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How it is to study abroad: Young Kenyans open up

What you need to know:

  • Students who have successfully crossed borders for their degrees share their experiences and offer tips on how to adapt fast and thrive as an international student.
  • The biggest reason most students desire to study abroad is the opportunity to see the world., to ge to experience a brand-new country with incredible new outlooks, customs and activities. But, it doesn’t come without challenges. To survive and thrive in a foreign country, you must make adjustments 

Studying abroad is the dream of many Kenyan students. To the thousands seeking to join colleges in the US, Russia, the UK, Australia, Japan, and Germany, among others, it feels like a gateway out of poverty, better pay, and easily available, more fulfilling jobs. Others get to gain confidence in their professional lives.

But it also comes with its fair share of challenges: culture shock, racism, loneliness and having to work while studying.

Nation Lifestyle spoke to four Kenyans in their 20s about what it is like to study abroad and why they prefer the diaspora education system.

Petronila Abuka, 22, Davidson College in the US,

Studying Liberal Arts

Although she’s enjoying her stay, Petronila Abuka says she is not planning to live in the US for the rest of her life. 

Photo credit: Pool

I joined Davidson College in August 202I. I heard of the Kenya Scholar Access Programme (Kensap) from a friend. I had finished high school and I was looking for opportunities. Kensap selects high-achieving Kenyan students from low-income backgrounds. It mentors and trains them to apply to prestigious universities in North America. 

I was part of the 2021 cohort.

Settling in the US was not easy. You face challenges ranging from the food, cultural differences, language and weather. However, Kensap had taken us through many sessions in preparation for college life as international students. We also had meetings with Kenyan students living in the US who shared their experiences. So we had an idea of how to settle in for the first few months of landing in the US. Davidson also provides international students with host families. These families accommodate and provide meals, day trips and other social activities that help the students during their four-year stay. With all this help, my transition was smoother. 

In the US, I have interacted with people from different cultures and backgrounds. I have been exposed to different perspectives about the world. I have travelled to places in the US and learnt about other cultures, worked on my networking skills, and developed a better idea of what I want to study. 

For example, I got a grant to visit Charleston in South Carolina where I learnt about the Gullah community and more about the history of slavery. I have gone on trips with the Catholics on campus, and I am part of the college's dance ensemble where I have formed great connections with other college dancers. There are many opportunities for academic, spiritual and emotional growth as well as people who expose and support you as you make use of the opportunities.

Davidson is a liberal arts college, where students do history, literature, writing, philosophy, sociology, psychology and creative arts. What I like about the liberal arts programme is that at by the end of my studies, I have options. It will not be what the government or society wants me to do. At the university, we also have access to career coaches and advisors. Although schoolwork is rigorous, it allows for social, and spiritual growth. 

At the end of my studies, I am looking forward to getting a job. Thereafter I will go back home and empower young people by helping them explore their interests and potentials. There is no way I am staying abroad for the rest of my life. I think that would make me a traitor.

Rafael Okello, 23, Soka University, Japan

Studying Literature and Cultural activities

Rafael Okello, 23, and Bryan Chua are students at Soka University, Japan.

Photo credit: Pool

I am a final-year student of literature at the University of Nairobi, but I came to Japan on March 26, this year as an exchange student. I will be here for seven months. The student exchange programme is done annually. As an international student, I enjoy the privilege of studying in a new country with a different culture. I have gained a wider perspective and understanding as a citizen of the world. 

As a student of culture with a keen interest in technology, studying in Japan was a dream come true. Japan is known for its technological advancement. 

The experience, however, exposed me to two sets of challenges. One is a language barrier and another is culture. The Japanese exclusively speak the Japanese language. And everything is branded in Japanese and it was a little difficult to do shopping or travel from one place to another.

The good thing is the Japanese people are friendly and ready to help. The transport system, especially the train, is also reliable. Also, the food culture is something to behold because it is diverse and delicious. 

Studying abroad has made me appreciate cultural diversity and celebrate our shared common humanity. 

With all the knowledge and experiences I have gained from studying here at Soka University, I will be glad when I get back home to share with other people who may want to visit Japan.

Mariana Ayierah, 24, Volgograd State Medical University, Russia

Studying General Medicine and Surgery

Mariana Ayiera went to Russia to study medicine through an agency called KENRUSS. She spent the first year learning Russian.

