Mahder Kebede, Virginia Commonwealth University
In this day and age where countries in Africa are growing rapidly, it is not the time to look down upon or underestimate the power of those that come from these countries. Tough living situations and under-privileged areas captured by stellar foreign photographers neither illustrate nor represent an entire culture, let alone allow others to develop perceptions about a person based on them. I believe this is the main cause for African students to get discouraged in being more involved in communities besides their own and branch out to experience different perspectives. This is because these perceptions that are implicitly shown to us through words and actions place us in a tiny little box that is very difficult to unbound.
As an international student from Ethiopia, I have experienced this first hand starting from the first year in university. The first dorm I was assigned was an international dorm where they house all students from different countries. My school, by nature, is a diverse university with students from various ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds. However, it lacks in the number of international students. Therefore, it is easier to house us all in one place. This aspect also feeds into the point that most international students create their own community within the larger community that exists in the university and become more reluctant to branch out. Continental African students from countries like Mali, Ethiopia and Ghana that I personally know, who came to university straight from their home countries have also experienced this problem. The other Continental African students and I would agree that it is much easier for us to stay within our own circles by joining organizations that represent our countries and making friends with the same cultural background rather than exploring other cultures. It is hard to move beyond what we are used to, especially when it doesn’t feel like we are welcome in the new environment we are exposed to.
It already takes a lot to build a cohesive community where you feel comfortable and at home away from home so having to deal with feeling isolated is very difficult. Therefore, the easiest way to feel included is to create your own group of people with similar backgrounds and form your own community rather than feel misjudged and given misguided labels all the time. This stirs us away from interacting with people from backgrounds different from our own. The reactions I received from other students, especially White American students caused me to lose confidence in expressing myself. It was like I started believing some of the stereotypical comments that people make about Africa. Nevertheless, I knew I had to come up with a way to adapt into this society one way or another so I started to speak back to people and explain to them. This is instead of simply brushing it off or avoiding confrontation. By doing this, I was able to raise awareness of the different misguided information that these people have developed about my culture, country or norms. My home, Ethiopia, is the only country in Africa that was never colonized by westerners, where the famous coffee bean was first discovered, where the oldest human-like ape lived and died plus it is one of the few places where Islam and Christianity flourishes peacefully. However, people see just on the surface, only the images captured on camera and use this one-sided message to create perceptions about others.
Even though I am still in the process of building my confidence in expressing myself, I have found myself successfully adapting to this new culture within my university. I am more aware now, that my culture is just as new to other people just as much as their culture is new to me. In order to feel more integrated, we must buckle down and let others in as much as possible. I have learned that being open and creating a communication channel for others that do not understand our background or have negative perceptions about it will never change their perspective unless we initiate the change.