A glimpse into the lives of three African students at Yale

Yale undergraduates Faith Chumo from Kenya, Nana Ama Akowuah from Ghana, and Ruhi Manek from Kenya
Left to right: Yale undergraduates Faith Chumo from Kenya, Nana Ama Akowuah from Ghana, and Ruhi Manek from Kenya.

Before President Peter Salovey embarked on his inaugural trip to Africa during spring break, YaleNews took the opportunity to chat with three students from the two countries he will visit: Kenya and Ghana. The president’s trip takes place in the fifth year of the Yale Africa Initiative, a university-wide effort to promote African scholarship, research at Yale and on the African continent, partnerships with African institutions, career opportunities for Yale students across Africa, and to attract the best and brightest African students to campus.

Yale currently has more than 100 students and 50 scholars from Africa, and Yale faculty members are participating in more than 150 research projects on the continent. The university has also supported international learning and travel experiences for Yale College students across Africa.

 What follows are edited conversations with the three African students.

Faith Chumo ’20 (Nairobi, Kenya)

Faith Chumo with friends at Yale.
Faith Chumo (far right) with friends at Yale. She is the vice president of the African Students Association and is majoring in both the history of science and medicine and public health.

Why did you choose Yale?

I chose Yale because I had heard about the African Student Association and I was drawn to it and to the Afro-American Cultural Center. I thought that I would feel at home. My parents had never heard of Yale. I went to a high school that didn’t educate us a lot about American colleges, and I was supposed to go to school in the United Kingdom. But I ended up choosing [to apply to] American colleges because I was unsure about my career choices. I wanted to have a bit more freedom to pursue a liberal arts education, as opposed to in the U.K., where you come in knowing exactly what you want to do. So I chose Yale just because it was a good thing. And when you're blessed with a good thing you take it and you see where it takes you!

What is your major, and what drew you to it?

I’m currently a double major in the history of science, medicine and public health, and in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. I am very much interested in public health. I've interned in hospitals and I was a first-aider [certified in first aid] when I was in high school. I’ve always been interested in medicine, and I’d like to learn about the history and the business and social aspects of medicine as opposed to just studying the sciences. I felt that studying the history of science and medicine and public health would give me broader knowledge.

Women’s, gender, and sexuality studies just gives me life, because I needed something to keep me happy and motivated. Not that science doesn’t do that, too!

What are you most passionate about?

I'm very passionate about feminism and women’s empowerment, particularly when it comes to women of color because of how many years they have been subdued and have been at the lowest of ranks when it comes to who matters in this world. Joining Yale as a woman of color meant a lot to me, and it meant even more when I came to America, where things like racism exist. Back home your skin color doesn't matter because you look like everyone, but here, sometimes people can make you feel that you are lucky to be here or that you don’t really deserve to be here. Every time I’m in a STEM class and I see another woman of color, I try my best to interact with her and encourage her and let her know that she belongs here just as much as I do!

What extracurricular activities are you involved in, and what do you enjoy about them?

Being vice president of the African Students Association is thrilling and so exciting — it’s a position where I can help people realize what their opportunities are and how to take advantage of them. It’s a space where I feel I belong — where my accent isn’t foreign and where the different things I do aren’t foreign. So that’s one of the things that I really, really enjoy.

I’ve also recently enjoyed doing research with Dr. Christine Ngaruiya, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine. We’re working on a systematic review of non-communicable diseases in Africa. When you think about Africa, you think of Ebola or malaria and all those communicable diseases, and no one thinks about cancer and diabetes and respiratory diseases, which are the focus of her research.

I also work with Yale Hospitality as a student marketer and I really enjoy this because I get to go to the different events. One of the skills requirements listed in the job description is that you have to be a photographer. I had no idea how to use a camera, but I just asked people who have handled cameras before and now I’m pretty good at taking pictures. Photography has become a huge passion of mine.

In my first year of college I joined Dzana, Yale’s only Afrobeats dance group. [The group] dances to African music and Caribbean music and Western music that’s a remix with an African beat. The group is predominantly African or African American, but we do have new members who don’t fit that description, and that’s what we love about it — that we can invite all people to celebrate African and African-American culture. Unfortunately, I left the group because I didn’t have enough time to rehearse and choreograph dances. But it was a great time. I really miss it.

What challenges have you faced as an international student?

I would say microaggression, and just noticing that you’re different — going to classes and seeing that most of the people in your chemistry class or in other STEM departments don’t look like you. It’s hard. Also, the American education system is very different, more academically rigorous, and in some areas of science, I wasn’t as well prepared as some of my peers.

One of my best memories from freshman year is of meeting my immunology professor, Paula Kavathas. Whenever she noticed that girls in class wouldn't speak as much as the guys she would gather us and tell us, “Listen you have to talk and you have to participate more and hand in your essays on time. We need to do better as women.” She would always give us pep talks, and I’ll never forget her for encouraging me like that. I’m so in love with all the women in STEM at Yale because they represent power and possibilities for me and my daughters and my daughters’ daughters.

