Europe, is that you?

Our flight out of DC was eventful!!! Our plane delayed for about 3 hours while sitting on the tarmac, with us in it! All this while, the cabin crew insisted we wait and remain in our seats! Eventually, they had pity on us and decided to serve us with all the drinks we could ask for. I must admit that they were really nice about giving us lots of food and drinks. They did make up for the delay in grand style.

I would recommend this airline to anyone flying out to Europe if the flight doesn’t involve a transit in Russia because truly, Russians lived up to their stereotype of not being welcoming. I mean, I get the fact that most of them don’t speak English but really, a smile is a language too. The airport workers were really rude to not just me, which I could have attributed to the color of my skin, but to all the three others I was travelling with – 2 white Americans and a Chinese.

We spent close to 8 hours in Moscow, waiting for our flight into Zurich. The chairs in the airport were nothing short of uncomfortable which made our wait seem even longer, as if that were possible. Then, it didn’t help any that most of the people operating the information desks spoke very little English and so getting access to the WIFI was a real drag! We spent the first two hours talking to each other after which we resigned ourselves to our dear friend, Sleep, to help us with our boredom.

When we finally made it into Zurich, I was ecstatic to find more smiling faces at the airport. My AirBnB guy was super nice and gave me lots of detailed directions that made it very difficult for me to get lost. I got to my room after 10pm, hit the sheets and woke up only after 11am the following day. Now, I’m ready to explore this lovely city….

PS: I saw this wedding entourage while writing this post from my AirBnB room balcony. Such a long and wild entourage with lots of honking and attracting lots of attention that reminded me of Ghana. Of course, I will love Zurich!



The Swiss march begins…

I will start by saying that I defended my dissertation less than 2 weeks before the Zurich trip which makes me a doctor now!! That’s where the excitement before the trip ends because after the first two days post my defense which I spent dancing and sleeping, the remaining days were spent making revisions to my dissertation and submitting it.

After submission, which I believed would bring relief and some excitement towards the Zurich trip, I became anxious and near crazy, waking up from dreams involving my committee members not approving my ETD. I’m so silly! Unfortunately for me, the last member of my committee to sign off on my ETD did so on the eve of travel which left me with very few hours to get excited about the travel.

But alas! I was approved by all the committee members which means I really get to enjoy the trip! Deb and Brad were set to come for me the next morning to DC so I spent the last few hours in Blacksburg packing and getting my room ready in case I got a sublease for the room during the summer. It is therefore with no little wonder that I packed a giant lotion that was seized by the TSA before I even got out of DC. Still Europe, here I come……

Doctoral education in the US

The number one thing that attracted me to further my education here in the United States is my discovery about how America produces the largest number of PhDs. For me, my undergraduate education was exceptionally joyful because of like-minded peers. We would organize study times and ask each member of the group to study a particular area to teach all of us. This proved to be useful since we all contributed to avoid the arduous task of having to cramp large volumes of text in our heads. Reading that America produces the largest number of PhDs for me meant that, the doctoral journey is not going to be as lonely as I have imagined PhDs to be with students learning only from their academic supervisors. With more people in a program, there is higher probability of collaboration among students and not an entirely lonely study.

I love that almost all doctoral programs in the US require students to either be research assistants or teaching assistants. I have realized that all graduate students at some point serve as teaching assistants. I believe that this is a good practice since doctoral students are able to realize, before they graduate, whether they want to pursue a career in academia or industry. This practice gives students the needed experience to develop personalized styles of teaching, work on their flaws and ultimately, become better versions of themselves. Aside the confidence boost primarily from having to stand in front of a bunch of students, the practice of graduate research and teaching assistants forces students to build relationships with both their students and colleagues. For me, this is the number one pull towards US doctoral education.

Doctoral education in the US has taught me about the focus on advanced student learning rather than on the specific doctoral program, type of degree or the institution offering the degree. Doctoral students in the US are all different because of the programs they are pursuing but a common identifier among all of them is the cultivated ability to think and behave scholarly. Personally, I have learned to inadvertently become more independent about my thought process, formulate my own opinions and support my decisions with firmly rooted facts. This is a skill I would not have picked up had I been in a more rigid educational structure outside of the US.

