Navigating Relationships in Ghana
My name is Alekhya and I am a third-year Biology and Society student at Cornell University minoring in Global Health. I am studying abroad for spring semester at the University of Ghana in Legon, right outside the capital city of Accra.
The past couple weeks have kept me busy, between figuring out my classes, settling into life at the International Students Hostel (commonly referred to as “ISH”) and applying for summer internships. But things are a bit calmer this week.
Even though the semester officially began three weeks ago, it feels I’m only now getting into the rhythm of classes. A lot of the classes that I’d planned to take conflicted with each other, so I had to start from scratch in creating my schedule. On top of that, each class only meets once a week and many professors don’t even show up in the first week. Thankfully the University of Ghana has a three-week shopping period, since I definitely needed the entire three weeks!
The university follows the British model of education, which is a lot more hands-off than what we as Americans are used to. Classes are entirely lecture-based, and students are expected to learn as much from independent readings as we are from the teacher. It’s definitely different from the critical thinking and active participation that’s demanded in the States, but I do enjoy having the time to actually read and prepare for class (which is always a struggle for me at Cornell).
Being a foreign student comes with its own set of challenges, from figuring out where to find readings (hint: it’s not online!) to understanding the expectations for assignments.
Being a foreign student comes with its own set of challenges, from figuring out where to find readings (hint: it’s not online!) to understanding the expectations for assignments. I had the biggest “fish out of water” moment last week during the lab section for my Public Health Zoology class, in which we had to observe and draw microscopic specimen of fleas, ticks and lice. Drawing has never been my strong suit, and three hours of drawing parasites in a stuffy lab (wearing a stuffy lab coat) wasn’t my idea of intellectual stimulation. I figured that at least it wouldn’t be too hard, but, boy, was I mistaken.
It took me 20 minutes of repeated squinting through the microscope to draw my first specimen, and another 20 minutes to re-do it after being told that my pencil line was all wrong. Apparently sketching is not an appropriate technique in zoological drawings (a “light, unbroken line” is preferred). Thankfully, my classmates were all very helpful in explaining how to properly draw and label the diagrams, and in cautioning me whenever I veered too much into sketching territory.
Despite taking classes alongside local students, one of the biggest challenges of the past few weeks has been breaking out of the international students’ bubble. I live in the International Students’ Hostel, ended up with an American roommate and have formed fast friends with the other Americans on my program. Never did I expect that making Ghanaian friends would be a challenge—after all, the number one thing I kept hearing about Ghanaian culture was how friendly the people are! While this is true, most of my classmates are also used to foreign students rotating through their classes each semester, so there’s not much of a novelty factor. I’ve also heard that since international students often sit and talk to each other in class (as is instinctual in an unfamiliar environment), it sometimes gives the unintended impression that we think we’re too good to talk to the Ghanaian students.
It was hard and uncomfortable to put myself out there in the beginning, but I’m glad that I made the extra effort.
All this means that the onus is on us to strike up conversations in class if we want to make friends. I’ve definitely had to push myself to be more extroverted than I usually am, and to not fall back on the other international students as a social crutch. It was hard and uncomfortable to put myself out there in the beginning, but I’m glad that I made the extra effort. I can already see a difference in my relationships with my classmates—when they see that I’m genuinely interested in talking and joking around with them, they really open up!
Interestingly, Hindi movies and television serials are quite popular in Ghana, so my classmates are often eager to ask me about Indian culture and my religion. I often feel hyper-visible as one of the only South Asian people on campus, but I do think my ethnicity has given me an advantage over the other American students when it comes to making friends.