Black History Month: Emerging student org helps Africans connect, 'feel among'
When Adebisi Bashorun came to University of Houston-Clear Lake from Lagos, Nigeria, to begin her master’s degree, she found a welcoming environment, but wanted to make the challenges of transitioning to American college life a little easier for international students like herself. Her solution: create a community of her own.
“There has never been an African Students Association on this campus, so I have helped to create one that started in 2019,” she said. “I envisioned an organization with African and African American students, to have activities of common interest. I wanted there to be an organization where African students can feel as one with the others.”
The ASA is separate from the Black Student Association, but plans to collaborate. “We have 29 members in the ASA, some of which are African American and other internationals who come from Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana,” Bashorun said. “When I got here, there were a number of organizations on campus that made me feel welcome, but I didn’t meet anyone like me—an international black student with a craving for a feeling of community.”
Now that the organization exists, she said that international students as well as their parents are very happy. “This is for any African who’s looking for a place to feel ‘among,’” she said.
Professor of Healthcare Administration Femi Ayadi become the ASA's first adviser because she felt a particular connection to this group of students. "I am originally from Nigeria too, and I also went through the process of being an international college student," she said. "When I was in college, I was very active in the ASA. That gave me the understanding for the need for this organization at UHCL."
She added that she's one of the few native African faculty members at UHCL. "For me, it's right that I should be the faculty adviser for this organization," she said. "I understand there's a yearning to relate to others who are also in a foreign country, and finding ways to remember your own culture. It helps with the homesickness."
Lecturer in Criminology Comeka Anderson Diaz became the organization's second faculty adviser partly because she knew the emerging student organization needed one, but also because of her own strong connection to Ghana.
“When I encountered ASA members at the Student Organization Fair last year, I had a wonderful time chatting with some Nigerian students and found out we had so many commonalities, so I was happy to step in as co-adviser,” she said. “Students have so much to gain from being in this organization. There’s a great opportunity to exchange ideas and to learn there’s more than one way to find solutions. Different people have different perspectives and it’s a chance to learn something new.”
ASA events over the last year included an Afro Zumba class and a panel discussion of black professionals in STEM-related fields. “We also have bi-weekly association meetings where we talk about issues relating to us as Africans in America, and we provide member support,” Bashoroun said.
The organization has also gained the support of the office of Education Abroad and Scholar Services, which sponsored the panel event, in helping students connect to new educational opportunities. “At that event, we had an education abroad table highlighting the programs and opportunities we have for study and internships in Africa, specifically in the STEM field,” said Bianca Schonberg, UHCL’s executive director of Education Abroad and Scholar Services. “Students interested in the oil and gas industry can find excellent opportunities in Nigeria and Angola. There is a great deal of State Department funding available for American students to study in Africa, and governments and universities are very welcoming.”
There’s a significant African population in Houston, Schonberg added. “Because of the strong oil and gas connection we share, we are building upon that with embassies and the community when we bring African students here,” she said. “Students interested in environmental sciences can study or find internships in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda or South Africa. I have a database filled with partner providers who can help me find an internship or study abroad program almost anywhere in the world, and we’re continuing to work on a very active outreach toward Africa.”
Director of International Admissions and Student Services Johna McClendon said that UHCL is recruiting students from all over the world, with some special new initiatives focusing on Africa. “We are currently leveraging the relationship that UHCL has already established with the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya,” she said.
USIU-Africa is accredited in the U.S., making for a partnership filled with opportunities between the two universities for students on both sides.
McClendon said that her team is ready to help acclimate students for life at UHCL before their arrival, and to continue communicating with them about keeping their visa status maintained and about their option to get work authorization off campus in their area of study, and to facilitate internships. “We also work closely with the Office of Student Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to connect students with international programming when they arrive in the U.S.,” she said.
“Overall, joining this organization can make a big difference for an African student,” said Anderson Diaz. “It’s a place to find camaraderie. It helps your spirit when you interact with people who are similar, and it takes away a little of the homesickness. It gives students a way to find a place in a bigger community, but also find warmth and comfort and things that are familiar to them.”
Learn more about the African Student Association in this video interview.