The Year of Firsts
We all have our years of firsts, those years filled with memories of special events that took place at certain stages in our lives that we’ve notoriously refused to let go; Becoming a first-generation graduate, the first day of college, first day in a new country, among others. Often, we’ve buried such memories in the abysses of our minds but like Proteus, the prophetic old man of the sea, these memories constantly take a variety of shapes, escaping the cores of secret caches of forever memories and manifesting themselves in vivid flashbacks each time we encounter associative events.
While the experiences of my years of firsts could be compiled into the 11th part of Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, I will save you the time (and drama) and only write about what it feels like to be a first-year international college student in a new country, or for my case, a first-year student in lower stages of the American education system.
Although I will interweave different experiences, they have some overlapping similarities in terms of the cultural differences, emotions, and mostly the similar ways of adapting to change and embracing the new.
Arriving in a New Country
Coming to the United States at age 10 was challenging as I struggled with finding my identity and where I belonged. According to developmental psychologists, children at this age are beginning to develop their sense of self and social development. Moving across the world to a country with different customs, values, and an emphasis on individuality at the peak of this development was very difficult, to say the least.
With all the psychological, biological, and social changes happening simultaneously in my life, I can shamelessly admit that I DID NOT SPEAK TO ANYONE in my first school year unless I was saying “here” when the teacher was taking attendance. This is partly because I never knew what the meaning of an “accent” was until I came to the States. See, I was baffled as to why simple words such as “water,” and “party” were so hard for my classmates and teachers to understand.
Over the years, I would say I became quite the good speller, partly because I constantly had to spell out the words that I was saying in order for others to understand me. I have gradually learned how to switch up my “accent” to be understood: slurring every word to avoid the agony of having to spell it to my audience. If you’ve heard an American talk, you know what I mean; they never pronounce all the letters in a word like the British English speakers do.
I’m embarrassed to this day that I had to change my way of speaking in order to be understood. It’s not like I was speaking improperly, in fact, I was well-spoken but this is what happens when you move to a new country at such a young age, you slightly change parts of yourself in the hopes of being “accepted.” But, as my mum would say, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.”
Building Your Village
Since I was mostly surrounded by Americans in the initial years of school, the older I got, the more I longed to be around people who looked like me, people who had similar if not the same experience. People who were… African. During my first two years of Uni, I mostly hung out with Africans. Looking back, this was my attempt at trying to find the parts of my identity that I had shed off in a bid to belong.
Prior to this, my high school was quite diverse with the majority being East Africans (mainly Somali’s and Ethiopians). However, now I was getting exposed to people from different parts of Africa; Ghana, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau among other countries. Being surrounded by many Africans was so important to me in that it allowed me to reconnect with my roots. Even though none of them were my countrymen, I felt more comfortable and closer to home whenever I was around my fellow Africans.
The person who inspired me to venture outside my comfort zone was my 2nd-year roommate, Amy. I was intrigued by her ability to hold conversations with absolutely every and anyone. She never saw the differences that they shared as a barrier to their relationship, but rather as something to be embraced. It was not until my 3rd year that I began exploring new friendships with people that were different from me. Through these friendships, I was exposed to different foods, music, and customs. Like the magic portal to the mythical kingdom of Wakanda, It opened me to a whole different world that I had long forgotten. Despite not having a lot of similarities with the new friendships, we found that our differences were what brought us together and made the relationship much more interesting.
Bittersweet as it is, this spring was my last semester as an undergraduate student. As I enter into the “real world,” my piece of advice for anyone is GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that I spent the first two years re-discovering who I am and building a network of support. But, I am also glad that I took the initiative to meet and connect with people from different places in the world. Through this experience I would say, I’ve mastered the art of being able to spark a conversation with almost anyone.
I recently asked some of my friends to submit a brief reflection of their experience studying abroad/navigating life in a new country. With permission to share, here are a few stories from several scholars from different parts of the world:
STORY No. 1
I only realized the importance of my culture once I was surrounded by so many people that were different from me. It has empowered me to embrace my own difference as a part of my identity, which keeps me grounded whenever I feel lost.
During my first year in the US, I did not notice much difference. I thought, “another country, lots of potential opportunities and friends, cool!”. Also, I realized that feeling like I belong was essential for my personal, professional, and academic growth. However, making a home out of the US was harder than I expected. Acknowledging how my upbringing and the individuals I was surrounded with shaped who I am. It played a big role in helping me find this sense of belonging within myself and among others. It allowed me to understand my frustrations and why I won’t be able to connect easily with everyone.
Although most of this process was internal and subtle, the consequence of neglecting the need for it on my mental health and productivity was obvious. The main thing I want anyone to take out of this is: we have a lot of work to do to be the best version of ourselves. Being abroad and surrounded by people that are very different from us is a rare priceless experience that can get us there, so make the best out of it.
