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August is an unsettling month of transition at the EducationUSA Advising Center.  Daily working through my inbox or on a report or new workshop outline, my phone rings with the news that another student who is leaving tomorrow has come to see me.  I take a deep breath, gather some strength and go to say yet another goodbye. Inevitably, after giving the student a hug, wishing them the best and trying to reassure them that they will be fine with a smile, I can count the pause.  One, two, three and the question comes: “So Amai, what do I really need to know?

I’ll fumble an answer about something practical yet seemingly important.  “Make sure you put your name on your luggage and check the tags to see that they are going all the way through to your destination.” Or “Have you bought a few African crafts you can give to your roommate’s family and other people who will be nice to you?”  Or maybe the uniquely Zimbabwean reminder – “Don’t forget to pack some maputi!”

So we say our farewells there in the hallway of the advising center, an awkward cloud of silence hanging between us as we both know  there is much left unspoken in answer to that genuine question “So what do I really need to know?” Maybe it’s because the answer is fraught with so many contradictions.  Or maybe we leave it unspoken because we would be emotionally exhausted if I tried to pour out my thoughts and feelings daily on a young person making such a bold step as travelling clear across the globe to study among a diversity of strangers, so far from home and all that is familiar.

So what do you really need to know when you get off that plane to start your studies in the U.S.?  I could write and write and never finish in answer, but here are a few thoughts to get you started.

Stay grounded.  Your family raised you carefully and lovingly with particular values; your community added a definitive layer of culture and heritage, and your religious beliefs have given you a foundation.  When in doubt, refer back to this inner core and find your strength in its well.  Just because you will be living in a completely new environment doesn’t mean you have to lose yourself in the process.  Have enough confidence in your identity to be settled in your difference, to be yourself while knowing, to quote Dr. Seuss, that “those who mind won’t matter and those who matter won’t mind.”

Take risks.  Here’s where one of the contradictions comes in.  Just as you should stay true to yourself and your beliefs, that doesn’t mean not sampling the wonders that a diverse global community has to offer.  If you are moving from a land-locked country to the seaside, by all means try the seafood.  Go outside of your comfort zone – meet and get to know a wide variety of people, not just those most similar to yourself, listen to new genres of music, attend events and join clubs that previously were foreign, take classes in areas completely new to you, unabashedly try out newly found talents and skills, get to know someone who intrigues you and let them get to know you, travel.

Make deliberate choices. Your choices and decisions will shape your future more greatly now than they ever have before. Each time you make an academic or professional choice about something seemingly so trivial as which language you are going to study to fulfil your language requirement or as major as where you are going to do your summer internship and ultimately which major you are you going to declare, you are facing the nose of the ultimate airplane closer to or farther from your home country.  Each time you decide to become vulnerable and get to know someone on a deeper level,you are choosing those who will be lifelong friends.  Make smart choices so you don’t  wake up to find yourself far from your original goals and wondering how you got there.

Strike a balance.  True, college is a time for all-nighters spent either racing against a deadline to get that research paper or problem set done or simply hanging out in the hallway of your dorm discovering the meaning of life with your new friends. Perhaps the biggest challenge in college is striking a healthy balance.  You need to go to class, eat, study, sleep, exercise, study, do your campus job, attend your club/sports meetings, study….. yet there is unlimited high-speed wifi and sleep seems so overrated…. Find your balance between work and play, and remember to take care of yourself.

Take time to reflect. Adopt habits that make you self-aware. Don’t simply let life happen to you, but take time to take stock of how you and your life changes and what that means for your future plans. Moving into a new culture and environment gives you a rare opportunity to view yourself in stark contrast to the other. You no longer are similar to everyone else; you can then reassess what you like and dislike about your home culture and what you admire and dislike from your adopted home. Watch how you are growing and changing. One activity we’ve adopted at the advising center is to have students write letters to themselves before they leave for college . We mail them their letters after two years, unopened and unseen, so that they can see the extent to which their original goals and dreams have changed.

Stay focused.  When it comes down to it, remember why you went to the US: To get a top, well-rounded education that can lead you to the career of your dreams, to come home and make an impact or simply change the world.  Don’t be easily lured by the many distractions that can come your way. To borrow from the Civil Rights Movement, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”

“So, Amai, what do I really need to know?” Maybe we should stick to luggage tags and remembering to pack the maputi.  But most of all know one truth- go and search for your purpose and you will be just fine.  Oh, and have some fun in the process….


Rebecca Zeigler Mano is the EducationUSA Country Coordinator in Zimbabwe.  All views are her own.