Every year the Kenyan Yale students host a lunch to welcome the first years before they leave for New Haven. Mine was held at a burger joint in the middle of the central business district, but we ate pizzas.
As expected of any Yale students meeting for the first time, everyone spoke about what college they were in and what majors they wanted to study. They rattled off the usual: economics, engineering, psychology, biology, pre-law, pre-med. And then it was my turn, and I said: “English and African Studies.” Oh, wow. The group’s polite reaction did not mask their surprise and disdain.
Later, as we walked to our Ubers, one of my friends turned to me. “It’s really cool that you’re doing something in the humanities,” he said. “Most people feel a burden to be something big because they go here.”
There is a belief within the African community that every Student Going Abroad must be going abroad to do Something. Something means being a STEM major, or pre-law, or pre-med. Humanities are a no-go. Why are you going abroad to read when you can read at home? I still have relatives who are under the assumption that I am here to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or that I will return to Kenya to become a politician. My own parents struggled with my decision to pursue a major in English. I remember rides home with my mother after school, where she would gently nudge me in the direction of political science, or international relations. Her own parents had shut down any dreams that she had of studying abroad, or pursuing dance, like she had wanted to do. When I asked why my major was so important to her, she said: “I just need to be sure that you have prospects after college.”
No one wants to say it is about money. If being a poet made as much as being an investment banker, my family and peers would spend the rest of their days analyzing sonnets. Within the Student Going Abroad belief, there is also the Generational Wealth belief that rests delicately in the balance between what school you go to and what you study. Going abroad has always meant that you are going to become rich. Studying the humanities obscures that equation.
At another forum for African students, we discuss the burden we feel to become Something because we are studying abroad. The horror stories of kids who defected to degrees in philosophy are laughed at heartily, but beneath it is a steady chill. We all know someone who did that. We all know what our parents said about them.
There is a lot that is expected of international students, both from the Western world and from our own homes. Abroad, we take on the alter ego of Obama-esque diplomacy, expected to wear Kente print and bring our Savannah-colored intellect to the table. At home, we are the golden tickets, families waiting in the cities and villages for us to bring back money to buy everyone a house, buy everyone a car and pay the school fees of our cousins who also want to be like us. Everyone desires fame and fortune for us. But what do we want?
The answer lies in reflecting on why international students go universities abroad at all. Sure, it’s a highway to a higher income, but there must be a reason why we leave our home countries to pursue education elsewhere. Do we come to become a member of the Western elite class, or to return home and raise the standards there? What do we do about the burdens our families and friends give us when we leave?
I still believe that there is a way for me to do what I love, as well as make my parents proud. Pride, however, doesn’t always come from doing Something Big.
The next time we hear a story about how someone defected to philosophy, I hope we can understand them. I hope that we can applaud them, and let them know that we are still proud.
AWUOR ONGURU is a first year in Berkeley College. Her column, titled ‘Wild West,’ runs every other Tuesday. Contact her at email@example.com.