STORY No. 2
College is a significant part of your life, each choice you make will influence your experiences, personal growth, and identity. The biggest lesson I learned was to never change myself to fit in with the individuals around me. I am an international student so I grew up in a family-oriented, altruistic, and loving society where issues of colorism and racism were not prevalent.
Coming to America it is an entirely different atmosphere, where people have individualistic mindsets, feel pride in flaunting what they have, and appear to be more spurious. I am not placing everyone into this limited group but it was hard to adapt and fit in when you had to put a lot of energy into changing yourself to obtain the feeling of belonging. Eventually, I felt as if I was disingenuous to myself. It is important that you find individuals who uplift you, make you laugh but most importantly, ones that you can be your genuine self with. Even among others who were African, aside from a few people, I felt I did not fit in because they had accustomed to the American culture and persona. Regardless, what one needs to understand is that when we are put into situations in which we are not comfortable, we as individuals are able to grow and understand more about the people we need in our lives.
In addition to this, the one person that will always be there for you at every step of the way is yourself. Therefore you need to be confident in who you are, what you want, and what you deserve, as well as who you want to surround yourself with. Being a science major (took a long road of changing between biology to microbiology then finally biochemistry) especially you need a good school-life balance and the wrong people can sway you from this track. The last two things I learned are do not let anybody make you feel lesser than for your skin tone, your individuality, or any other aspect of yourself. The second is do not let anybody base your value on the fact that you fit some millennial beauty standard. You are more than what people see externally. Just be yourself and be proud! Also, don’t take morning classes if you cannot wake up early, I learned this the hard way.
STORY No. 3
20th January 2017, my first Friday night in the US, what could possibly go wrong. It was 9:00 pm, negative five degrees Celsius, I’d lost my gloves, was weeping uncontrollably in the middle of the Hampshire mall parking lot, had no sim card yet, the school shuttle had left the mall without me since I did not make it back to the JC penny entrance on time. I didn’t even fully understand what JC penny was at that time hence I had forgotten my way to exit. I ended up getting a ride from a stranger that works at Walmart, safely back to my college campus. This was one of my first miracles. Saying that I started my college career with a bang is an understatement however after making it out that situation, I knew that God was watching over me and that it wasn’t going to be easy, but I would make it out just fine.
I quickly realized that with my Ugandan high school experience where we didn’t have as many resources as I do have now, in the US, I could be thrown anywhere and still thrive! This came in handy whenever I grew too accustomed to the opportunities around me and almost took them for granted. I’d always remind myself where I came from, how much I’d accomplished in that season, and picture how much more I could do with my present opportunities.
I tested and confirmed Leila Janah’s theory that says, “talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not”. I first proved it with to myself by thinking about how different my life would have turned out had I not come to the US and experienced all the opportunities I received. I know that all the beautiful friendships I made, classes that tested my love for learning, state of the art living spaces I dwelt in daily, new destinations I explored, highly intellectual conversations I held with anyone I had a chance to, conferences I attended, competitions I lost and won, grants I received the honor of being awarded, life-changing internships, new skills that I never imagined I needed, random Uber driver conversations that gave me a whole new perspective to life, schooling through a pandemic and many more! These vast and unique opportunities, all played a great part in making me the Angela I am today, the greatest being; receiving the opportunity to find out what is truly important to me.
Having gone through a traditional Ugandan Catholic boarding high school, anything religious wasn’t really questioned, at least not publicly. My spiritual beliefs were consistently questioned going into a liberal college environment. Being abruptly put in an environment in which people’s beliefs were on the opposite side of the spectrum from mine was truly humbling. I am now more aware that even if people do not have the same beliefs as I do, they are still people and deserve to be listened to, respected and loved. During this college journey, I was able to find more parts to myself and what I truly believe in, independent of trepidation from those I grew up around. I must say I came out with a stronger believer in God with the vast experiences I was exposed to in college. This will forever stay with me for it was a relationship I sought on my own without any external influences from my home and this makes it all the more valuable.
It is ten degrees Celsius right now, I still refuse to conform to Fahrenheit, I am more tolerant of the New England weather and in fact, find beauty in it, I have developed mechanisms of changing my accent depending on who I am talking to but realize that my Ugandan accent will never fully leave me (and that’s okay because I have truly embraced where I’m from:). I am very optimistic about the future and ready for a lifelong journey of learning; from people around me, experiences, crash courses, etc because I have “learned how to learn” for the past four years.
I would encourage every person (international student) journeying college to look at everything as an opportunity and not take even the slightest for granted. I look forward to creating more opportunities for my people in Uganda, had I been born to a different family, gone to a different school, had different friends, believed in different things, I’d probably be in a totally different place. Therefore tying back to Leila Janah’s theory, we have been given much and it It would be nice if we repatriated the same ~ Luke12:48.
