Students from southern and eastern Africa and their Spring Quarter experience on campus


Illustration by Emma Ruck

International students from Southern and Eastern Africa spoke to the challenges of living away from family amid the pandemic.

Nandipa Siluma, Reporter

For international students from southern and eastern Africa, the pandemic threatened to flip their worlds upside down. While they wrapped up Winter Quarter finals in March and received announcements encouraging students to move out, their families were thousands of miles from Evanston, in different time zones and often without adequate internet or health care. 

Now reflecting on the quarter, students who chose to stay on campus have said they gained valuable lessons and picked up coping skills while dealing with the stress of isolation.

On March 11, the University announced that Spring Break would be extended and courses would be held remotely for the first three weeks of Spring Quarter. The email also encouraged students to depart campus as soon as possible following final exams. 

In the following weeks, the Office of International Student and Scholar Services sent out a housing application form, where students interested in staying on campus provided information about their circumstances at home. Student Enrichment Services, which primarily works with first-generation and low-income students, also sent out an email highlighting how the organization was working to assist students with financial stress.

International students who could not return home were allowed to stay on campus, and the Foster-Walker Complex dining hall stayed open while school was in session. Students who could go home were given the necessary funds for travel, according to McCormick junior Ruramai Zimuto. Zimuto, who is from Zimbabwe, chose to stay in her dorm room throughout Spring Quarter.  

Zimuto said she believes the University has done everything possible to improve the situation.

“They are figuring things out as we go the same way we are also figuring them out, and for that I am grateful,” Zimuto said. 

Zimuto said she has learned a lot about gratitude: As the pandemic highlights the socioeconomic differences in communities, she is especially grateful for basic necessities she can count on every day. She compared her experience to families that are struggling to put food on the table with others showcasing their best lives on social media. 

“For us, because we go to school and are on a pretty significant financial aid, our lives haven’t been affected as bad,” Zimuto said. “But I know people who can’t even afford to pay rent anymore or put food on the table.”

Zimuto said she has been coping with the stress of isolation by watching TV shows, getting enough sleep and holding in-person conversations at least once a day. 

McCormick sophomore Refilwe Kebadireng, from Botswana, said she makes an effort to step out of her dorm room a few times a day and talk to someone “just for the sake of my sanity.”  

Kebadireng has come up with simple coping strategies. (Nandipa Siluma/The Daily Northwestern)

“Sometimes I just call my friend and put them on speaker while I do my assignments,” Kebadireng said. “That way I replicate the feeling of having someone else in the room.”

McCormick sophomore Mariam Muchai, from Kenya, picked up jogging at the beginning of this quarter and said it helps clear her head before she starts with her day.

Muchai said she has fears of facing this global pandemic alone in their dorm room away from her family. She said she has to pretend to be strong and “doing fine,” but in reality wishes she was with her family sometimes. 

“Sometimes I can not communicate clearly with my family because their internet connection will be poor,” Muchai said.

Jogging around campus has helped Muchai keep a clear head. (Courtesy Evans Dingwiza)

Weinberg sophomore Bengi Rwabuhemba, who is from Uganda, echoed similar thoughts about challenges that come with being away from her family. She said she wakes up in the silence of her dorm each day because of how empty campus has become and constantly worries about her family. In particular, Rwabuhemba said she wonders whether her family is safe and “when the next time I will see them will come around.”

Rwabuhemba said she gets her sense of normalcy from listening to the person who cleans her dorm every morning singing and from engaging in conversations with the dining staff. She said she recognizes the great risk working poses to Northwestern employees, and is grateful they come in every day to cook and clean. 

“It is a mental fight that we have to engage in. For some people, reaching out is not something that comes naturally, but in this case, we have to force ourselves. I also listen to music from back home a lot. It gives that familiar atmosphere which brings comfort,” Rwabuhemba said.

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Twitter: @nandipasiluma

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