Navigating the Self: African Student Experiences in U.S. Higher Education
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. This motto is not only engraved in the Great Seal of the United States, but also in the spirit of the country. For decades, the U.S. has prided itself in being a land built by immigrants; in being a land where individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds have been able to unite and work together towards greatness. The nation’s status as a cultural melting pot has not only been praised as an asset, but has also been seen as a defining characteristic.
“This is America…a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky,” affirmed former President George H.W. Bush in a speech at the Republican National Convention.
Yet this idealized version of the United States differs from its reality. From racist incidents and rhetoric against Asian-Americans amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to Hispanic immigrant deaths and human rights abuses in ICE custody, the U.S. has long distanced itself from valuing the diversity that is so integral to its society. Racial tensions have challenged the notion of American unity.
Most notably, the Black Lives Matter movement and recent events of racial violence against Black Americans have elucidated upon what has always been the case: that the U.S. has been a land of opportunity for some, but a land of oppression for others.
The United States is a land built by immigrants. But many of these immigrants did not come to the nation willingly.
As a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which lasted approximately from 1526 to 1867, more than 12.5 million African people were forceably enslaved and transported to the American continent. More than two million did not survive the journey. The majority of those who did were brought to the Caribbean and South America; however, by 1825, a quarter of all Black people in the New World lived in the U.S.
Though the United States has made significant strides towards greater racial equality over the years—and slavery has now been abolished—discrimination and hostility towards minorities remains—especially for those of African descent.
In this environment, the perspective of African students in the United States is interesting, and they face a unique situation. By pursuing higher education in America, many will no longer belong to the majority population of their home countries, and will instead be categorized as being part of a minority—one that is extremely vulnerable and under attack.
These students are exposed to both the best and the worst parts of the United States. Through their education, extracurriculars and other opportunities for development, they are able to further flourish in their personal, intellectual, and professional pursuits. Yet as African international students they will also face many challenges, especially regarding their race and identity.
In an article titled “A Dual Degree from Oxford. A Medical Degree From Harvard. Neither Protected Me From Racism,” Dr. Tafadzwa Muguwe spoke about the constant discrimination he has experienced in many facets of his life. He first arrived in the U.S. to pursue his undergraduate education at Swarthmore College. After finishing two graduate degrees in England, he returned to the United States to practice medicine. Despite his extraordinary credentials—which include a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship—Muguwe, who is from Zimbabwe, described in the piece how many in the U.S. have frequently looked down upon him for his race and undermined his potential over the years.
Muguwe stated that “far from being isolated, [his] experiences revealed deeply held assumptions and attitudes about [him] as a Black person. These attitudes constitute the scaffolding that is structural racism, which manifests daily in the lived realities of Black people” in the United States.
In his book The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected, American sociologist and Columbia University professor Jonathan R. Cole affirmed that “what has made [American] universities so distinguished is not the quality of [their] undergraduate education,” which may vary between institutions, but their structure and what they embody.
Cole added that U.S. universities have a “system of higher learning that fosters creativity and discovery, and that allows knowledge to be transferred and developed by new industries…. These properties attract extraordinarily talented young people from around the world who seek opportunities at American universities. The systems of higher learning in other nations have not been able to put these elements together in a way that rivals what has been achieved in the United States.”
Awuor Onguru ’24 would agree.
Onguru, who is from Kenya, is one of the 2,304 students who were accepted into Yale’s Class of 2024 out of an application pool of more than 35,000. She was also offered a place at the prestigious University of Oxford in England, but chose instead to study in the United States.
“I am fascinated by that idea of stewardship in learning, and students taking their own learning experience into their own hands,” Onguru told The Politic. “In the U.S.—especially at Yale—universities foster that environment: [one] where I will be able to ask questions, talk to people, or bring in a new perspective. The U.S. style of learning [allows for] a wider approach to my degree than the U.K. or Kenyan system.”
In an interview with The Politic, Thembisile Gausi ’24, who is from both Zimbabwe and Malawi, expressed similar views: “The U.S. has a more rounded experience when it comes to university. In the U.K., once you go to university, you just focus on your course…. When you go to the U.S., [universities] focus more on a holistic school experience…. You have so much you can also achieve outside the classroom.”
