What Nobody Says About Studying Abroad While Black: It Kinda Sucks, and Here's Why

Danai Nesta Kupemba
·5 mins read
Young woman reading book in apartment window during COVID-19 isolation
Young woman reading book in apartment window during COVID-19 isolation

My sister and I were obsessed with the movie EuroTrip growing up. Granted, it was a bit raunchy for us as we were both younger than 14, but there's a part in the beginning of the movie where a band sings the infamous song "Scottie Doesn't Know." Whenever my sister and I reunited after her stints in boarding school, we sang that song so loud my throat would burn from the sheer strength and excitement afterward. Through this bond with my sister and the movie we loved so much, I felt a deep desire to someday travel to Europe. I dreamt of being the beautiful, mysterious foreigner on unknown terrain.

As soon as I started college in South Africa, I immediately started researching the different exchange programs and spoke to countless students who had gone before me about visas, flights, and everything in between. I felt adequately prepared. And while I knew racism was a possibility I could face when I went to Europe, I assured myself that if I could handle South Africa, I could handle anything. The racism in South Africa was still fresh as the country was only newly desegregated and, under pretense, thought of itself as a rainbow nation, yet racial tension and iniquity continue to ravage the country. I thought I had dealt with every possible microaggression, from "You speak so well" to "I understand why you have white friends." I had endured comments that made me incredibly conscious of my race from every side of the racial lines, so I thought I could handle anything I faced since I had already faced the worst, but boy, was I wrong.

I went an entire week without seeing a single Black person, and it made me feel suffocated by loneliness.

I made the decision to go on an exchange program to England, and when I landed in Manchester, I immediately felt like a foreigner, but not in a good way. I had lived in England before when I was younger, so I assumed I knew exactly what to expect. The England of my youth and the England I currently faced felt drastically different. Where I imagined myself constantly surrounded by friends and going out on the town, I found myself crippled with anxiety and too scared to even leave my room. Lost in a sea of white faces, I couldn't find ways to truly connect with people. I went an entire week without seeing a single Black person, and it made me feel suffocated by loneliness.

When I eventually decided to start leaving my room and combat my anxiety, I found myself opening up to one of my roommates. I would usually catch him in the kitchen at night slightly drunk while I was making hot chocolate. I would make him a cup and we would talk for ages. I felt like I had finally found a friend. But then one day when we were talking like usual, he looked me straight in the face with a bit of a smirk and said, "I think colonialism was a good thing." Each word felt like a strike on each cheek. I had no words. He continued his barrage of ignorance as he stated that Zimbabwe (my home country) would have no currency, no infrastructure, and no farming if it had not been for the British coming in and "helping" my ancestors.

My anger quickly subsided to pity, as I looked at him and realized the British education system had failed him deeply. The words still stung, but at that moment I realized how pervasive racism in Britain was. He knew nothing of his own ancestors' failings, but with the thought of mine, he saw them as inferior, stumbling imbeciles who needed to be saved. In South Africa, racism is a thick smog that hangs over you, and in England, it's like trying to put a Band-Aid on a burst pipe and then saying, "Look! We fixed it," all the while the pipe continues to drip.

Related: Taking a Gap Year Was the Best Thing I've Ever Done - Here's Why

That moment in the kitchen angered me, but it also made me ask myself, "So what if I don't end up being the mysterious, beautiful foreign girl? I can make my own path for myself." So I did. I forced myself out of my shell and began leaving my room more and more. I went to Leeds and walked along the high street. I went to Nottingham and fell in love with the city. I even found a passion for loose tea leaves. I did what I traveled to England to do: find my own adventures. And although I still sometimes felt hostility outside of my apartment when I felt cold eyes follow me in a shop or guarded smiles from a retail person, I also felt free. And I also met authentic, honest people who I still talk to whenever I can. These girls inspired me to be bold, daring, and unapologetic in who I am - something I would've never dreamed of being before. They helped push me out into worlds I never thought were meant for me, such as chasing my dream of being a journalist with intention and determination. I'm so grateful I met them.

Although my time abroad was nothing like EuroTrip - and let's be honest, whose study abroad lives up to all their expectations regardless of race? - what matters is that I kept going despite the bumps in the road. I am the only person responsible for my happiness, and after a rocky start, I chose it. And I'm so glad I did.