In this edition of International Humans of Brown, Bonheur Kaligirwa, Nothando Adu-Gyamfi, and Liepollo (Dee) Monaheng sat down with Minty Pham ’20 to share their experiences at Brown, their thoughts on settling in and re-adjustment, and their valuable advice for younger students. Bonheur calls Rwanda home, Nothando calls South Africa home, and Dee calls Lesotho home. Nothando and Dee are studying Chemical Engineering, while Bonheur is double concentrating in Development Studies and Social Analysis and Research. Nothando and Dee are leaving Brown, while Bonheur is staying at Brown for another year as she completes her combined degree program. Read on to find out about their favorite memories at Brown, how their four years have been different than expected, and more!

What languages do you speak?

Dee: Sesotho and English for me.

Bonheur: I grew up speaking Kinyarwanda. I was taught French in school, but we don’t really use it outside of school. I also use sign language with some friends back home.

Nothando: I speak English, Afrikaans, Setswana, SiSwati, some Zulu, and some other languages here and there.

What made you decide to come to Brown?

Dee: I don’t really think I thought about it that much. I was applying to colleges; my university counselor said that I should try Brown and that it would be a good fit. So I applied and got in.

Bonheur: Same for me! Growing up, I was not exposed to Western-English education, specifically the US, because Rwanda is a French-speaking country. I got introduced to such through a gap-year program that helps East African high school graduates apply to universities in the U.S. and Canada; my college counselor told me I’d be a good fit for Brown, and I didn’t know exactly what she meant by that. When people tell you that you’re a good fit for a college, and you’ve never been there and you haven’t been as exposed to U.S. education, you just take their word for it. And I did!

Nothando: I knew that I wanted to come to Brown when I applied to UWC two years before Brown. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and I read that Emma Watson went to Brown. They mentioned Brown in the article I read, and they didn’t mention where any of the other characters went to college. I looked Brown up, read about the history, the curriculum, all that stuff, so I knew that when the time came to apply to college, it would definitely be one of my options. It was one of many options; it wasn’t the option. But when I eventually looked at the pros and cons once college decisions came out, I decided that Brown would be the best fit.

What activities have you been involved in during your time at Brown?

Bonheur: AfriSA (African Students’ Association) for all of us.

Dee: Nothando and I are both in the Chemical Engineering one, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Nothando: I’m also in the National Society for Black Engineers and OJA! Modern African Dance. I work with the Office of Sustainability, Bonheur and I worked for Safewalk at Brown, and I was a mentor for the International Mentoring Program.

Bonheur: And I’m also a mentor this year for a sophomore mentoring program (MAPS).

How have your four years here been different from what you expected?

Dee: I don’t think I had expectations coming in. I was just, like, “Oh, let me go to university.” But it ended up being more challenging than I thought it would be, especially with engineering.

Bonheur: It’s been different in terms of the personal growth I’ve had; I think I took a 180 degree turn from the person I was coming in. Many of the core beliefs I had changed completely – which is a good thing, I think. From the academic side, I kind of knew what I wanted to do; it’s always been about development, better standards of living for second class citizens and understanding what an African concept/vision of development looks like. That hasn’t changed much – it’s just that the route that I took to get there has been different.

Nothando: For me, when I came to Brown, I thought I knew the type of person that I was, and I thought me being here over the four years would just reinforce that. But, I think, in many ways it hasn’t. I’ve changed in ways I didn’t expect. I didn’t have many expectations, but I never could’ve imagined I would be the person that I am right now.

What do you think you’ll miss about Brown?

Nothando: I’ll miss the carefreeness of being in college. For anything you go through that has been such a significant part of your life there’s a nostalgia attached to it, but I think I’m ready for the next step.

Dee: I’ll miss my friends – I’ll miss the conversations at Brown and the people.

Bonheur: I’m going to be here next spring, so I think this is not yet the time to answer this question.

Bonheur, do you think next year will be different?

Bonheur: I’m going to go abroad in the fall, so that’s going to be very different. But I’m also going to intentionally make my spring semester more fun. I’m working on it.

What is your best memory at Brown?

Bonheur: The time we spend in our house – we all live together. That’s definitely been one of the highlights. It’s definitely spiced up my life at Brown.

Dee: I also agree that living with you guys has been one of the highlights. Also, AfriSA freshman year was such a safe space for me; I felt so comfortable. Coming into AfriSA, being around people who would just make jokes and laugh all the time – that was great.

Nothando: (laughs) I don’t think my highlight has come yet; it’s going to be when I walk out of the Van Wickle Gates.

Is there a class that you think Brown students really should take before they graduate? What has been the best class you’ve taken?

