JESSICA: About two weeks ago, I was talking to a freshman about adjusting to MIT strategies for getting around how to balance your academics with your life. And so, midway through the conversation she just looks at me and she says, wow, you really have it together. And I look at her and I tell her that it hasn’t always been this way. It’s taken me four years after migrating to the US from Ghana to get to this place where things finally feel OK.
My first month at MIT was an absolute nightmare. Everything that could possibly be different was different. The food was different. The weather was different. The culture was different. And the academic rigor of MIT could not compare to the public school that I was coming from.
And so I remember the very first day of orientation. I come all bundled up, like feeling very cold in the fall. And I see people wearing t-shirts and shorts like this is casual weather. And I was like, do these people not feel the cold that is in this atmosphere going on right now? And for orientation we also had, we typically had sandwiches and crisps and Arizona iced tea. Which, I guess, maybe is common food across many of the cultures. But for me, I was like, I really don’t like this. So I didn’t eat any of the orientation food.
So I would typically go to the Student Center and there was this one cafe called Shinkansen where they served hibachi fried rice and that was the closest thing to fried rice from home. And so I was just eating that every day for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Just eating hibachi fried rice from Shinkansen. And I remember towards the end of the second week I just broke down crying into the food because, yes, this is close to home but also I’ve been eating this for like two weeks and I’m at this point I’m just sick of it. But I’m also like, I don’t have any other option. This is the only thing that I can possibly consume at this point. And I just remember feeling so sad and thinking about all the food back home that my mother makes on a regular basis and really wondering why I made this decision to come to this place where things are so different.
Also in terms of culture. So, in Ghana the culture is very warm and welcoming. You say hi to people you meet, you greet them. And so one day I was walking down the Infinite Corridor and I recognized one of the guys from my orientation group. And to me, at least I have seen one person in this entire school that I know. And so I started vigorously waving. I was like, hey, hey, hey. And then he just passed by me as if I did not exist. And I was so confused and surprised.
And all of these things, like the weather is not going well, the food is not going well, people are not nice to me. Everything just rolled up into this big mush of homesickness that I just couldn’t control.
And the problem with acute homesickness is that it affects all other aspects of your life. So, because I was so clammed up and I was always crying about not being home, I didn’t make any friends during orientation. So here I am with school started and no friends because of the same homesickness.
I went to class and instead of focusing on what the teacher is teaching, my mind is roaming and wandering. So I’m thinking, why is he speaking with this accent? Like I can’t comprehend it. Why do we have clicker questions? Everybody’s going to know that I got this wrong. Why do I have to– in the 8.01 TEAL set up, you have to work with two or three other students. So why do they want me to expose my ignorance to these people? I don’t want to be that person and I see it coming. So the anxiety in me is building up as opposed to just listening to the content that the professor is delivering.
And so I was struggling in my classes, I have no friends, and this place is miserable. And towards the end of September, beginning of October I started telling myself that something has got to change. It would make sense to me if I left home to come to MIT and I was kind of doing well in my classes but everything else was a mess. But no, everything was a mess. And it didn’t seem like it was worth it to me anymore. And so I just wanted to go home.
So I reached out to my freshman advisor at the time, Professor Raul Radovitzky, who happened to be the head of House of McCormick Hall, where I lived. So he said, OK. You should come stop by one time in the evening so we can have a chat. So I go to the apartment.
Raul and Flavia are amazing heads of house. They are always warm and welcoming. They always have chocolates or drinks or something to make you feel welcome. So we are sitting in the kitchen and as usual they’ve offered me chocolates and they’re like– Raul smiles and he’s like, how’s it going, Jessica? And before I can form words, before I can say anything, I just break down crying.