US doctoral education has a lot of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and also age. I look at the demographics of doctoral students in Ghana for instance and it is very monotonous. It has a lot of upper middle age abled men spiced with very few women and devoid of young students. In the US, I am sure to come across 22 year old doctoral students upwards to 70 year old students from different backgrounds, race and gender. I particularly like that about doctoral education in the US since it contributes to a lesser feeling of the imposter syndrome among students because students know that they only got in because someone found them to very qualified to get in and not because they fit a particular template. I think this is very important especially for when doctoral students get into the phase where they don’t think they can continue anymore. I will not be surprised if the rate of doctoral education completion is higher in the US compared to other countries with lower diversity.

Higher Education in Europe

Coming from Ghana, a country that gained independence from the British about 50 years ago, I grew up with the educated immediate older generation all having had their education in the UK. The plan for me had always been to seek higher education in the UK right after my first degree. When I was in high school though, the trend started changing. For some reason, a lot more people started talking about Harvard, Princeton and Yale when hitherto, the discussion had centered on Cambridge and Oxford. I don’t know the reason for the swift change but it did happen. And then, when I was in my first year of university, employees began complaining about the less than a year British master’s program and how British graduates were found to not know as much as the American master’s graduates did. It looked like a curse to attend a British graduate school since it seemed very hard to get a job with a certificate from UK.

Thus, I switched my gaze to other European schools. Germany was offering 2 years master’s programs but required all non-German nationals to study the German language for a year before the actual 2 year program began. I thought 3 years was too long a time to spend on a master’s degree so I dropped Germany as an option. All Ghanaians I knew complained about the icy cold temperatures in most of Europe so gradually, my attention shifted towards American higher education which is why I ended up here in Virginia Tech.

I particularly like Denmark’s 3+2+3 educational process because it shortens the first part of the university education (undergraduate level) and then concentrates its efforts in the 2 years master’s program. Also its PhD program, fixed at 3 years like other European universities, are more guided. I like the flexibility of the American PhD programs where no two programs are the same and also, students have the luxury of pursuing whatever courses they find appealing. However, the guided structure of Denmark and other European universities forces students to set specific targets for themselves and have a singular focus so they can finish on time. I think that most PhD programs in Europe are more alike than different because of the rigid structure. Rarely, do I hear a European student complain about spending too long a time in a PhD program. In America however, it is a norm and PhD students and even master’s students rarely are sure of their graduation dates.

I know about the Bologna process that is followed by about 48 European countries to ensure that   higher education quality and standards remain comparable across the continent.  The process reminds me of the West African Examination Council that sets qualifying examinations for high school graduates wanting to enroll in universities. I think it helps students from neighboring countries to not be restricted to the universities in only their countries but afford to look elsewhere. For instance, it is easier to find Nigerian or Liberian students in Ghana universities because of this system that makes results transferable and standards equal. Seeing the ease with which people can move across the different countries of Europe, it makes sense that such a process is in place to not restrict students to just their home countries. The GRE which is attributed to both the United States and Canada, also provides a sort of uniform standard for entry into a North American university but other than that, the higher education process is unique to every school or area in North America.

I am still not sure about the role of polytechnics in Europe and how a polytechnic certificate differs from a high school certificate or a bachelor’s degree. I am confused about the categorization of polytechnics in Europe and whether they function primarily as vocational schools or not. I will like to know more about that.

Swiss Expectations!!

To say I am excited about this Switzerland vacation…oops…study abroad, will be the understatement of the year! I am super hyper excited about this opportunity and often, catch myself smiling at the thought. At the age of 22, I watched every American movie I could lay my hands on and packed some of my belongings, ready for the new experiences and confident that I will thrive since movies really can answer every question I have about America….duuuh! Armed with vast knowledge about America, thanks to the movies and by talking to everybody I knew who had ever been to America, I was sure the term ‘culture shock’ will not be in my vocabulary. Boy, was I shocked! Movies lie, people, movies never tell the truth or even prepare you for the truth! Knowing better now after about 6 years in America, I know that my expectations about this trip will be different from my realities over there. This is my way of preparing for the culture shock… preparing to be shocked.

