What I Wish I Knew Before Moving to the US for Grad School
Happy Sunday and a Happy New Week!
A few people in my circle know this, but I left my (very) cushy middle management role at a Multi National Corporation some time last year to go to grad school in the US, 5 years after my undergrad degree in Law. (My training is in law, my masters was still in law, focused on Intellectual Property and Technology).
Over the past few weeks, as shared in this past post, I marshalled (read harassed ;-)) some of my close friends, mostly Kenyans and Africans - in law but with representation from other courses as well - to share their experiences because we've had a lot of those 1:1 discussions and always end with, 'I Wish I Knew That Before'.
So let's start with a few disclaimers.
This isn't intended to be a, 'in your face, I'm better than you' or 'you're just saying that and you don't want me to experience the good life' or 'but you made it, so?'.
My friends will remain anonymous, heck even I don't know which sentiments are from who.
Our sentiments are personal and subjective - even amongst ourselves, we have such diverse experiences and rarely, if at all, have two of us experienced the same thing/situation.
The thoughts here aren't a share all, be all - they are our unique experiences and the intention is to hopefully make it easier for others starting the same journey, to at least have a good starting point. It's also a great opportunity for each of us to reflect and remember where we came from.
Most of us had undergraduate degrees from back home and had garnered some work experience in our different fields before we left for grad school across the US specifically.
We are all grateful for the opportunity to be in the US and hope that this does not appear as a spoilt, privileged point of view. If our economies and nations had the same opportunities, we probably wouldn't even have thought of leaving. So it's not a bash fest.
The intention is extremely noble and from a good place, we hope you see it as that. :)
What I wish I knew about... the basic day to day life and community as an International Grad Student in the US from Africa
You’re on your own.
“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
Paul Carus, summarized from the Dhammapada, verse 165
Visa Application/Process - Apply for your visa as soon as you can. Don’t leave it to the last minute. Despite the backlog in visa applications, most US Embassies in Africa and globally will fast track visa appointments for students given the nature of engagement and irreparable harm that can be suffered in case of the delay such as loss of scholarship. For instance, I got my appointment date and visa approved in about 5 weeks in 2021.
To stop converting the dollar to local currency rate - because all you’ll get are heart palpitations. My myself personally, the Kenyan Shilling used to be 100 KES to 1 USD, it's currently about 123 KES and considering all my life's savings and earnings were in KES, I still get those heart palpitations. Send help :)
The Apple Ecosystem - I came from a country where given the economic dynamic , most phones are on Android OS and laptops PC. In my class at grad school though, 99.9% had Apple devices. I was actually very surprised when a friend of mine told me they didn't even realize that time when Meta's Platforms were down because they don't use Whatsapp! For us with Whatsapp groups from here to timbuktu, nursery to post grad, I was shook.
That when shopping, you'll be overwhelmed by the options but ps. the cheap stash and stuff is typically on the bottom shelves or at the back of the store. The Frozen section and canned food, very affordable. It's also a psychological stunt, many of which you will experience in several spaces.
Where to shop affordably -
Giant for food (in the DMV, also called Stop. and Shop in MA) as they always have deals, Walmart (WholeFoods if you’re balling though their food is very organic) Target, Shein, Amazon, Market Basket.
Amazon has student prime membership (6 months free), this gets you discounts on eligible products (e.g. meat from WholeFoods) P.S. - always scan your amazon code in the app before you scan your items.
As a first time student, online shopping can save you lots of money (Instacart has free delivery for first time users, as well as discounts and has a variety of stores - Target, Aldo, Safeway et al). Logically, it’s best not to order meat, veggies or fruits online - instead physically go to the stores or farmers markets.
Also, store brands would typically be cheaper than brand name products and the quality is also pretty good.
Get fresh food from farmers markets.
Find cheaper out of date (coz we don’t care:)) designer clothes, bags, shoes etc at TJMaxx, Marshalls and Ross (confirmed by Americanah :)).
Milk, eggs, bread, meat etc, will taste different. Only organic foods taste close to what you’re used to, but they’re also expensive.
On Community ...
It will be difficult to find your tribe and build community, so seek out people with similar backgrounds, experiences, interests in order to start building a community.
Remember to be patient with yourself and enjoy the process. Seek connection, not attachment.
If possible, go where you have a sense of community. It makes it much easier to plug in and build on already existing social circles.
They always say east or west, home is best; you’ll learn that home transcends the physical and comprises largely of people. Most importantly, the strongest building block starts from within. Work on being “home” for yourself.
There’s a difference between being black/African American) and being African while we do have a shared history of slave trade and colonialism and are united by it, we are very culturally different.
Being black is a spectrum (you’ll encounter different kinds of black - African American / African/ Afro Latino) or a pendulum (different perceptions of black - myths and misconceptions - people mistaking you for being African American is the automatic go to and once you correct them, there’s always the question of “your English is so good….where did you learn it….your country speaks English (it’s always the disbelief) etc… ) but some are genuinely keen to learn your culture. Approach these scenarios with an open mind and an open heart, it could be an opportunity to learn something new and understand a different perspective, you might even end up fostering a new friendship!