Gausi added that a particular aspect that appealed to her about U.S. higher education was “the leeway that comes with a liberal arts education. You can declare your major after your second year. In the U.K., there is nothing like that. If you apply as an engineer, you leave as an engineer…. I felt it was the opposite with the U.S. where I could come in as an engineer and leave as a lawyer!”
Lukas Nel ’24, from South Africa, also expressed excitement about this aspect of the U.S. higher education system. Though he plans to major in Electrical Engineering, Nel told The Politic that “the U.S. liberal arts scene would allow me to look at all my interests, including economics and history, while in the U.K. and South Africa you choose a subject and just do it. It’s much more specialized.”
As a result of colonialism, the education systems of many African nations are modeled after those of their former colonizers. The British Empire was the largest in human history, and left a significant linguistic and educational legacy in the continent. Many African students are not only very familiar with U.K. high school systems, such as the Cambridge Assessment International Education style, but also with those of U.K. higher education. In the 2017-2018 school year, almost 28,000 African students attended universities in the U.K.
Yet information about the U.S. education system, which is very different from that of the U.K., is not widespread in the continent. For some who wish to study in the United States, this can lead to challenges in the application process, months before even stepping on campus.
This was initially the case for Gausi, who studied in a private Zimbabwean school that had two examination boards: Zimsec (Zimbabwe School Examinations Council) and Cambridge. Gausi chose the latter examination track, and like students in the United Kingdom, took exams such as the IGCSEs and A Levels.
“For [my school], most people go to the U.K. for university or to South Africa. [When it comes to applying to U.S. colleges], there is very limited knowledge,” Gausi shared about her application experience. “It’s only when you find the correct people that you are exposed to so much information. At first, I was stranded…[but] once you start learning, you start being connected with the right people.”
Nel also affirmed that his U.S. application process required much personal initiative and independence. Nel went to a local South African school, where much of the content was taught in Afrikaans.
“Nobody applied [to the U.S.] from my school,” Nel said, though he mentioned some classmates were recruited athletically. “My school counselors didn’t really know how the application process worked. I had to explain and go step-by-step with them. I watched lots of tutorials from YouTube to better understand what I was supposed to do in the system because I’d never used it before.”
In an interview with The Politic, Phyllis Mugadza ’21, who is majoring in Mechanical Engineering and also pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Health, mentioned that in the years leading up to her last year of high school: “Everything was new to me completely. Before 2015, I had no idea what the Common Application even was, what I even had to look at when applying to U.S. colleges. The academic systems were so different. I was ready to go to the U.K. or South Africa.”
Like Gausi, Mugadza had also studied in a private Zimbabwean school that operated under a British system, and had chosen the Cambridge examination track.
“In previous years, nobody at my high school had applied to Yale,” Mugadza said. Yet she mentioned that after 2015, she was much more prepared. “I [became] familiar with applying to Yale through summer camps offered beforehand. I did Yale Young African Scholars and Yale Young Global Scholars…those programs were geared towards helping students with that American application process.”
“Definitely,” Mugadza said when asked whether the liberal arts education system in the U.S. had appealed to her when applying. “I knew I wanted to be an engineer, but I didn’t just want to be an engineer. I wanted to be able to be put in a room with an expert from any other field and be able to hold a conversation with them.”
Mugadza noted that in “the academics [in the U.S.]—especially moving from a very structured British curriculum to the liberal arts—there is a lot of freedom and you are given an opportunity to explore.”
She added that it was this system that also allowed her to explore her interest in problem-solving and passion for entrepreneurship. Mugadza is currently establishing her own startup, developing a product to relieve menstrual cramps. “For these complex problems, you need knowledge from a variety of different things and subject areas. I thought the liberal arts was a perfect starting point to experience these different academic environments, learn from them, and apply my perspective to them.”
In email correspondence with The Politic, Wanjiku Mwangi ’22, a prospective Environmental Engineering and African Studies double major, also expressed her appreciation for the liberal arts system in U.S. higher education, stating that it had appealed to her because it would “allow [her] to explore many different subjects before settling on a core area.”
However, Mwangi added that this flexible application-based style of academics had initially felt so foreign to her that it had proven to be a challenge to get adjusted to when she began her university studies in the United States.
Mwangi had attended a public secondary school in Kenya that followed a rigorous 8-4-4 system of education—which is unique to the country—and like her peers, had taken the KCSE (Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education) exam.
