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Negotiating the Myth of America

Negotiating the Myth of America
By Maxine Agazie

There appears to be a double standard at work in the world of American higher education. Asian students who come to the United States to study are often spoken of as “the model minority.” And yet, an enormous and growing contingent of African immigrants, here for the same reasons, are nearly invisible. They are rarely mentioned in the mountains of available demographic data. And when they are, it’s usually to illustrate a negative point. There are thousands of African success stories that go unheard. African students come to the United States and work diligently to become doctors, architects, engineers, scientists and more. But their experiences along the way can be quite complicated and disconcerting.

Many African college students come to the United States expecting the “land of milk and honey.” They are poorly prepared for the realities of American society. The myth of America, perpetuated by the local media, is that the United States is Paradise, a land where money grows on trees and streets are paved with gold. Many contemporary West African movies depict the triumphant return of students who have traveled overseas to study, mainly in the United States. In the movies, the students come home wealthy, build their parents magnificent homes in the villages and purchase palatial homes for themselves in the city. Upon their return from the United States, the characters purchase luxury vehicles like Mercedes-Benz, Lexus and Hummer.

But when African students arrive in the United States, reality slaps them in the face. They see people who are poverty stricken and who struggle to survive. And while some immigrant students come from wealthy African families and do not have to worry about living expenses, the majority can barely make rent and tuition. Many must work two jobs, while maintaining decent grades. The dilemma intensifies because the extended family back home begins to pressure the student to rush to Western Union and send money home. And students studying for advanced degrees are often encouraged to stop wasting time in America and return home “with the bounty.”

Other problems, including the bitter sting of racism, also creep up on the student. Coming from countries where all the authority figures are Black, it is often mind boggling to see just the opposite in the United States. To add insult to injury, the African college student is often misunderstood and disparaged by fellow classmates, who have internalized the West’s negative stereotypes of the “Dark Continent.” Some of this negative rhetoric and imagery has been downplayed over time, but too much still remains. African students are still routinely insulted by people who ask if they live in huts or trees. Other antagonists assume they cannot speak English, even though many African students come from English-speaking countries.

Cultural differences are yet another obstacle African students must negotiate. For example, one student, newly arrived in the United States to attend an Ivy League university, went to a restaurant with his classmates but did not understand the menu. To maintain appearances, he simply ordered the same meal the person before him had ordered. Not surprisingly, he detested the dish, but he ate it in order to fit in.

Climate is possibly the largest hurdle facing most African students. Many have never seen snow and arrive in the United States without appropriate winter clothing. Concepts like “wind chill factor” are completely foreign. And cold weather forces most activity inside, which clashes with some elements of African culture. In many countries, the social center of the community is the open-air market. Women converge on the market to get their hair braided. All manner of items are available for sale, and lively discussion ranges from neighborhood gossip to international politics. Everything happens outdoors. In contrast, life for many African students, especially in northern U.S. cities, is largely spent huddled in the dorm.

The African college student must overcome many often-unacknowledged difficulties when they come to the United States. Knowing that, those of us who are interested in promoting true diversity must respect and encourage the Africans we encounter on campus.

— Dr. Maxine Agazie is an associate professor in the social work program at North Carolina Central University.

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