When you look at the photo above you probably see a young African woman jet setting in an exotic location. She looks happy. And I was. But I was also a struggling Masters student who was barely making ends meet during Italy’s economic crisis. I had a full scholarship for my first year of graduate school – a miracle in itself – but things were still tough. I had promised my parents and myself that I would handle graduate school. When I first arrived, I barely had 200 euros in my pocket – and I owed my cousin for paying half of my airline ticket. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep once I got to Bologna or if I would find accommodation that I could afford. A flight change meant that the most affordable AirBnB stay I’d found was no longer an option. And I still had almost $30,000 worth of college loans to pay back. In a desperate, last-ditch effort, I sent a message to my new classmates on our Facebook group – all of whom I’d never met in person. One of my Italian classmates offered me a space on her floor for my first few nights. Her room wasn’t even big, but she was willing to share.
Studying Abroad – The Money Issue
I eventually used part of my money to buy a red bike called Sue Lou (a bike, but really, a companion and witness to some of my tears, moments when I asked why am I even here?) I got the opportunity to work as a live-in English tutor for a family I now call friends. To get to school each day I had to decide: take the bus and bring leftovers for lunch (free, from the family) or ride my bike so I could buy something to eat. The house was on top of a hill so riding home was no joke. My Italian friend eventually became my “sorella” – sister. She bailed me out in more ways than I can recount, often times having me over for lunch in between classes. And yet, despite all this, I was still struggling financially. I had to opt out of weekend trips to neighboring countries with my classmates because I couldn’t afford the train or plane ticket. I missed class dinners and hangouts because they were too late and far from where I was living. At a point, I was working four jobs – as a live-in English tutor, student journalist, freelance grants consultant, and a research assistant – in addition to being a full-time Masters student. The money I made went to my personal upkeep. During one week, I barely had 20 euros – and I developed a tooth ache. Try studying with a toothache, it’s near impossible. It’s safe to say that I was on painkillers for the entire week – I couldn’t afford a visit to the dentist, nor did I have health insurance.Everything has its end. You will struggle, but you will grow. - @jabdulai Click To Tweet
That week was probably my lowest in my entire graduate school experience. I was stressed, sick and feeling really hopeless. To top it off we found out that our scholarships had been slashed in half for the following year. I had no savings and the scholarship application cycle was pretty much over. I put in applications for what I could – and came to terms with the fact that I might have to suspend my graduate study in order to work for money to pay it. The thing was, if I didn’t finish the two years at once I would only earn a diploma for my first year – basically, I would have to start all over. Imagine – all the stress, all the strain, all the struggles, all the sleepless nights, down the drain. I felt like I was living in a twilight zone, that it was unfair that someone like myself who just wanted to gain the skills and tools to contribute to her country, her continent, the world, could be left wanting like this. I almost gave up. Sure, I put on an optimistic demeanor – partly because my word for the year was “positivity” – but I really couldn’t see the way out. Why me? That is the question we often ask at points like this.
This was the poorest I had ever been in my adult life – I didn’t like it one bit. Before then, I never took money matters seriously. I had gotten into all the top notch graduate school programs I applied for – Columbia University, Sciences Po and John’s Hopkins SAIS. When I was applying and someone would ask about how I would finance it, I would say, lets get in first. We can worry about that later. I always believed that things would work out in my favor – and to a large extent they did. Belief. Such a powerful thing. While I was frustrated and feeling sorry for myself, I vowed that I would never be this poor again. In fact, I changed my terminology: I’m not poor, I’m temporarily impoverished. My friends and I laughed about it, but I was dead serious. I wouldn’t associate the word “poor” with myself. We are never poor, we always have something to offer.
Asking for Help – And Finding It
To cut a long story short, things changed within the course of two weeks, primarily because a handful of people took time to not just listen, but also, to ask questions and help. First was the school administrator who literally dedicated all her time to encouraging and helping affected students figure out a way. I visited her office many times – often in tears or on the verge of a meltdown. Through her, I found out that an alumnae couple had donated money for a $30,000 scholarship with one requirement: that it go to a female student from sub-Saharan Africa with the intent of returning to develop her country. Imagine, that scholarship had my name on it. The scholarship was split in half between myself and another African female student. I went from wondering where and how I would get $30,000 to supplement my half tuition scholarship and finish graduate school, to having $15,000. The school had already offered a 10,000$ loan so there was that as well. Another international student needed a $5000 loan so the school asked if they could take the amount from mine – go ahead, I said. When you are in such a predicament you realize that every single cent or dollar counts.
I had a $20,000 now. But aside tuition, that would barely cover Washington, DC living expenses – accommodation especially hadn’t yet been accounted for. An average of $1000-$2000 a month. One of my professors who I had gotten quite close to and had shared my plight with offered to introduce me to a friend of hers in DC where my second year of study was. It took one email and an exchange between us and I was set for housing for the year. I would house and dog sit while studying. This is how I went from desperately searching for money to having an excess of funds for my second year. I used some of the money to buy a new laptop since my old one was no longer functional – an investment, I called it. That laptop served me for five years – beyond it’s stated lifespan. In DC, I only had school, house and dog sitting (basically feeding them, taking them out, cleaning up poop) and of course Circumspecte (this platform). I didn’t have to work if I didn’t want to, but then I still had $30,000 college loans, $2500 credit card debt, the new graduate school loan, and loans to pay back to family and friends. So when the opportunity came to consult with a think tank remotely, I took it.