“Because the Kenyan system of education highly capitalizes on memorization skills rather than applying what was learnt, transitioning into the American education system was particularly hard at first. It was harder for Math and Science classes I took because I felt like I had to relearn things I already knew,” Mwangi stated. “Humanities classes I took were somewhat easier for me because I was essentially taught how to retain large amounts of information in a limited time for years on end. So once I learnt how to synthesize and apply information…studying at Yale became much easier.”
Academically, Mugadza expressed that her transition was not very challenging, but that there were some nuanced differences that she had to get accustomed to.
“The first thing I noticed was that the terminology was different, even in maths and science…. Of course, [I also had to] change my keyboard to American English,” said Mugadza. She added that at Yale, as is the case with many other institutions, there were many resources that helped facilitate her transition, such as her classes. “In English 114, I learned all about the different types of formatting such as MLA…[the class] was definitely a great way to get adjusted to the American style of writing.”
“There is one thing that I thought I understood pretty well being from the continent that became more complicated when I came to the U.S.,” Mugadza told The Politic, “and that had to be my Blackness.”
Mugadza noticed that the most significant transitions to American college life have come in the areas of culture and her identity. She said, “I did come to [the United States] having identified as just Black or African. And I did also identify myself in my own way back home, but [in the U.S.], I just fell into this category of African-American…. Just within Blackness itself, there were all these categories that [I was now] having to fit myself into that I wasn’t aware of before.”
This is something that Mwangi has also experienced.
“Coming from a majority Black country, I was never actively conscious [of] my race. Soon enough, it became very apparent that my race made me stand out in a lot of places at Yale such as engineering classes, some extracurriculars, and even social scenes,” she said.
Mwangi added that when she first came to the U.S., she, much like Mugadza, had to become accustomed to new categorizations. She stated: “I…started to realize that as a Black person in America, I’m automatically associated with African-Americans whose history I knew so little about, especially post-slavery.”
However, this was something that incoming freshman Gausi had already expected. She told The Politic: “When I go [to the United States], I know that I will be classified as African-American, even though there is African and there is African-American. It will just be one group.” Gausi added that she also had concerns about the current racial tensions in the U.S., and that it is “really sad to see how [African-Americans] are treated.”
This sentiment was also expressed by Onguru. When asked whether she had worries of her own about the situation in the United States, especially as an incoming first year student, Onguru’s response was swift: “I have a lot of fears about that.”
Onguru recalled a recent conversation with her brother, a Black boy. “Look at what they are doing to people like me in America,” he told her. “I don’t want you to go there. I’m afraid that the same thing will happen to you.”
There was something Onguru found to be particularly alarming. “To an extent, I had been a little ignorant about the whole situation until recently. I am a huge advocate for Black rights. Black rights matter…[but] because I am going to Yale, part of me was like, ‘this is not going to happen to me.’ Because I am going to an Ivy League school. There is no way people are racist in the Ivy Leagues,” she said.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Students in institutions across the United States have all had exposure to racism. Yale’s community has been no exception, and many recent incidents confirm this. In 2018, an African Yale graduate student had the police called on her by a white peer for simply having fallen asleep in her common room. On Wednesday, June 3, an employee at Good Nature Market— a favorite shop/restaurant/haunt of Yale students—denied entry to four African-American men, but provided service to other non-Black customers.
“What? At Yale? I thought there was no racial discrimination. I thought we were smarter than this,” Onguru said, describing the moment she heard about the GHeav incident. She has been forced to come to terms with a realization. “No matter where I go in the United States, [racism] is still a prominent thing I will have to grapple with. Even in the place where I thought that I would be most safe.”
Similarly, Mugadza told The Politic that there are many times she has experienced racism on campus, though mainly in the form of microaggressions.
“When I am walking around and just happen to be wearing a hoodie, I’ve seen white girls walking past me and hiding their phones. People can also say very insensitive things…. There is a lot of ignorance that you face,” she said.
Mwangi shared: “I haven’t experienced any form of direct racism. I’ve experienced forms of microaggressions, which are mostly insensitive actions and ignorant comments just because I’m Black.” She also noted that “the ‘Black friend defense’ is…an interesting thing I’ve picked up on [where] some white acquaintances would mention a Black friend they have just to prove they’re not racist when confronted despite clearly insensitive comments they would make occasionally. But also based on some friends’ experiences, most of the time overt underlying racism tends to be disguised in microaggressions.”