General Rule - Though you have friends/family in the US, people change and may not be as supportive as you initially thought they were or expected. Exception - but this is not always the case- some family/friends can be very generous, including diaspora Kenyans you just met etc- take whatever generosity you are offered, but avoid becoming dependent or overly-reliant.
It’s always wise to be self reliant and in the last resort seek help. This shows that you are resilient and people (family and friends) may be willing to help when you can demonstrate what you have done/tried to do for yourself.
Support may come in many forms, not always monetary. However, money seems to be the most obvious go-to form of help when you’re outside the country. This one is tricky to navigate and there may not be an appropriate or one-way approach to this topic. It’s circumstantial and varies depending on the people you are dealing with, the nature of the situation, the nature of the relationship et al).
Don’t isolate yourself for whatever reason especially when you find that you are the only African/one of very few Africans in places you frequent, school or otherwise.
Remember that your difference is your strength, and you belong.
Don’t shut yourself off friendships/acquaintances with people from different parts of the world. For example, you may find alot of similarities with most Latin Americans and Indians in terms of systematic backgrounds.
The country thrives on capitalism and a sense of individualism - each man for himself.
Find a community - one which is already set up to receive you. I find it really easy to connect with religious communities like churches, because they will not turn you away. It is a good safe starting point to getting to know people with similar beliefs, even though from different backgrounds. Even just talking about your issues with such communities, openly, puts a lot of perspective to issues you could be battling with. It’s easier to open up to strangers whose opinion you may not really care about - if you’re not too used to the idea of an actual therapist. Church for me was one of my hiding places - a place where I go to recuperate, talk to a supernatural being, and feel like things will be better. Drowning myself in alcohol and drugs did not help that much. Human and supernatural connection is what helped.
Black Tax - People back home will keep asking you to send dollars even when they don't know that you ate food left by your neighbours or are walking to school on a regular, can't afford the course book and reading material, are struggling to make ends meet and just stay alive. Extend grace, appreciate the fact that they may not have experienced what it means to be away from home and try to enlighten them on your plight.
Housing in the US is extremely expensive - It is very common for people to share apartments with 2 or more people. If you have the option, live in the school dorms rather than looking for housing outside campus. It is not only cheaper but you also won’t have to deal with roommates. Also, from my experience, these dorms are pretty decent - nothing close to Kenyan university dorms.
Time Management - Learn to make and keep schedules. Life moves quite fast in this country- between preparing for classes, attending classes, meetings, hanging out with friends and classmates etc, schedules could be pretty helpful.
Mental Health and Wellbeing
Go to therapy if and when you need it, especially if it's available to you. A good therapist can help you adjust to not only social-cultural differences but also academic culture differences. Going to therapy does not mean that you are crazy or weak.
Also, check with your school's Office of Student Affairs. Most have dedicated programming for students wellness and wellbeing and most local students rarely use them which make them more accessible and available for international students.
Do not depend on others for love and affection. Because when you don't get it, it will crush you. Maturity in relationships of all kinds is key, and it is rough out here. SO enrich yourself with books, more rewarding friendships to avoid disappointments from new cultures such as ghosting cultures which we may not be used to in our home cultures.
Identification and Drivers License
Use your time at school to get your driver’s license. It is 10x harder to get one after school. While in school, you have a lot of documents which the DMV needs, and they won't ask questions.
Also, school environments are easier to drive in, so your driving test will not be too hard. You’ll also have quick access to your friend’s cars to use for practice, and to use at the DMV. After school, all your friends will disperse and you’ll have to pay $500 for driving schools and rental cars to take to the DMV for the driver tests.
Most States will also allow you to get a temporary identification card, either drivers license or non drivers identification which is helpful in moving around so that you don't have to use your passport all over. P.s. Some places like DC will need you to prove residence for at least six (6) months, but as soon as you hit the mark, do apply for local ID and a Social Security Number.
Culture shock is real! No matter how well traveled you may be.
Things will be very different from what you are used to back home. The food, the culture and belief systems. If you are open-minded you will embrace the change and learn new things. This does not mean you should change fundamentally who you are.
If you can afford it, try new things once in a while. You have the privilege of attending graduate school in a different country- explore it, make memories! Take a yoga class, a cycling class, take walks around the area to find new places, try boba tea, try sushi (even if you end up hating it :)), get on a dating app, travel to a different state.
Values - Have non-negotiable values that will help you stay grounded otherwise in a place with so many liberties its very easy to lose yourself. Remember where you came from and what brought you here. Most Americans are very privileged and if you’re not careful you may easily lose yourself.
Compliance - As international student you're under federal law and state law may not apply to you - so be careful not to be caught in some situations eg smoking cannabis in public/car, drunk driving etc these may ruin you.
Comparison - Lastly, tying in to the first point, please do not compare yourself. Even amongst your friends and circles, you are each individual persons with such varied backgrounds and experiences, so don't waste your time considering or comparing each other's situations; accept yours and make it work.
We have all established that I spend too much time on YouTube. But I recently found this AMAZING video documenting the life experiences of these three Africans who came to the US and have managed to build multi million empires on VOA. It's a story we rarely hear of and I found it so great to watch. I hope you do too.
For those who gave you an opportunity and took a chance on you, do not forget to go back, and say thank you.
Have a great week y'all! :)
May God bless you and those who love you.