Dee: Development of Vaccines Against Infectious Diseases – it’s a biology class. The professor is great. It’s good information; I really liked it.

Bonheur: A sociology class called Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the Modern World by Jose Itzigsohn. It’s pretty much Race 101 in the U.S. It’s very relevant for people of color.

Nothando: Any class with Professor Anani. Also, Biology of Hearing in the neurology department. It’s great even for non-concentrators.

What food/dish do you miss from home?

Dee: I miss boerewors. It’s one of my favorites! I also really miss having some tripe.

Nothando: Mine is also tripe. They don’t have tripe here, so I miss that a lot. And ox liver – people here don’t really eat ox liver. And chicken feet.  

Bonheur: For me it’s something we call isombe, it’s cassava leaves. My mom knows how to make it so well! That’s what I miss the most.

What is your favorite restaurant in Providence?

Bonheur: Flames.

Dee: I like Den Den Cafe Asiana.

Nothando: Mine is one called Village Restaurant in Pawtucket – it has Nigerian food. I’m half Ghanaian, and the food is quite similar.

Do you have any advice for younger students?

Nothando: Ask for help. Don’t be scared to ask for help. I’m going to use an ‘I’ statement, but I wasn’t taught a lot of the time that if you’re struggling you should ask for help. Asking for help is very important, whether it’s with your academics, whether it’s with financial issues, or whether you feel sick physically or mentally. At Brown, there are people whose job is to help students. Also, not comparing yourself to other folks. I think there’s a lot of pressure sometimes to be like the next person, whether it’s taking some courses or requirements, or because you don’t have an internship in this or that field. It’s easy to hear the people who are the loudest – those who say, “Oh, yeah, I have an internship in this big firm” or “I have this job.” But the truth is that the folks who are struggling are actually the majority and they won’t really say anything. So I think it’s really important to not succumb to that pressure.

Bonheur: I would add that you should ground yourself in things that really matter to you, especially those related to your heritage or from home. There are many things in the U.S. that contrast with what many international folks are used to, and I think that while it’s great to open and explore and get challenged, it is equally important to remain true to yourself and re-evaluate what’s valuable to you. And in addition to what Nothando said – know what’s available. Know what resources are at your disposal.

How has living here changed how you interact at home?

Nothando: I was reading NoViolet Bulawayo‘s book We Need New Names (she’s a Zimbabwean author) and the protagonist in the book is this Zimbabwean girl who comes to live in America. But she still has ties, obviously, to folks back home, and there’s a scene that I always remember where she calls her friends and she’s talking about what’s going on in the news about Zimbabwe and her friend on the other side says, “you have no claim to this place; it’s not your home anymore.” And we were unpacking it in class. That’s something that you hear even in real life, even if you don’t necessarily immigrate to another country, even if you just come and spend four years or however many other years. I think there needs to be a self-awareness about what your positionality is when you do go back home. Even personally for me, when I’m here in the U.S., I know that this isn’t my home, and that I don’t really belong, but sometimes when I go back home, and even though it’s home and the people are the same, I still feel like I don’t quite belong. And I think that’s something that can be shocking. But it’s a position you might have to get comfortable with; you might have to get comfortable with discomfort. They sometimes call it reverse culture shock – it’s something we need to be aware of as international students.

Dee: So far, whenever I go home, I haven’t been interacting much with my friends. I’ll go out with my family mostly. There’s a friend of mine who studies in the U.S. and we went to the same high school; I hang out with him most of the time. I’ve kind of just been avoiding it, because I don’t even know whether I’m going to move home eventually or stay in the U.S. So when I go back home I’m going to have to deal with all of that. So far, I’ve just been putting it off.  

At Brown, where did you find your strongest support system? Where were most of your friends? Where did you feel most comfortable?

Bonheur: For me, it’s been a combination of the AfriSA community and women of color, especially Black women. Also the U-FLI center. Although I don’t spend much time there, I appreciate the wave of change that it started. It has made it much easier for first-gen and low income students to talk about their struggle and get help.

Dee: The AfriSA community. Also, this is not even about people, but more about space: I’ve also spent a lot of time at the Global Brown Center and at the ISE (the international student’s lounge by Jo’s).

Nothando: AfriSA and Global Brown. I don’t necessarily know if they were support systems for me – I did find community there, but most of the time I ended up being the support system. But I do really appreciate the AfriSA community, and Global Brown is definitely awesome. I would really like to see in the future how it expands and grows; I think it’s a really useful resource to have. It’s almost funny, because I see the establishment of the Global Brown Center as making adjusting so much easier; it even makes interacting within other spaces that aren’t necessarily international easier, because you know you have a space to go back to. It’s kind of counter-intuitive if you think about it.