But I really don’t learn. I still have some expectations about Europe. I think that Switzerland, like the rest of Europe, will be somewhat like my country Ghana. I have been accused of behaving in a very British way, since I came to America. I have come to realize that the English influence on Ghanaians is stronger than I thought and that 60 years of independence is not enough time to erase that kind of influence. I am hoping that Switzerland will have some semblance to Great Britain and therefore, I can blend in much easier and faster than I did in America.

I am excited to experience the pace of their lifestyles, I find America to be a lonely fast traveled road. I have a fascination with bathrooms and how bathroom culture keeps evolving. Not long ago, I was carrying buckets of water to the bathroom for flushing, but before I became a teenager, that practice was almost outdated where I lived. I started pulling down a lever to flush and then I realized later that I could also press down a button to flush. In America, I discovered the use of air dryers in bathrooms to dry my hands and how different these dryers could look and operate. I have also realized that for some strange reason, bathroom doors almost always have some sophistication to them. I have had the privilege of attending conferences in major cities in North America and have unfortunately spent a considerable amount of time, trying to give myself some privacy in bathrooms. I don’t know about you, but I am looking forward to experiencing Swiss bathrooms!

Having spoken English all my life and being touted as one of the best English students in my school, I was strangely surprised when I kept having to repeat myself almost every time I spoke in America. Frustratingly, I found myself having the need to record my lectures to play back for clarity (yes I know I watched a lot of movies to prepare me for this part!). I am expecting to be astonished to hear a different kind of the same English language, not only in the enunciation of words but also the ways words are strung together into sentences. It will also be nice to see my American colleagues be baffled like I was when I first came to America, and will be, by the way people speak in Switzerland (hello Americans!).

I am looking forward to seeing some famous monuments and museums given the great European culture and history. I expect to be thrilled by the university structures and architecture. I am looking forward to being lost and adjusting to new bearings. My study area is in Geospatial and Environmental Analysis so direction and spatial information intrigues me. This fascination however does not make me immune to getting lost and being frustrated about it. I like the thrill of having to navigate in new places without asking for directions so I am definitely looking forward to the sense of hopelessness that comes with being lost. I am really not keen on having to adjust to a new temperature gradient. I come from a country where the weather was one of the most consistent things about nature. After living in America for 6 years, I am still not used to the weather’s inconsistency and so I am not thrilled about the games that the Swiss weather will be playing with us.

Slave trade in Libya

I am saddened by what is happening in Libya…my heart is so heavy after looking at the videos circulating on social media. Humans treating fellow humans like dogs all for wealth. To think that Libyans are Africans too, forces me to bow my head in shame. I had heard about Arab Africans with their long hair and fairer skin, disowning their African citizenship because they are not as black as other Africans. As ridiculous as that sounds, the rest of Africa really has not cared about them either, going on about their normal merry making and every day hustle as if most of North Africa is not part of Africa.

This old aged absurdity has taken on a different meaning for me as I watch the happenings in Libya right now. For a colored person to think that dark skin is mediocre and therefore treat people with dark skin as if they were animals, is beyond absurdity, descending into plain evil. What would cause a human being to think of another human as less of a human because of their skin color and therefore treat them so badly? I have seen videos of Libyan soldiers cut off black heads and whip black men and women with such rage that I question their mental states.

What saddens me the most is that these people are not forced to go to Libya. Yes, some of them are tricked by misinforming them of their departure to Europe, but there are still some of them who are there because they believe they are better off in such harsh conditions and die trying in these conditions than going back to their homes and to their families where they will be idle with no employment.

It is sad that in this century, African governments fold their hands and rather foster corruption and injustice rather instead of aiding in their country’s development. It is beyond disgraceful that young men and women are so hopeless in their birth countries and among their families that they are willing to risk their lives in order to get out of their countries to the west, where they believe, they will find sources of income.