“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins -not through strength, but through persistence.” – Buddha
— Jemila Abdulai (@jabdulai) October 2, 2011
But let’s back track for a moment. Everything switched in a matter of weeks. One struggling year turned into a relatively easy breezy year. But I didn’t forget my promise to myself to not be “poor” – for the first time ever I chose the job that would allow me to be financially independent. It wasn’t an easy decision – I found the alternative more in tune with my passion – but it was a necessary one. Because whether we like to talk about it or not, money matters. Stressing over money and making ends meet spills over into other aspects of one’s life – health, peace of mind, productivity. My money woes had me failing an exam required for my program – on a topic I had studied for close to eight years! To make a very long story short, I was able to pay off my $5000 loan (it turns out they never applied the other half since I didn’t need it), credit card, friends and family within one year of joining the work force. A few weeks ago, I submitted the final installment for my $30,000 college loan repayment (including interest). Something I thought I wouldn’t be able to do within the ten- year grace period of graduating from college. If I could do it, so can you.
Why am I sharing this? To let you know that everyone has personal struggles – it’s a fact of life. You will go through tough times and life will sometimes feel unfair. In many cases you will have no idea what you’re doing or even why. It’s okay to not know. The most important thing to know is that it won’t last. Everything has its end. You will struggle, but you will grow. It’s also important to ask for help. Bravado will only get you so far. Reach out to people you trust and ask for help. They may not be able to give you a $30,000 cheque but they might connect you to someone who can help make things a tad easier. None of us get where we are alone. There are a hundred if not thousand people who play a role in our journeys. Some might be clear as day, others you will never know. Be thankful for all of them. More importantly, pay it forward. Be the person you once sought. Give support. Check on people. Pass on that article – even if you don’t know who it might benefit.
Try to be practical even as you pursue your dreams – money is not everything, but it’s a key element of the societies we live in. It’s okay to admit you don’t have it or would like more of it. Just remember that it should serve a purpose, it should not be the end goal. And while it may not seem like it, trust that there is a larger picture here. You cannot see it because you are caught up with the nitty gritty details, but it exists. Have faith, trust the process. One day, it will all come together and you will see – understand- how even your setbacks, failures, struggles and tough moments were all leading to a moment of contentment or realization. Perhaps, the most important thing you can do when you’re struggling is to find solace in the little things, the moments that often go unnoticed.
Practice gratitude. Try to find at least one thing you are thankful for each day. For me it was music (like this song and this one), food, inspirational quotes, my family and friends, Allah, the family I lived with, the welcome respite from “economic talk” during my English class sessions, gelato. I would indulge in Italian ice cream when I was happy, sad, rewarding myself, encouraging myself. Something so small, played a huge role in keeping me going. I also reminded myself that struggles notwithstanding, I was on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I found solace in the words of the Persian poet Hafiz:
“This place where you are now, God circled on a map for you…Our Beloved has bowed there, knowing you were coming.”
I took in all I could, while I could and although I wasn’t able to travel across Europe as some of my classmates did, I did still have the opportunity to explore other Italian towns and cities whenever I found a good deal. Above all, however, it’s important to believe in yourself and never lose hope. Remind yourself of why you’re there. Why it’s important for you to push through till the very end. Keep the big picture in mind. It will work out; sometimes in more and better ways than you can imagine. So long as you have breath, the story is still being written and you have the power to decide how it turns out. It might not be easy, but it is possible.
Africans Studying Abroad: A Shared Experience
If the responses to my posts on Facebook and Instagram are anything to go by, it’s clear that the study abroad experience and struggle is a shared one. My story might sound incredulous, but it is by no means unique. Many of my classmates and friends who studied abroad have similar stories – each different, yet similar in many respects. Find yourself in this predicament right now? I’m willing to bet there’s someone who has a piece – an insight, a resource, a word of encouragement, a connection – that can help unravel the puzzle you’re in. Reach out, ask questions, do your research. Already been through it? Mentor someone, share your own experiences, or consider writing a guest article on Circumspecte about it (send a pitch here).
Not sure where to start or yet to study abroad? These articles on things to consider and writing your personal statement might be useful. Already in the thick of things? Here’s how you can maximize your study abroad experience. You can also read this Twitter thread recap for undergraduate study abroad insights from myself and other Africans. All out of ideas on how you can finance your study abroad or what to expect? Feel free to check out this Google doc of scholarship resources that I used (some might be outdated). The video below also offers specific pointers on financing your study abroad. Done with school and wondering how to pay back all those loans? Here’s the approach I used for clearing my debt in four years.
Thank you for reading this article and/or passing it on. To all the angels who played a role in my journey so far, thank you. You know yourselves.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.