(published in Glitz Magazine, 'Perspectives from across the Atlantic')
Suffering and Smiling: The Struggling African Student
Being a college student is a wonderful and exciting experience but it certainly isn’t the best condition to remain in for a very extended period. Students everywhere are suffer-heads, even if they come from rich homes. It is worse when you are on your own, without your parents and with the most impractical type of visa, the F-1 visa.
Many who come to America to study enter the country as citizens or green card holders, but a majority come in with the F-1 student visa, on which you not only must show sufficient funds to cover your tuition and living expenses during the period of your intended study but can’t get the higher paying off-campus jobs for one year and have 60 days to find a job after graduation before immigration and Homeland Security come hunting you down. However, it makes no difference what form of document you come into the country with, as long as you are a full time student in America, you are bound to face some challenges, be it social, financial or academic.
The life of a student can be treacherous. According to The Jed Foundation for mental health safety, Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college-age students, the rate among men has tripled since the 70’s, and suicide attempts pose the greatest life threatening danger for college women. The foundation also says that in 1998, suicide killed more young adults than AIDS, cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, stroke, influenza and chronic lung disease combined. In a five-week period during the 2003 fall semester, there were 3 suicides at New York University, while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my alma mater; there was a suicide in Nov 2002 and 3 others between January and February 2003, one of which was an international student. Dr Alan Lipschitz of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention writes in his research article that suicide is more prevalent among students attending elite schools in the U.S, England and Japan and the rate is even more elevated among foreign students. The rate of depression, which can lead to suicide, is astronomical across the board.
There are many factors that can lead to suicide, among international students and the top of the list is social isolation. Other factors include anxiety, insomnia, psychosis, depression, and worthlessness. Anyone can experience these, but factors that are more familiar to our cultural experience include rejection by family and the struggle for academic or financial success or lack of it.
To study in America, you should prepare yourself mentally. I say this because if you’re not in your right mind, you can’t possibly expect to learn anything, let alone get good grades. Have high expectations for yourself but keep a pillow for a soft landing when you hit your low moments. By that I mean make or have back up plans that you will be happy with. Surround yourself with a positive, reliable and competent support group that will help mold you in to achieving your goals because sometimes Uncle John, Broda Gbenga or De’ Uche don’t always have the solution to every problem or an answer to every question. Remember, whether your path to success is paved by others or you’re paving that path, you should, under no circumstance allow yourself succumb to pressures or excessive workloads. As you know, America is a potpourri of cultures, so do not have a heart attack if you see things that are not in accordance with your beliefs. The Free Speech clause in the First Amendment is like a gift from God, so it’s ok to voice your concerns and opinions, express your fears and even ask questions for the purpose of educating yourself, but please don’t be a close-minded holier-than-thou bigot and lock yourself up in your apartment “because you feel you are in a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.”
First, you should thoroughly research to decide what you want to study, where you want to study and eventually what you are going to go with that degree. I am sure your parents have already decided the first for you, but if you are like me and got an F9 in mathematics through most of your secondary school years, planning to study Medicine or Chemical Engineering is a guaranteed suicide mission and a signed, sealed, stamped and DHL wire-express death certificate. If you are a good writer, analytical thinker or public speaker, perhaps a career in journalism, law or international studies will be more suitable. If you are good in sciences, average in math, once nursed the idea of being a doctor but not confident about medical school, a career in Nursing comes with an excellent salary and work schedule, whether you are male or female. Your parents might not be happy they won’t be producing the first doctor in your village, but they will eventually be happy with your choice as long as you’re happy and financially stable. If they are still unhappy, I bet you a new car, a rich son-in-law or submissive daughter-in-law topped with a grandchild will definitely win them over but if Mama Ngozi, Baba Iyabo or Mallam Sule has bragging rights to the first doctor, lawyer and engineer, I’ll be praying for you.