It will take a generation or two of very selfless individuals in Africa who are ready to sacrifice their individual present comfort for the comfort of the next generation. I am hoping against hope that my generation of African leaders will be less self gratifying and work hard to make Africa what it should be: a beautiful continent with lots of natural resources and endless potential! I hope that my generation does not let the next generation of Africans down…

Asylum Confusion

I am not sure how to approach this post, partly because I can easily come across as very insensitive but please indulge me. My idea of refugees in a country stems from my experience growing up near refugee camps in Ghana. I don’t remember when Liberians started coming into Ghana but I have always known of areas that are occupied mainly by Liberians, who spoke a different kind of English from the Ghanaian English I was used to, and had expressions interlaced with their local dialect. I knew Liberians as people trying to escape a raging war in their country and was raised to be nice to them and also buy stuff I needed from Liberians to help them even if a Ghanaian sold a similar item at a cheaper price. I was raised to feel sorry for Liberians living in Ghana because they had had to go through the painful experience of being uprooted from their home country into a foreign land because of certain corrupt leaders. My own father, had been a refugee once in Nigeria when Ghana was going through a military coup d’etat and therefore taught me to be overly sensitive about the plight of refugees, and in this case, Liberians living in Ghana.

Although I was raised to feel sorry for them, I also envied them slightly. I don’t know how Liberians do it, but even a 2 year old Liberian in Ghana could stylishly braid hair effortlessly. They always seemed like a happy group, bustling with lots of energy and always ready to share make -up stories with me whenever I found myself, nestled in between their legs with them tugging at my very thick hair and trying hard to run a comb through the thick mass. Growing up, I would easily describe Liberians, or the refugees, simply as very happy talented and energetic people. I did not need to force myself to feel sorry for them because they weren’t sorry for themselves and actually felt privileged that they were alive and healthy. I love Liberians!

My confusion at asylum seeking in America stems from the fact that back home in Ghana, refugees did not find the need to remind you that they were refugees. Their kids attended the same schools as everyone did and they worked hard to survive, just like the average Ghanaian did. They did not go to government institutions trying to get more flexible deals or advocate for better living areas. They were people who had been flown in war crafts and military aeroplanes to Ghana, some of them walking miles to get there, and were full of hope for the future. They didn’t need to become Ghanaians or seek asylum residency in Ghana, they were just welcomed and went about their normal businesses. They did not have to apply to be refugees in Ghana, the Ghanaian military went to Liberia to help war victims and either brought them here or they walked through very long secret paths to get to Ghana where they knew they will be safer. They didn’t have to explain themselves, everyone knew of their plight and a single minute with them will highlight their need to escape from their home country.

This is where my confusion lies. I feel like America has created a route for people to become citizens of America and coined the term asylum seeking for this purpose, and therefore all kinds of people feel the need to use it or abuse it. I feel like the real people under threat, hardly make use of this route because they are too busy trying to survive or do not even know about this. Hence, people privileged to come to America and do not want to go back or people who have heard about this American citizenship route while in their own countries, apply for them. I think that real beneficiaries of the asylum pathway, will hardly actually exploit it. They are just too busy trying to survive!

What the American refugee immigration institution should be doing is working with people on the grounds in foreign countries who keep their ears on the ground, work with local people and fish out people who really need help. I really have my doubts about the credibility of someone who will self-seek American asylum. The government should scrub off the system that allows people to self-seek asylum and rather work closely with social workers on the ground. By so doing, they are not forced to rigorously scrutinize asylum applications and make it difficult for the people who genuinely need it.

