was so much more to say regarding my high school and college experiences, I wanted my message to be clear for these students and leave them with something tangible when they return to Japan. Also, if you want to know my responses for the other topics, send me an e-mail!

High school experience:

Before I answer this question, I want you all to know what was in my head when I was in high school. It was, “whenever an opportunity comes up, you take it.” An opportunity is when you are given the chance to better yourself. Have you ever taken an opportunity? Well, let me answer that for you. You all are Japanese high school students. You all traveled from Japan to be in California, specifically UCLA, and took this opportunity to attend this wonderful and amazing program to better your leadership. So, thank you for taking this opportunity to be here with me.

So, let’s talk about little Kortney in high school. I was an above average student. So not a normal student, an above average. I was in basketball, track & field, President of Environmental Club, member of Keystone, which is a volunteer group to better the community and California Scholarship Federal, an academic club for the above average student. You had to have high grades for 2 years. Some classes I took were German, Art, advanced placement classes, which are university leveled classes that are designed for the above average students.

Even though I took the opportunities in my school life, I spent a lot of time focusing on my personal self. How old are you boys? Raise your hands if you’re 15? 16? 17? 18? Well, when I was 16, my aunt gave me a camera. Instead of letting the camera sit on a shelf and collect dust, I decided to take the opportunity to use it. It was my first time having a DSLR camera. I didn’t know what all the buttons were. At this time, my cousin was also interested in photography. We both spent our weekends going out and taking photographs of people, instead of primarily focusing on school. This made us practice photography and get better at it.

By the time I was 18 and in my last year of high school, I was making money from photography. If I had not been given this camera, I would not have had the opportunity to become the photographer I am today.

All of this showed me with passion and motivation, I can do anything. And so can you. 

College experience (I used snippets from my previous blog post!):

Remember in high school I said to take opportunities? Well, in college I changed that thought just a little bit. It’s to take opportunities that line up with your passion and goals. Also, something I learned in college is to surround yourself with people that are similar to you and who you admire. Because think of yourself as a sponge. Whoever you’re around, you become like them.

I attended the University of California Santa Barbara. It is the sister school to UCLA. UCSB, UCLA, UC the similarities? My school is located right next to the beach, so I got to see it every single day. I entered college as an Art major. If you didn’t know, American universities is 4 years long. In my first year of college, I didn’t like going home. Every time I’d go home, family members would ask me what I studied. When I replied, Art, they’d respond “Pursue medicine! You aren’t going to get anywhere with an Art degree.”

Remember how I was talking about being friends with people who are similar to you? Well a person who I thought was my friend studied Economics and was “worried” about me. He told me I should reconsider my Art degree and to do something else. When I told him no, he responded with, “let’s compare salaries in ten years.” 

By the way, money does not mean happiness. 

I received more comments like, “you aren’t taking real classes”, “you are not an artist”. By the end of the school year, I felt so beaten up. I considered dropping out. It wasn’t until I shared my story to likeminded people like my friend Leila. She told me how bold and amazing it was for a person to dedicate 4 whole years to art. Do you know anyone who spent 4 years studying art? Well, me now! Because I’m your friend! Because of that moment, I overcame my self-consciousness and was proud of being an Art major. 

In my third year of college I was given the opportunity to join the Honors Program for my Art major. This program only selected 10 students and you were given your own studio space to work in on campus. If you don’t know an Art major, well carrying your supplies back and forth from school was difficult. So, having your own studio space on campus was amazing. I was really scared and almost decided to not do the program. By talking to my friends and professors, they encouraged me to apply for the program and amazingly, I got accepted and spent my last year of college producing a lot of work about myself and showcasing it in museums and galleries.

While I was doing my 4 years of college, I had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam, Japan twice, Mexico, Colorado, Texas twice, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, New York, Washington, and all throughout California. Meanwhile, I was building my photography business and traveling back and forth from school to work. It’s crazy because I was only 16 years old just like most of you in this room. Aside from that, I met and lost some friends. But it’s ok because the ones I met are my biggest cheerleaders, while the ones I lost were the ones bringing me down.


Hahaha, I was not expecting to talk about my panel discussion yesterday, but I am very passionate about speaking and influencing others to be the best versions of themselves. Also, I have such a soft spot for Japanese students from my time working two summers in a row in Japan.

For my 23rd birthday, my friends surprised me with a glamping trip to New Cuyama, California. Our trip was definitely an adventure. We went off roading, bravely driving on a two way singular lane (with no divots to pull to the side), to a mountain lion stalking and growling at us THREE TIMES, light painting, having a nightmare of an air conditioner that wouldn’t turn off and it was on BLAST because of how cold it was at night, and cooking pre-made food on an open fire from Costco. Oh, and lots of Sun Chips.




Our stay was hosted by Blue Sky Center, which is a nonprofit organization with the mission to strengthen the presence of rural Cuyama Valley through supporting entrepreneurs and building their regional creative and economic resources. What sold me was that they are HUGE advocates of artists and they have a warehouse for screen printing and wood work!

If you need to unwind and get away from the city, you should definitely come here! Here is the listing of where we sleeeeeeeeeept! Oh, if you’re coming during the winter and you don’t want a nightmare about an A/C that won’t turn off, pack your own blankets because it gets really cold.

Enjoy these photos!