Once you have figured your career, it is then time to find the perfect school in a location that suits you. Many of us automatically go to popular cities, or where our relatives or friends live or places with less hustle, bustle and crime; that’s a good plan but may not suit you as an individual or provide opportunities career wise. There really isn’t a best way to pick a location, but you can start with your choice of school by selecting at least 10 schools and rank them according to your preference. I went to Charlotte NC, because my whole village lives there, attended a community college for 2 years to save money on tuition, while seeking the best University to get my degree. Even though I recommend starting out at a 4-year university so you can have the full college experience, a community college can save you money, provide one-on-one opportunity with professors, has no distractions during those first two impressionable years as a college student and most of all help you build your grades at a less demanding pace. Things to consider are school rankings in your degree choice, tuition, campus life, race relations, mobility and reputation. Of course everyone would love to go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, but you have to be realistic. If you have the grades, money and ability to endure the academic rigor of those schools, by all means go for it. Even I with my Eze goes to school grades and 1300 SAT score applied to these Ivy league schools, just to try my luck, while praying the admissions folks would be on drugs and slide me through. You can be rest assured that didn’t happen. However I got into NYU and UNC, which are top schools in theater and journalism respectively, either by merit, as my grades were alright, compatibility based on my career choices as stated in my letters and essays, or the Affirmative Action, which provides equal opportunity in college admissions for minority groups, women and the economically disadvantaged. I chose UNC not only because sky blue is my favorite color, or that I might actually sit where Michael Jordan once sat or take a class with Vince Carter, but also because the journalism school is highly ranked, winters are not brutal and compared to the private school NYU, UNC was very affordable and surrounded by other good schools like Duke and North Carolina State University. The key is to apply everywhere
Being broke is a guaranteed state as a student, it’s worse if there’s absolutely no income, no tips, no pocket money and you can’t get a job. At that point no one has to tell you to become a hustler. Some of you so called “my-daddy-is-rich-ajebota-went-to-Atlantic-Hall” and the likes might not relate but even the B-M-W-Mercedes driving fraternity boy has to one day make a choice of buying gas and starve or a case of beer and walk to class. You’ll learn to make hustling an art, from hitching 15 minutes rides to the grocery store or 10 hour rides to New York City with the dude down the hall, haggling at the African store for chin-chin and plantain, knowing the cooking schedule of every Nigerian family in the area to provide your weekly supply of isi ewu, rice and stew or amala and ewedu, and doing house-girl duties for your uncle and aunts every time school is on break. People, it is all about the survival and if you can be that broke, maintain your grades and look like a pimp on the school yard all at the same time you’ll definitely make it in the real world and appreciate yourself better. Even though loans, scholarships and financial aid are reserved for citizens and residents, there are on-campus jobs available to students that range from cafeteria services to research or teaching assistants. Sometimes “market is bad” or there is a nationwide strike, Mummy and Daddy can’t always send money. They probably have 4 or 5 of your siblings or relatives to put through secondary school and they haven’t been paid their salaries for the past 6 months. Learn to be self-sufficient and be smart, or shall I say ‘sharp.’ If you are very good in subjects like French, Math’s, Chemistry and Writing, become a private tutor to kids and colleagues. Baby sitting and braiding hair very well you can even put yourself through college and depending on the city you end up in, if you are one of those lucky people who’re over 5ft 9in, pretty and skinny, modeling on the side can fetch you pretty penny. I remember kids in school who got punished for drumming on their desks; you’ll be surprised to know that playing a drum at a town, campus events, dance groups is very lucrative. Doing show-and-tell in area schools and teaching kids about Africa during History, Social Studies classes or Black History month, as well as giving little girls African dance lessons are ways to make money while in college. The best part of it all is that all such income are untaxed and undocumented.
The best advice is to be smart, research properly, work hard and keep your grades up. If you’re in secondary school, take the opportunity to brush up your Math’s, contrary to popular belief you’ll need it after WAEC and if you plan to copy, bribe your professor or obtain exam questions, be rest assured, American’s aren’t skilled or believable liars and there are cameras everywhere, so you will be caught and publicly shamed in the local paper. As you know media are vultures waiting to prey, Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson are good examples, I would include George Bush, but I reserve my comments. While you wait for admission, visa approval or SAT take the time to learn Algebra, how to type, use a computer, research on the internet and the most basic, read and comprehend the English language. It is shocking how many people’s grades drop because they can’t write a one page essay that won’t come back from the professor on red paper, and if you can’t understand a simple handout, how do you expect to understand the Theory on the Development of the Cartesian Philosophy of Rationalism, the Dualism of Substance, Empiricism and the Existence of God…my point exactly.