In 1991 I said goodbye to my parents and boarded my first in a series of flights to New Haven, Connecticut to start my studies at Yale University. I had never set foot on the campus. I was the first in my family to head straight to 4 years of university and I was not properly prepared for what was ahead.
Not surprisingly, I did terrible my first year there. I started freshmen year with an intensive Japanese class. Most of my peers in the class already spoke some Japanese. I did not. So by the time we got near midterms it was not a huge surprise that I was bringing the grading curve down and my sweet sensei asked me to drop the class for all of our sakes.
I would like to say that then life took on the pace of a romantic comedy montage. I learned how to study, found out what I was good at, became BBFF with my professors AND met a fabulous boyfriend with a handsome backpack. Unfortunately, it did not go down that way. I continued to struggle all through my years at Yale. I did my best, but at one point I faced expulsion because my grades were so low.
I suppose I should be ashamed of my performance—and for many years I was—but looking back, I am kind of impressed with my young self for my determination to keep going and my ability to succeed regularly with a load of 6 classes at one of the best schools in the US. I see now that my failures were not because I was too dumb, I was just immature, had horrific study skills and did not know how to navigate life at university. Rather than build relationships with professors and TA’s, I was intimidated by them and kept my distance. I took awful notes and procrastinated at studying for exams. (That had worked in my rural high school.) If I did poorly on an assignment, I didn’t follow up with the professor to learn how I could improve, I just figured I would “try harder.” And so my roller coaster existence was a constant stress while in New Haven.
The truth is that there were LOTS of resources available to me, I just didn’t know it. I was so intimidated by everyone around me that I had no idea that they were invested in my success and would be willing to help me find ways to succeed. I also was embarrassed to be the little fish in such a big pond. So I pretended to be on top of everything—when I clearly was not. There are some cases where faking it will not help you make it!
I learned far too late the tools to succeed in university. I understand that life for a student starting at the bottom is a mixture of pure joy to be invited to the dance and absolute terror that you are in over your head. Sometimes I see that in the eyes of the university students that I work with in Africa. I could spend all year telling you about the trials these students have faced to get to the university level. Only dogged passion and focus have made it at all possible for them to walk the corridors of African universities. I know exactly the elation they feel to have “made it” and to be a university student! Yet, I also understand from my experience that “making it” is only the entry point. Once on campus, you have to continue to work hard and earn your place.
You won’t be surprised to hear that with my personal experience and my deep admiration for the TNHF Scholars, I have an invested interest in helping them succeed. I want them to learn from my failures. I want them to succeed where I did not! This has been the launching point for my latest obsession: how to help students uncover the resources available at their universities and how do I provide additional tools for success. It’s clear that additional English training is vital. Many of our students have also never held a laptop in their hands. So computer training and regular access to laptops is key. We have also started a small but promising Leadership Library to help the students learn success tactics from other people they admire. Of course, having a mentor or someone to listen before you get too deep under water is crucial.
But we cannot do this alone. If any of you also have a passion to help university students succeed, have a spare laptop laying around, a biography of a great leader or ideas on teaching English as a second language, I welcome your involvement. Together I know that we can help these smart, hard working students be at the top of their classes. Together we can empower them to change their communities from within. Together we can help them thrive and grow into the leaders that Africa needs for tomorrow.
Leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in getting involved. I can promise you that delightful messages like this one will make their way into your life and you will be so blessed by them!