STORY No. 4
Having grown up in Nigeria and only spent 3 months outside Africa, the cultural shock I observed during my MSc at the University of Oxford was intense. While I expected and somewhat prepared for dietary changes, I was oblivious to the remarkably different social structure, which meant self-isolation without any active effort to make friends. The first few weeks were business-as-usual, but I soon realized that even extroverts seemed irresponsive at first, even in an organized setting. While they wanted to make friends, there was an underlying fear of vulnerability making most of them hold back.
It became obvious in a couple of months that there were fewer people around me who grew up in communities like mine, reflecting a paucity of representation and inclusiveness.
My advice for others is to be aware that studying abroad comes with challenges and privileges. While you tackle the grimiest social changes and challenges such as racism, put your privileges to work to challenge opinions and carve a safe space for yourself.
I’m currently pursuing a post-graduate diploma in legal practice. I went to the University of Reading (class of 2019) where I studied Law and European Legal Studies. My first year was a JOKE. I focused entirely on all the wrong things and got severely distracted with boys, parties & trivial drama between friends. I spent my entire second semester partying all over the UK and unfortunately failed a module and had to resist. Looking back, that was the wake-up call I needed- it acted as a catalyst in my transformation into the student and person I later turned out to be.
To many, moving to university, away from home may appear quite daunting. Not to me. I was thrilled (perhaps too thrilled) at the thought of it. This new-found freedom gave me the opportunity to experience and experiment life in ways I had never imagined before- I traveled all over Europe for the first time, I met so many different kinds of people, I developed a plethora of life skills- cooking, budgeting, organisation, how to talk my way out of a ticket and how to talk my way into VIP. Away from the constraints of home, I began to learn a lot about myself. My first piece of advice to incoming students would be to embrace the experience- the good and the bad- and to do so with courage and an open mind. You learn so much in such a short time.
My second piece of advice would be to ABUSE the facilities available to students- pester your career advisors and professors, schedule appointments with student well being, take advantage of student discounts, join a society, etc. I cannot stress how helpful these all are, but more importantly, once you graduate, it’s much harder to access these things.
Last on my short list of advice would be to develop a hobby. The amount of time I spent caring about what other people thought and did, I should have spent learning how to lay wigs or maybe starting a YouTube channel (that’s another thing- not everyone should have a public YouTube or podcast- PUT THE TRIPODS AWAY!!). But really anything that would put your time and energy to good use I must applaud. You will definitely come across a lot of wayward people, and easily get sucked into campus drama which looking back was not worth it AT ALL.
Last thing. Stay away from cheap liquor, get a part-time job, and sort out your driver’s license. It’s embarrassing that at 22 I’m still on a provisional :/.
STORY No. 6
Coming to Smith as an international student was stressful because I put pressure on myself to fit in as quickly as possible. I didn’t really find my ‘people’ during International Students’ Pre-orientation (ISP). In hindsight, the groups we were put in really had an impact on our experiences. In any case, after ISP, I thought, “well, if I don’t fit in with the other international students, I have to make American friends ASAP.” So I tried to make as many black ‘American’ friends as I could by getting involved with the Black Student Association ( BSA). But after a while, I missed having that shared experience of being an international student and navigating America’s weirdness with people who are just as shocked and bewildered. I think I only found social balance in the fall of my Junior year.
My advice to fellow international students:
- Open your bank account, get your sim card, etc with the other kids. Otherwise, you’ll end up in the middle of nowhere trying to get a social security card by yourself.
- Don’t stress about making friends during orientation. Most of my friends were made during house events and clubs. Orientation can be a weird super smiley time.
- FIND YOUR INTERNATIONAL ELDERS! There are also international professors, staff, and alum that will feed you and look after you if you reach out to them. The upperclassmen might not feed you but they’ll take you in and point you in the direction of someone who will. Don’t be shy. I know you miss your food from home.
STORY No. 7
“College is about to be the best four years of your life, it’s an experience you will live to remember. ” These are the words said by my high school teachers in my last year. Months later, it is my first day of orientation and I have never been more bamboozled in my life. There was no one that racially looked like me, making me feel like I was in the wrong room, which wasn’t the case. I kept wondering how I would be able to fit in. I’ve always been to schools that were predominantly Black which made it easier to feel like I belonged and make friends.
But coming here and not finding anyone that looks like me in the room made me think of how I could befriend them while having so many questions in mind; what do they like to do for fun, what music do they listen to, are they nice people? etc. I didn’t know how was going to experience the best four years of my life if I wasn’t with people like me that had similar interests. But I guess that’s how every freshman feels especially if you live more than 5,000 miles away from home. Time passed by, I got to know these people and we learned a lot about each other’s cultures which exposed me to a world outside of my own. I could have never imagined that the distance from our homes is what would bring us together and have our little family. My typical Friday consisted of a game night or trying out new restaurants and partying once in a while, which isn’t a typical thing a college freshman does but I made sure to enjoy it.