College students often miss the comforts of home most during their first year, and for international students that comfort is much further away.
For Sampson Asare, president of the African Students’ Association at South Dakota State University, creating that feeling of home is not only vital for the group’s success, but also for international students’ academic and social well-being.
That’s why Asare makes sure members of the association greet every new African student at the Sioux Falls airport upon arrival. “We know how it feels to be so far away from home—in a new place and uncertain,” Asare said.
“That’s why students pick up new students at the airport, bring them to Brookings, and make sure they are comfortable and acclimated to the environment here.”
Six thousand miles from his home in Ejura, Ghana, Asare is adapting to life in Brookings. A graduate student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Asare is a first-generation high school and college graduate. He began his doctorate studies at State in fall 2012.
Asare grew up in the offshoot village of Kumasi with 70,000 residents, but said because of the condensed area, the town felt close-knit. His mother and father are farmers and grow corn, beans, yams and peanuts on the outskirts of town.
Asare and his seven siblings rode their bikes to help tend to the farm work on the weekends when they weren’t in school. His family also raises goats, sheep, pigs and chickens.
“My parents didn’t get a chance to go to school,” Asare said. “They made sure my siblings and I had a good education; that was the most important thing to them.”
Asare attended grade school near Ejura until he was 8, then left for a boarding school 30 miles away. He lived in a large, two-story dormitory and slept in an open room with many other children his age. “It’s a very common thing to do in Ghana,” Asare said.
“Parents who want their children to get a good education typically have their children attend a boarding school after their elementary years. My father always wanted to go to school, but couldn’t because of financial reasons, so he made sure all of us had that opportunity.”
When Asare was in boarding school, he decided to study science. The education system in Ghana requires students to choose an area of study in high school and pursue that through graduation, similar to choosing a college major in the U.S.
“I wanted to go into science, and really liked chemistry,” Asare said. “The challenge in that system is that some students do not recognize so early what they are interested in. Very often, if you have good parents and teachers, they will know your strengths and help you get started.”
Asare grew up in a quiet environment and said Brookings relates to his home in that way. “My parents wanted us to live in a quiet environment in order to teach us the right values in life.”
One of Asare’s concerns coming to the U.S. was finding a location with a low crime rate. “Every weekend my parents call and ask if it’s safe where I am,” Asare said. “They pay attention to the news over here and always call or text and make sure I am OK. I always tell them that Brookings is a safe and quiet place.”
Today, Asare is living much differently than he did growing up, but said he never forgets the values he learned from his family. “All of the children in my family ate from one bowl at meals—seven or eight of us ate out of a single bowl.”
Asare said his family was one of the rare households to own a television. “We were very fortunate because it was the 1980s and we didn’t have electricity. The TV was powered by battery and we lit our home with lanterns. We didn’t have a refrigerator, but it wasn’t really necessary because, in Ghana, the women of the house walk to an open market and get fresh food each day. If there are mealtime leftovers, they are sent to a neighbor.”
Asare misses Ghanaian food, although he can find much of it now in Brookings or Sioux Falls. “Where I come from, we ate fufu, cocoyam and plantains all of the time. Fufu is pounded yam or plantain and eaten with soup, and we ate that everyday of the week.
"The ripened plantains look like large bananas that we fried and ate; they do have them here, but they taste much different.” Asare said in Ghana, they eat much less meat, although they make meat kebabs for special occasions. His favorite American dish so far is a steak and mashed potatoes.
As for climatic differences, Asare said a friend warned him about the winters in the Midwest, but over the past four years, the weather has been much harsher than he expected.
For Asare, the biggest difference in culture between Ghana and the U.S. is that people tend to be more individualistic. “Back home, people in our village shared everything,” Asare said. “It seems like we were much more focused on group living. We lived in a large, open building that we shared with our family, extended family and members of the community—all who I consider family.
"It’s not strange to cook food and send it to someone else’s house. Often, grown family members who have moved out of the home will cook food and bring it to the house for a potluck-type meal. From what I can see, people in the U.S. are focused on their work and nuclear family, and that is OK.”
Asare said another cultural difference he noticed was the way in which elders are treated. “I’m not saying they are mistreated here, but in Ghana, if we saw an elderly person at the back of a line, they were given permission to cut the line, or if they were carrying something, someone would offer to help them carry it. It’s that notion that elders have served society, and now the younger generation should acknowledge that contribution.”
Asare said he also notices a difference in child rearing. “In Ghana, any adult is allowed to correct someone else’s child for wrongdoing,” Asare said. “Parents look out for the well-being of all children, and they don’t take offense to another adult correcting their child; they would actually thank them. I don’t think that is quite as accepted here.”
A feeling of ‘home’
Asare’s role as president of the African Students’ Association on campus allows him to connect and share stories with other African students. “We have a very active group and we meet at least once a month, sometimes twice."
Asare said the main objective of the association is to bring students together and create a feeling of home.
"We host Africa Night each year, and have guests come and talk about pertinent issues. For the majority of us, we need to better understand the immigration rules.
“If we want to stay and work, there are legal processes that need to be discussed. There are a few African students who want to return home after graduation, but an abundance of them plan on making a life in the U.S.”
Building a business back home
Asare plans on doing both. “I want to obtain some practical experience for a few years after graduation, but eventually plan on returning to Ghana and starting my own business,” he said.
Asare wants to start a company that provides services in chemical analysis, with the main part of the business being a service lab. “It’s something that’s very much needed back home in the area of food, pharmaceuticals, mining and academia,” Asare said.
Regulatory agencies require that certain compounds are absent in certain foods, drugs and oils, and Asare’s goal is to start a team that companies hire to make sure their products align with the government regulations. “Our staff would make sure mining companies aren’t polluting the waterways,” he said. “I know it’s a world issue and it’s hard to keep up with the amount of pollution and spillage happening, but it’s something that needs to be done. We want to make sure we can detect this spillage early to insure the safety of the community drinking water.”
In Africa, Asare said the universities generally have fewer resources than their U.S. contemporaries. “Universities are limited in the spectrum of research they can do, and that’s where academia would come into my business,” Asare said. “We would offer professors and students a place to come and conduct research related to chemical analysis and regulation.”
Despite cultural differences, Asare said Brookings and SDSU have been warm and welcoming to him, and from what he’s heard—all international students. “My experience could be unique since I am in the Midwest,” he said. “I have friends living in bigger cities who feel prejudice and judgement, but I don’t feel that in Brookings.
“Overall, we feel at home and depend on members of the association to remind us of our homes. We also have campus and community members who invite us to church or birthday parties—and that is very commendable and appreciated.”