With bold honesty, African students share stories about study and survival in America

By PAMELA A. MULUMBY of the Tribune’s staff Published Friday, April 7

Arriving with little luggage but a planeload of ambition, Pius Nyutu left his native Kenya one afternoon in August 2000 ready to start a new life.

He quit his job as education secretary at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi and traveled to the United States to search for knowledge. As a first-time visitor, he was partially prepared for the challenges ahead.

Unlike many African students who come to the United States with skyrocketing expectations, Nyutu had received an inkling of life in the United States from his American professors at a university he attended in Kenya.

Despite having a faint idea of what was ahead, the transition was difficult, he said. Nyutu arrived in Chicago to pursue a master’s degree in education. Similar to other students from Africa seeking education abroad, he faced many challenges.

"The weather became an issue," he said. "It was really cold during the winter and too hot during the summer."

The education system was great, but he was unfamiliar with the instructional methods, the syllabus and the forms of evaluation. He had difficulty acquiring important information.

"I had a lot of difficulties when it came to buying groceries," he said. "I was not used to the method of instruction in class, and it took me time to get started and be able to adjust to the system."

The sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that he was accustomed to when he attended college in Kenya also was lacking, and the loneliness was excruciating.

"It was a private university, and most of the students came from a different socioeconomic background," he said. "Many of them had never had any contacts with people who are different and showed no interest in other students from different countries. I was very isolated and had to work very hard to get them to know me."

Nyutu’s tribulations are the motivation behind his participation in a panel discussion with three other African students next week at the University of Missouri-Columbia to discuss their life journeys and the myriad challenges students from Africa face in their pursuit for further education in the United States.

The discussion is part of an upcoming weeklong celebration of Africa, an education program organized by the African Students Association at MU to enable students, faculty and staff experience and improve their understanding of the African culture.

For many African students, Nyutu said, the transition is always difficult because friends, money, campus support services and American job experiences are always in shorter supply for the newcomers.

The pre-existing stereotypes some Americans have about Africa hamper relationships between Africans and Americans, he said.

"They only think of Africa in terms of poverty and AIDS, so we have to educate them," said Nyutu, a doctoral student at MU.

Dennis Juma, an MU graduate student from Kenya, found life here to be a disappointment and contradiction of his expectations.

"Coming in as a foreign student, one faces great impediments culturally, socially, economically and legally," he said.

Most Americans, he said, don’t welcome Africans with open arms.

"Many do not respect our cultures," he said. "In fact, they look down on us. They see us as primitive and archaic, well below their civility. Yet as bad as it sounds, the urge to go up the social ladder leaves many of us falling for this misinformation."

MU doctoral student Andrew Muriuki said he never knew he was black until he came to the United States from Africa. "Everything is defined along racial lines," he said. "You’ll never realize how beautiful your country is until you leave it."

The trio said that it’s up to the universities to provide enough support to make international students feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.

Nyutu said the stringent immigration rules imposed on international students make survival hard.

Such students, he said, should be able to work off campus for as many as 40 hours a week and not just the 20 hours they’re currently permitted so they can overcome the financial difficulties most of them face.

Nyutu said he would like to see more scholarships offered to international students, both undergraduates and graduates. And some on-campus jobs should be designated especially for them, he added.

"There are no government grants for international students, as they do for domestic students," he said. "International students without scholarships currently face serious financial challenges in attending American universities."

Even though Nyutu appreciates the vast opportunities the United States offers him, he hopes to graduate next year and return home to promote education in Africa through Funding African Children’s Education, a not-for-profit organization he co-founded with Ann Looby, an alumna from his department.

"I know I can get a good job here, but feeling happy as a person is most important to me," he said.

Source - Columbia Tribune

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