Finally, American students are also familiar with conversations about issues like sexual consent, sexual assault, and mental health, which are things that aren’t really discussed back home. Since most African students aren’t exposed to these discussions, we aren’t upon arriving here as prepared to participate in those conversations.

What are your plans for the future?

I am thinking about applying to medical school. I still haven't figured out whether that’s truly what I want to do. This summer will be dedicated to committing [to that plan] or writing it off completely. I will be applying to programs like Doctors Without Borders. I’m taking a class with Nicholas Alipui [senior fellow and lecturer at The MacMillan Center], who worked with UNICEF, and he promised that we would get internships with UNICEF if our project proposals for sustainable development goals are good enough. Hopefully in the summer I can do that and decide whether I want to practice medicine or go into public health.

Besides that, I definitely want to improve my writing. The current writing class that I’m taking, English 120 taught by Angus Ledingham, has so far been my favorite experience ever.

So I definitely look forward to writing and blogging and photography and all these things that I didn’t think were amazing or important when I was growing up. [Chumo has a personal blog.]

Name one thing you love about your home country.

I love the food!

I like ugali, which is maize flour and water. You just mix it up and it’s like a pasty white dough. It's a bit bland but I really miss it. I like our tea. It’s excellent. The third thing I would say is our culture: music and speaking the Swahili language. Sorry, there is just too much to love about Kenya!

Nana Ama Akowuah ’18 (Accra, Ghana)

Nana Amah Akowuah with fellow Yale students.
Nana Amah Akowuah (second from left) with fellow Yale students. She served as president of the Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development and is majoring in chemical engineering.

Why did you choose Yale?

I chose Yale mainly because of the people. I attended a reception [hosted by Yale] in Ghana, and I got to meet some of the Yale faculty and students. Just to hear them talk about their experiences, it sounded like such a great place.

I think another [reason] is the [Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions’] “That’s Why I Chose Yale” video. If it worked on anyone, it was probably me! The video was great, but the main thing was just seeing the students devote so much time to working on a video just to get people in. It definitely speaks to the sense of community here. The opportunities also seemed really great. But overall I think the one thing that really stood out to me was the people.

 What is your major and what drew you to it?

I’m studying chemical engineering. I really liked chemistry in high school and math as well. I came to Yale initially thinking I wanted to work in engineering, particularly in the oil sector in Ghana. So I came in and decided to major in something with that competency, and for me that was chemical engineering. I’ve learned a lot from the major, but it’s also made me realize that it’s not necessarily what I want to pursue. I want to work more in management or business and entrepreneurship, just because I think that's more rampant on the [African] continent right now.

What are you most passionate about?

Two things, I’d say: First, trying new things and having different experiences, and second, helping people.

I really enjoy just being adventurous and doing fun, outdoorsy things — just challenging myself to try new experiences. But I enjoy helping people as well just because the more I do that the more I realize that there are people out there who are unable to decide to do something adventurous or challenge themselves in a certain way just because they don’t necessarily have the resources or capabilities. So it’s kind of both for me — just doing new things and being able to help other people also do new things.

What extracurricular activities are you involved in and what do enjoy about them?

I was the president of the Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development. We’re a conference planning board that hosts an African development conference here at Yale. It’s the largest undergraduate African conference in the northeast, and last year brought nearly 300 students of African descent and people who were interested in Africa in general to Yale’s campus. It was amazing just seeing all of that happen!

What challenges have you experienced as an international student?

It is challenging not being able to go home for Thanksgiving break as often or go home over the weekend when you feel like it. There are definitely times where you’re homesick and just want to be with your family.

I think the second challenge is just the cultural barrier. For example, if someone says “let’s get coffee” I didn’t really understand that that doesn’t necessarily mean “let’s get coffee” — it can be a sign that we’re not going to have this conversation. Little things like that — just navigating American culture in general, which I think the Orientation for International Students does a good job of trying to explain. But then there’s also so much more that you don't understand, as an African student in particular.

I think there’s also somewhat of a gap in education levels. I went to a great school that prepared me academically, but there’s definitely little things like speaking in seminars (even when you didn’t do the reading) and knowing the vocabulary to speak about certain topics, like race and gender and sexuality, which are not topics we typically talk about back home.

What are your plans for the future?

I am working in management consulting in Boston after graduation and will hopefully go to business school after that.

After business school I want to go back to the continent [Africa]. Coming here, I’ve realized that entrepreneurship in general is what is really rampant on the continent. My hope is to one day go back and establish a center for women-owned small businesses, providing support for them to grow, and creating a space where women [entrepreneurs] can feel comfortable as they come in and share ideas.

Name one thing that you love about your home country.

Our food, I think, is undoubtedly the best, especially our jollof [a rice dish cooked with tomato sauce]! I really like the food, and I like the people. Everyone’s very supportive and very hospitable.