“I don’t think racial discrimination is getting significantly worse in the U.S; it’s just that more of it is getting filmed and being put on mainstream media. And I think this is a good thing because people are becoming more aware of how deep-rooted racism is,” Mwangi said about the current situation. “The U.S is built on systems of racism that were designed to automatically benefit white people right from birth and that is one thing incoming African students have to understand.”
Both Mugadza and Mwangi are very active in the Yale African community, which they described as warm, vibrant, active and welcoming. For instance, last school year, they both served in Board positions for the Yale Association for African Peace and Development. Mugadza was Director of Development, and Mwangi was Director of Publicity, but was recently elected Vice President.
They both stated that Yale has been very committed to allowing people of color to flourish in a safe environment. Mugadza and Mwangi spoke about the vast variety of opportunities to connect with and promote African identity that are available on campus. Some of the many Yale groups they spoke of were: the Afro-American Cultural Center (which houses many other organizations), YASA, BSAY, National Society for Black Engineers, and YAAPD. They also encourage incoming African students to become immersed in other mediums of learning such as research, events (one of Yale’s most prominent being Africa Week), and courses.
“I took classes on U.S history, and two classes on slavery and its legacies. Knowing more about the Black struggle in America in the last couple of centuries significantly helped me understand why race relations are so sensitive in the U.S and what I can do about it,” mentioned Mwangi.
Though the amount of resources may vary between institutions, most college campuses have become increasingly committed to protecting their BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students. People have become more outspoken about combating discrimination, and the Black Lives Matter movement has even transformed into a global one.
At the end of the day, though, Mugadza would advise incoming African students to not be very concerned about facing any challenges, especially when taking into account how positive and life-changing their university experience will be overall.
“This isn’t going to be the last time you will hear about [racism], but you’re certainly not going to be the first people having to experience it, and you are not going to be the only people experiencing this,” Mugadza stated. “You will find people who will stand with you…. There are all these groups where you can find people who look like you, who are like-minded, who are there to support you and understand the struggles you are going through…. Know you will be protected. You will have people walking with you and standing with you in solidarity through anything you may go through.”
She added: “I definitely appreciate [this university] experience because it has empowered me. I have been empowered by my Blackness. It is something I am proud of.”
Mwangi added that: “The African community has been crucial to my personal and professional development at Yale…. The African community is honestly like my family in the U.S and I always look forward to regular dinners we have with each other. I’d […] like to advise incoming first years to start building their networks with African upperclassmen as soon as they can. It really helps with regard to professional development especially after the upperclassmen graduate—they always have great advice.”
Generally, excitement is the most prominent emotion shown by incoming African students.
“I hope I can find a community at Yale in both international and African students so that we can navigate this together,” Onguru stated. “It’s going to be hard…because I am a minority. But I don’t want that to stop me from seizing this amazing opportunity, this amazing education!”
And being far from home, many Arican international students are also eager to find ways to remain connected and express their pride for their cultures in the U.S.
Onguru, who is interested in majoring in English and African Studies, commented that one of the things she looks forward to doing at Yale is learning more about African history.
“I realized that even though I am Kenyan, I don’t know much about the history of Africa…which, when you do begin to look into, is very colorful and rich, filled with amazing stories,” Onguru said. She also mentioned her interest in exploring African literature, and how to “create new stories of a new continent with countries trying to reinvent themselves with their own standards.”
Gausi—interested in majoring in Mechanical Engineering—is passionate about both aviation and renewable energy. She also hopes to apply her knowledge to give back to the continent, and explained that she was fascinated by ways Africa could maximize its use of renewable energies like solar energy. Likewise, Nel—who describes himself as “proudly South African born and raised”—mentioned that he was interested in several STEM areas such as engineering and programming. He hopes to eventually contribute to the improvement of South Africa’s manufacturing industry, and help diminish the socioeconomic inequality in his country.
University is truly what one makes of it. It is not possible to generalize the higher education experience of a demographic. African students face a unique situation in the United States, a country that is currently more divided than ever along racial, cultural and ideological lines. They will most likely face many obstacles while transitioning to life in the United States. Yet the African community in the U.S. continues to thrive, enrich and inspire. Their experiences are insightful, and highlight the beauty of diversity.
“Don’t be afraid to try anything new. Explore. Venture out. Apply. Apply. Apply! Apply to as many opportunities as you can. Take advantage of your own journey,” Mugadza would advise incoming African international students. “Decolonize your mind.”