Claiming my accent

I have to start off this blog post by reminding readers that I am a Ghanaian who  has lived all of her life in Ghana and only came to America some five years ago. Being a Ghanaian makes the English language my native language since English is the only accepted language serving as the medium for teaching in Ghanaian schools. There are several languages in Ghana and I speak about five of them but English is the official language of expression in schools in Ghana and among school children. Growing up, it was punishable to be heard speaking vernacular, which is a term used to describe all other languages in Ghana with the exception of English, while still wearing your school uniform. Hence, from infancy, I learned to think and write only in English. While there is of course, a subject in our school curriculum that encourages a student to choose a single Ghanaian language to learn how to read and write in, and then another subject to speak and read French because Ghana is surrounded by French speaking countries, English has always been the mode of expression among the educated folks in Ghana.

Growing up, I always excelled in subjects such as Spelling and Dictation, English Comprehension and Essay writing. In fact, I don’t remember when I had ever come second in any of these subjects growing up, I always came up first. My parents knew this and it gave them a lot of pride when our neighbors visited and they showed them some of my essays and writings in the English language. I loved to read American books and followed the logic in these books easily, although some of the concepts  and settings were new to me. I thought it will be a walk in the park for me, when I finally arrived on American soil and will not suffer from the infamous culture shock.

Unfortunately for me, this was not the case! I found myself having to repeat almost everything I said to an American. I found myself being talked to slowly and very loudly whenever I was in a conversation with an American. It was confusing for me that I spoke perfect English but somehow, Americans kept asking each other what I had just said. I found it strange that although I had never spoken to an American prior to my coming to America, I tried to and actually understood whatever an American said to me but they on the other hand, could not or refused to understand me.

Hence, I found myself trying to pronounce certain words like Americans would. For some reason, Americans would not pronounce the letter ‘t’ in the middle of a sentence. Hence, words like water, matter, fighter, excited and the likes, were difficult for me to pronounce here in America. I had to intentionally, remind myself to either transform those ‘t’s into ‘d’s or remember to just silence them. This was a very difficult challenge for me! I found it extremely exasperating when I had to carefully scrutinize every sentence in a conversation in my head, before I uttered them. I found that I felt very obligated to speak like an American in order to be understood! But how can I change an accent that I have known for more than two decades of my life?

As I struggled with this in my first year of my arrival in America, I began to question whether an American will do this for me. I asked myself if it was worth it, to pretend for the rest of my stay here, to be an American? Was it worth trying to sound excited by everything because to me, Americans sound really excited when they speak! Is it not enough that my spellings had to change because my computer in America will keep underlining my words like ‘colour’ and ‘favour’ because it didn’t like my ‘u’?

Now more than ever, I have learned to accept the very intricate details that make me a Ghanaian, those little subtle pronunciations and mannerisms that make me Iris. I have learned to wear my Ghanaian accent with pride and not try to sound American. What America has taught me though is to be more confident when I am communicating. I have realized that my confidence makes it easier for Americans to accept my Ghanaian English and my accent. I have accepted the fact that I will never have an American accent but I don’t have a normal Ghanaian accent either. I now have a more confident Iris accent that I totally embrace!

My Africa and Homosexuality

I find the arguments against the passing of the homosexuality law in Africa, very shallow. Usually, most critics of homosexuality in Africa argue that it is not our culture and that the white man eroded our traditional religion with his Christianity and again, wants us to embrace what is not our culture. But as I argue time and time again, I feel like culture is really what we make it. Culture does not make a people. In every hair salon that I have visited in Ghana, Liberia and in Nigeria, I have seen at least, one gay man. Why would we therefore say that it is not our culture?

It is right in front of our very eyes. I have seen men who do not behave as manly or macho as the African culture will want that man to behave. I have seen men who find extreme joy in making women feel beautiful in their salons although within our cultural context, hairdressing and makeup, is actually a woman’s trade. I have seen men who enjoy the company of ladies and actually behave like girls when it comes to conversations involving crushes on cute boys. I have had friends who from infancy, even without knowing what it means to be gay or homosexual and actually know that they are supposed to like people of the opposite sex, find themselves talking like me and gushing over boys that I find cute too. These are people who have no exposure to the white man or do not even have televisions and therefore, have no way of being ‘lured’ by Westerners like we claim in Africa. My point is that there are so many events and behaviors that are not typically, the African culture, but somehow, we make excuses for those and accept them, but find it difficult to accept homosexuality.