Photo credit: Pool

I'm a fifth-year medical student. I am studying general medicine and surgery in Russian medium, not English. I have been in Russia for six years. The first year I went to language school then joined as an undergraduate. I came here through an agency, Kenya Russia Medics Limited (Kenruss). They did all the documentation, found a school, and advised me on whatever I needed. 

But after that, I’ve just been on my own. I pay my school fees.

Studying in Russia has been both a mix of good and bad. One of the tough experiences was learning the language. The education system is very good and very strict. Some of the things I've loved are exposure and travel. Studying in a different country broadens your perspective as you meet people of different cultures, exchange ideas and form good and useful connections. 

Also, I didn't have any relatives or friends here so I created and formed my community here. This is important, it helps one adapt better, and it is a very good support system.

The difference between the education system in Kenya and Russia is that even from primary school, children learn everything until the eighth class and at the eighth class. Then they decide whether they will go on and do 9, 10 and 11 class. Or depending on what course they want to do. If they want like technical courses and beauty courses, they don't need to go to the ninth, 10th and 11th clusters, which is high school, but if you want to go to the university, you have to do the 9th, 10th, 11th. Then take an exam in the four basic subjects that are required for you to get into the university. For example, in medicine, you do English, biology, chemistry, math or physics in Kenya. So, if you want to go to medical university, you only study this for or prepare for only this for your exams and they don't overload you with a lot of units. 

In university, it's more like primary or high school, it's closely monitored, attendance is signed in daily by the teacher and we don't have big classes. We study in small groups of 10 to 11, a maximum of 12 students. This makes interactions with the teachers easier and the teacher knows everybody. Skipping class is uncommon. If you decide to skip class without a legitimate reason, you will have to make up for the missed class time in a subsequent session.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has affected us economically because now the cost of living has gone up. Receiving money has been very difficult because SWIFT codes have been cancelled, MoneyGram and Western Union are not working and international transfers directly from Kenya to Russia. We cannot pay, and some services are not available because of sanctions. Some shops and companies left Russia. For example, we don't have Google Pay or Apple Pay, they took off their services, and McDonald's also left the country. Kenyan debit cards don't work unless it's UnionPay, which is a Chinese company. This prompted me to start working. Studying medicine and working is not easy. I had to work because receiving money from home was challenging and also the Kenyan economy had become tough. Prices of things have gone up and opportunities are just not as available as before. 

Sometimes there are uncertainties because they shut down the airport. Sometimes we're scared, anxious mostly.

When I graduate, I will come back to Kenya to do my internship but I will not stay long. I am not planning to practice medicine in Kenya. I don't want what I have learned, the standards, to be deteriorated

Emmanuel Ramogi, 28, University of Alabama, Birmingham US. 

Studying Mechanical Engineering

Emmanuel Ramogi, 28, is a Masters student in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alabama, Birmingham US.

Photo credit: Pool

I joined the University of Alabama (UAB) in May 2022, to pursue a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering. I applied to different universities and eventually, I was accepted by three colleges. Of the three, I chose UAB, because of two reasons; they gave me a partial scholarship in the first semester and their reporting date was earlier than the rest. I wanted to finish my Master's fast, so I had to go for an early kick-off. I've been here for about one year and four months. Currently, I am working on my Master's thesis. 

My tuition fee was catered for until graduation. I got a research scholarship, so the university pays. 

Studying abroad has its advantages and disadvantages. 

 I’ve learned a lot not only about other people but also about myself. I have seen the difference in culture especially in terms of academia. The academic culture is more student-oriented. It mainly focuses on the student and the primary goal is to create a supportive and nurturing environment for the student which I find pleasant. The unique programmes also challenge students to explore new areas of interest. The beauty of this system is that it promotes an open mind and learning curiosity. 

In the first few months I got to the US, what was a culture shock for me was the food. I'd say Americans love their cheese in everything and I find that quite challenging, especially getting used to eating lots of cheese.

Language and accent have also been a little bit of a challenge. Yes, Americans speak English, but sometimes it's hard to understand the accent. I thought having watched American movies before and engaging with some American students, I would find it easier to get someone's accent.

All in all, it has been eye-opening. I mean when someone goes to a different place, you learn, not just about the place but also about themselves. This is something that I deeply appreciate. My advice to someone coming abroad to study is that find a community of friends, people with whom you share the same values. They will ground you and help you. My community of faith and the student organisations have been really helpful.

I plan to visit Kenya. I was there last December, but I'm not yet certain about coming back permanently, it depends on a lot of personal factors.