Dear Aunt Dora,
This is my first year in the United States. As a matter of fact, I have only been here since August this year to attend a prestigious university. Although I am really proud to be here – the only one in my family in the U.S. and with the opportunity at a 4 year degree – I am starting to feel very lonely. My American roommate and friends are already talking about their Thanksgiving and winter break plans, and when they ask me what I will do – all I can do is smile and say that I will stay here. Here, meaning the university dorms for the entirety of the school year.
They seem to take pity on me as they have all invited me over to their homes, but I am reluctant because 1) I do not know them that well, 2) Kenyan habits of not going to people’s houses without parent approval die hard and 3) I feel I will be sadder being surrounded by people who seem happy to have me around but do not know me.
It is hard for me to complain to family back home because I am appreciative of the place I am in. I have room and board, with internet and unlimited campus food to keep me full. After all, I am in America!!! – why would I fuss?
My university is in the “boondocks” with a small African student population and even smaller presence of Kenyans/Africans within the town I am located in. I have never experienced this kind of loneliness before. What do I do?
Please help Aunt Dora.
Lonely college student in Nebraska
Dear Lonely College Student,
Thank you so much for reaching out. Indeed this is the first step of solving any problem that seems insurmountable.
Like all of us in the diaspora who came before us, nothing truly prepares you for life abroad. The excitement of moving abroad, leaving home to live the dream, pride at honoring your family and entering a prestigious college, and the newness of experience that one only sees on TV wanes as the reality of American life hits.
It is the things we often take for granted – a place to go home at the end of the week, a face you have grown accustomed to seeing on a regular basis, family gatherings, sights, smells and sounds of familiarity – that create a vacuum which can be painful to cope with, especially as you see your peers who excitedly prepare to go “home” while you are indeed, stuck with what you have. Trust me when I say – you are not alone.
So what can you do?
1. Accept an invitation!
Why not? One thing I appreciate about Americans is their openness and willingness to welcome you into their homes. Most have no hidden agenda! You may pity yourself for a little bit (it’s natural!), but what you gain is the ability to take yourself out of your comfort zone and learn about how other people live and interact within their family unit. By accepting a seat at the Thanksgiving table you get to first-hand witness American love and generosity, learn about their traditions, and have the opportunity to teach those around you about yourself and where you come from. Do not forget, with access to a home kitchen and ingredients – who says that you cannot make your own fish, collard greens and ugali for the season!
2. Travel and Explore!
Who says you have to sit around and mope on campus all day, watching TV and eating ice-cream all night? OK – for the first few days maybe! But afterwards, you have a duty to yourself to explore and continue learning. With cross country buses such as Greyhound, Airbnb and numerous other affordable travel/rooming options – you can make a plan to visit your neighboring towns and states. There are beautiful museums, entertainment venues, natural landscapes and experiences that you have the opportunity to witness. Armed with a camera, you can be the one that exposes the rest of us to the beauty that exists in the land you are in.
As a college student, these are the times at which you can explore with freedom – take advantage of your college card, which may also offer you special student discounts along the way.
3. Find relatives, no matter how far removed you may be!
This is the time to call home and ask for the names and number of relatives you have in the U.S. You will be surprised! Even if they are 5 cousins removed and you have never ever met them, there is nothing quite like knowing that there is SOMEONE here. You may be able to reconnect, get some survival tips, and even create an even closer relationship that will be beneficial for both of you down the line. There is nothing like family.
4. Network on and offline
So you live in the middle of nowhere. But at your fingertips lies the largest communities online, including Facebook. In addition to local African student associations you can join, there are larger groups on Facebook such as Kenyan College Students in the United States, and other international student groups looking for answers and to share solutions from a peer perspective. You get to learn so much on these platforms! This is a great opportunity to meet new people in similar situations – who knows, maybe you can take turns visiting each other!
5.Plan for home, if and when you can
It is never too early to plan for a trip back home. Sometimes just looking on StudentUniverse for cheap flights can be the salve to a lonely day. Since you can plan your trip up to 9 months in advance on most flights, start looking for deals early! I have found that having something to look forward to at the end of a long semester is quite comforting.
The journey of an international student is unique within the immigration experience. While noting that things will no doubt be different and challenging at times, this is the exact opportunity to grab on tighter and soar onto higher and greater opportunities in your new land.
All the best, and do not forget to call home, for that is where the heart is.