I find it really sickening that Africans should be afraid to love who they love and stand the risk of being judged or worse, loosing their lives and most typically,  family support. I find it embarrassing that in this day and age, people are still shunned because of their sexual preferences and have to hide their true identity in order to be accepted by the community that they have known all their lives.

This week, I came across a post that started with a sentence to the effect that despite the fact that many African girls waste time in prayer camps, praying for marriage, some two fine boys thought it wise to marry each other. I was disappointed but not shocked when I scrolled down to read the many comments in support of that very ridiculous post. I feel that when it comes to sexual preferences, many Africans are hypocrites. Homosexuality is really all around us, we are just failing to see it and forcing people to kowtow to a culture that they do not particularly enjoy.

In class, I was so embarrassed to state that homosexuality is still frowned upon in my society and that homosexuals risk their lives by coming forward and behaving in the subtle of ways that suggest that they prefer people that they share the same gender with. In my opinion, homosexuality is being fought against largely in Africa because we believe it is not our culture, which is where my problem with protesters of the homosexuality law, lies. How do we tell a person who has been exposed to the ‘typical African culture’ all of his or her life, and does not know any other culture, but still prefers people of the same gender as him or herself, that he or she cannot be happy because what he or she likes, is not a part of the culture?

What I claim to be my culture makes me very proud and extremely happy. I find it sad that that same culture, that belongs to another member of my community, will be the source of sorrow in that person’s life. What we call our African culture should make room for every body; every African should find joy and pride in their culture. And this starts from allowing our culture to be flexible enough to embrace everyone’s preferences.

Thoughts on mental health

Only this week, I shared with my class my thoughts on how mental health is viewed in my country. I told the class that to me, mental illness is not seen as an illness as perceived here in America. Mental illness usually has a religious connotation to it, with mental health victims being rushed to religious homes to be prayed for, rather than sent to the hospitals. There are only two mental health facilities in the whole of Ghana and even these two are visited more by pastors, Imams and other religious leaders, rather than by doctors. The idea of psychologists and counselors to this day, still remains a mystery and only something we see in Western movies.

In the unfortunate event that a family member is mentally unstable, the first step usually is to question what evil either the person or his or her immediate family, has done to warrant the condition. It is typical to find family members rush to religious houses seeking for answers for why this is occurring. In the unlikely event that the victim’s condition deteriorates, the last cause of action is for the family to abandon him or her in religious homes where the person is subjected to all manner of prayers and very bitter concoctions till they sadly, pass away.

Another aspect of mental health such as depression, is overlooked completely in Ghana and even, across the continent. Depression is not even talked about and the first time I heard about depression was actually in the United States. If a person is depressed or now that I know what depression is, is exhibiting signs and symptoms of depression, the person is only encouraged to get over him or herself.

In Ghana and Africa as a whole, depression is only a sign of weakness or more commonly, an exaggeration of one’s emotions. Emotions really are not encouraged in Ghana or in the continent. You can either be happy and then dance and make noise, or be sad, only for a short time, in the case of a family member’s death, and in this case, cry or wail loudly. There is really no time and space for emotions in between this very wide spectrum. Even when one is mourning, one can only mourn for a very short period of time after which, you are being overly dramatic if you cry again. We have a culture where emotions are just not encouraged.

This post is actually triggered by the death of a young man in Ghana only this week. This young man in question wrote a Facebook post saying goodbye to family members and his friends and expressing why he didn’t find life worth living any more. His Facebook friends passed very smirk remarks and comments advising him to literally get over himself and ‘be a man’, whatever that expression means. Unfortunately, this guy proceeded to commit suicide a few days after his post. I keep asking myself if he would still be alive had he had the support of his friends and family. I wonder whether he would still be alive had the concept of counselling not been so foreign to us, as a nation. I imagine a time in Ghana and Africa where mental health will be taken as seriously as it is here in America. I feel like such a time is very far off in the future, unfortunately.