The Birth of Integrate: A New Opportunity for International Students

In Southern Africa inhabitants from the Zululand have a saying, “One cannot cross a river without getting wet”. My American friend wittingly said to me after reading it, “Yeah you can, it’s called bridges and boats!” This 16th century adage laced with wisdom is getting to something that has been prevalent in my journey that is deeper (no pun intended) than crossing a river. It is saying that anything that you venture into will have its battles and challenges. There is no way to progress as an individual and get to the other side without facing these battles and challenges. If you do not venture into anything, you do not gain anything.

With this in mind, and after experiencing battles and challenges as an international student, I wanted to create something that would help others be equipped for their battles and challenges to get to the other side. But first, a story.

It was the coldest winter I had ever experienced by over 30 degrees Fahrenheit/10 degrees Celsius. Clocks had already been changed to create the illusion of more time in the day. Who knew that societies had the actual power to dial a clock back or forward to suit their daylight preferences? Until that winter, I didn’t. Even with that adjustment of time, this morning was like every other winter morning in Llandovery – dim and quiet in the small village characterized by medieval origins. Surrounded by farms and mountains, Llandovery sits in the valleys of Wales, which seemed far away from the rest of the country, let alone the rest of the world. Unless you can navigate your way interpreting the Welsh signposts, the village was easy to miss on country travels.

This particular morning, after two months in Llandovery College, I felt very far from the sun-favored Zimbabwe, my home. Don’t get me wrong, I had enjoyed each and every moment thus far learning from this passionate culture and people that refer to their home as “God’s Country.” However, it had been a long time since I had experienced anything from my own home, things like the flavorful food, rich culture or beautiful language. Even my thoughts were shifting to the foreign English.

Later that day for lunch, lamb chops from the local farms were served. Wales is proud of this meat and it is borderline unavoidable with the sheep count of the country outnumbering the humans 3 to 1. But deep down I was in conflict as lamb is my family totem. It represents my family name. In Zimbabwe, we are forbidden in our culture to eat our totems as it incurs misfortune on yourself. Sitting down at the table surrounded by my new friends as a visitor in their country, this was my first internal battle of integration. And to them, it was just another normal meal with a food they didn’t think twice about inhaling. It was a moment where I realized the great divide of my upbringing, the culture I was integrating into and the ongoing mental battles that would continue as I continued my foray outside Zimbabwe. The simplicity of the moment almost made it seem more dramatic, as it was nothing extraordinary and yet sitting there, I didn’t quite know what to say or do next.

International students around the world migrate away from their families, cultures and familiar support systems to the unfamiliar for numerous reasons ranging from seeking a better tomorrow to experiencing new adventure. My reason was to see the world. I used my athletic abilities and savored the opportunities to live in different countries. This is why I ended up playing and living in the best rugby school in Wales – and sitting at that table with lamb in front of me. Travelling from country to country as an athlete and as a student was an enriching experience that gifted me with different platforms to express the person I am and learn more about the person I one day want to be.

Being immersed in these elevating experiences of travel and exposure to new cultures and surroundings, I was however still saturated with the wrestle of expressing my heritage, culture and identity with engaging new cultures. This is a difficult internal battle that many students attempt to meet without the necessary tools or support to make the most out of their experiences, let alone talk about it. My purpose and values have always been guided towards converting my own opportunities into platforms for others to express themselves. So, I did just that this past year whilst working for the Barry-Wehmiller Leadership Institute (BWLI).

The environment at BWLI and its embodying resources, people and culture was the ideal soil to sow seeds of creation and impact, and for me, that was creating a workshop for international students to feel seen and understood. After presenting the idea to my leaders – and by that, I mean pitching it wholeheartedly to the Managing Partner over lunch, hoping she didn’t think I had lost it – it was received by the empowering reply of “How can we help you?” No doubt, only support. We say here at BWLI that there is a great responsibility of leadership – and in that moment, I felt the weight of that responsibility being taken seriously by Sara Hannah. It is a feeling I will never forget and hope to work towards as an aspiring leader myself.

Being unleashed to serve what was closest to my heart, the soil bore “Integrate,” a workshop geared towards engaging international students with new cultures. Its’ purpose? First, create a platform where students can share their personal interactions with the sometimes-difficult challenge of being away from home. Second, offer leadership tools and a framework of what it actually looks like to integrate into a new culture without losing your identity or culture and make the most of the experience. The workshop, held at Lindenwood University last fall, showed the immense power of sharing stories and journeys as we went through the curriculum talking about curiosity and cultural empathy. This power was not just felt by the students, but it deeply impacted myself as I facilitated.

For the first time, I was hearing I was not alone as the students and I spoke in solidarity to this integration challenge. It brought me back to that table, that lamb meal, that feeling of being noticed but not seen, that homesickness that permeated every moment away from my homeland. What I had felt living in Durban, the United States and Llandovery that winter morning around the table was not just me. I had just normalized it over time. This is thousands of students every year who are trying to feel at home in a new place, amongst new people. It is my hope that one day the table is bigger to fit an even more diverse group but instead of lamb, there is a meal from everyone’s home, shared among all. My hope is that one day international students can feel more integrated.