I’m crying now. All the pain, the frustration, the regrets of coming to MIT, the homesickness, just everything pours out for about 10 minutes. And for those 10 minutes, his wife Flavia has me in this very warm embrace, like a motherly embrace. Just comforting me and just letting me cry it all out. And so when I finally catch my breath after a while, when I am finally OK to talk, I talk to them about really hating this place. From friends, to school, to just everything. Nothing is aligned the way I had anticipated and I just wasn’t ready for this. So I just want to go home. Like that was my goal of talking to him as my freshman advisor, please send me home.
And Raul said– he spoke to me about his experience. So he had migrated here for grad school with his family. And he was talking about how in grad school there are high expectations of you so there isn’t that much support. And so here they are, not trying to liken their situation to mine, but he said something that helped him was thinking about why he came to Caltech. And so for me, the assignment that he and Flavia gave me was to go home and think about three things. Three reasons why I chose MIT or three things that I really wanted to try at MIT. And if by the end of my freshman four I really, really did not like MIT he would help me to go home.
So beyond the comforts and the love and everything, my takeaway message was just try three things and if nothing works you can go home. And that was perfectly fine with me. I was like, I just want to go home. Three things won’t hurt me. I’m willing to try.
So I started to try to do things a little better. Like when I went to class I was like, OK, so I’m just going to try and focus on what the professor is saying. I’m going to try working with these people. Like there’s a reason why this system is set up this way. Rather than just closing off to things that are new to me, let me just be a little more open to trying them.
Another thing they all had encouraged me to do was to come to events. So when there’s a McCormick event or there’s a social event on campus and I’m even remotely interested I should try them. And I had been to activities midway so there were a bunch of student groups that I was interested in.
So in my freshman four I joined the African Student Association. And over there, because we were all international students and because we weren’t just freshmen, there were upperclassmen who had been through the same thing, sometimes we had meetings you would have us sharing our struggle and being like, we are really struggling with this. And then an upperclassman who had a similar experience would say something to encourage us. But beyond that, it was just nice to have a place where I felt like I belonged. Like we weren’t all from Ghana, but at least just have something in common that you can talk to people about. And I feel like I found it there.
I’m also Christian and I like to sing so I joined the MIT gospel choir and it was really fun. Every Saturday, like talking, rehearsing, and I was learning how to train my voice. Not just sing for the fun, like, random songs, but actually having songs that the choir director will train you for and train your ear to pick up sound in a different way. So I felt like that was fun. It was– I enjoyed singing. And these people, like we would talk about challenges, things that we were praying for, testimonies that we had to share with each other and encourage each other.
And so I realized that, it’s not like overnight my life had changed and I was this perfect person, but at least it wasn’t that bad. Just trying, trying, trying, and seeing that, Oh there are actually people that you can P set with and it makes life easier. Or there are people that you can talk to about issues and granted, the issues don’t go away, but life does get better.
And I remember this one moment in my freshman spring where I met one of my best friends. We sat together. We were almost in all of the same classes. And so it was really nice knowing that one person who is in classes with you and is in the dorm with you. And so we were working on P sets, and sometimes we would take detours. Like rather than just focusing on the questions, we would talk about life. She grew up in New York. I grew up in Ghana. Her parents migrated here. So we’re talking about differences and things like that. And then we would pull it back into this P set and how painful it is and how frustrating it is and why we have to go through this. But it was really nice for me to know that, one, I’m not the only one who thinks that this is challenging. Other people feel like that, too. But more importantly, I had also found a friend or someone I could call a sister and who I knew that if I was in any sort of crisis I could reach out to.
And so, in coming to that realization I found that it wasn’t that bad after all. Just like there were people here I had found community in, that’s how I have a community back home outside of my family.
And so fast forward to four years later now that I’m about to graduate. Am I still homesick? Yes, I am. And every time I sit on a plane I still shed tears I’m still like, Oh my God I’m about to leave home. And it’s very painful for me. But the good thing now is that rather than saying, Oh, Ghana is my home and Ghana is the only place that I know, I’ve come to realize that now I actually have another home at MIT with friends who have become like family, with supports, with love, and with warmth where I can thrive and grow.