Ruhi Manek ’20 (Eldoret, Kenya)

Yale student Ruhi Manek
Her own exploration of identity as an Indian Kenyan and a course at Yale inspired Ruhi Manek to major in ethnicity, race, and migration. She is the president of the African Students Association.

Why did you choose Yale?

Yale is so generous with financial aid, and that was a huge determining factor for me. But I think what I was looking for most was a tight-knit community. I went to a boarding school for two years in Mombasa, at the coast of Kenya, and I really enjoyed just how close the community was, and I left there knowing I was part of a family. Knowing that that family would be dispersed all around the world pursuing all kinds of incredible things in new and foreign places was so cool. So when I was applying to university, community was definitely at the top of my list. In fact, my essay for the supplementary question about why I chose Yale specifically focused on fostering community and wanting to grow that family.

What is your major and what drew you to it?

I’m majoring in ethnicity, race, and migration [ER&M]. I came in thinking I would pursue economics and math. That changed so much though. I went through a series of changes academically, from economics and math to simply economics, and then pretty seriously onto ethics, politics, and economics. Last semester, however, I was taking this class called “Introduction to Third World Studies” with Professor Gary Okihiro, a class which genuinely changed my life. It was one of the first classes I had ever taken that I could relate to. In learning about the “Third World” as a project of global decolonization and deconstruction, I began to really question and reconstruct my identity and place in the world.

Our final essay, for instance, required us to locate our subject position within a certain social formation. So I was writing this paper on being a third-generation Indian in Kenya and what that meant for me growing up — such as learning four different languages formally and navigating all these different identities daily. These are aspects of my life I never really questioned until I got to Yale. When I got to Yale and the United States in general, I had a lot of people asking, “Where are you from?” and then doing a double-take when I say Kenya, followed by questions like “But how does that work? So what are you?” That's when my being Indian Kenyan started to take center stage in my life. In taking that class and writing that paper, I realized how much I enjoyed exploring questions about identity, about intersections brought about through migration, as well as learning about the things that shaped and constituted ethnicity and race — and how we interact with these every day; hence my final decision to study ER&M at Yale.

What are you most passionate about?

I am most passionate about human rights. I think I've grew up with this very idealistic version of the world, basically always picking and choosing what I wanted to see and hear.  But of course as I grew older, that idealism was slowly, heartbreakingly worn down. Funnily enough though, my 9-year-old [child’s] dream of wanting to change the world just carried on with me; hence the interest in protecting and promoting human rights.

What extracurricular activities are you involved in and what do you enjoy about them?

My extracurricular activities have been my favorite part about my Yale experience thus far. I dance Bhangra on the Yale Jashan Bhangra team. I am involved with Yale UNICEF as a community outreach director and was also working on the Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development team as a development coordinator. I am a student worker at the Yale Chaplain's Office, where I supervise both study spaces and religious spaces on a weekly basis. Finally, I recently took on the presidency of the African Students Association — definitely the most important and fulfilling activity for me presently.

The thing I enjoy most about all of these is, without a doubt, all of the people that I work and interact with — whether it’s my on-campus job or within UNICEF or among members of the African Association. Everyone is so smart, so passionate about different things. Everyone comes from such different places and always brings something unique to the table. I am constantly learning and growing through those interactions, which really means so much to me.

In terms of my dance team, I have grown up dancing so I wanted to continue that in college. That’s why I took that up. Everything else is really about the opportunity to try and make a difference in some way.

What challenges have you faced as an international student?

My first thought is definitely the question around my identity. Before I took the presidency for the African Students Association, my biggest worry was the color of my skin especially because the dominant narrative equates Africa to just being Black, even though for centuries it hasn't only been that one way. So having to navigate and construct that identity, especially here, is a daily feat for me — trying to figure out where I stand or where I don't stand has been of the major challenges. I also think that apart from that internal conflict, being an international student is one thing but being African is another. Exploring and acknowledging that has brought some really interesting challenges both in terms of daily interactions with people but also with the [Yale] institution at large.

What are your plans for the future?

To be completely honest, I don’t really know. What I do know for sure thought is that I want to return home. I want to go back to Kenya because that’s home and that’s where my heart lies, but also because I truly believe we have a responsibility to return if we are able.

I’m currently considering pursuing human rights law in the future, but I'm very open to that changing. I'm taking this course called “Climate Change Impact on Child Health and Development in Africa” at the moment, which is really engaging my passion for children’s rights as well as my interest in the kind of work an organization like UNICEF, and the United Nations at large, does on an international level. To work for UNICEF, Kenya would be a dream come true.

Name one thing you love about your home country.

Definitely the food! Everything is just a lot fresher. But honestly also the people and the culture and the incredible weather for sure. To name one thing about a country like Kenya is so hard!

Related

Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale and Africa: Empowering through partnership

Media Contact

Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,