My Story: Reflecting on my Freshman Year and COVID-19

My name is Nathaniel Goku. I come from a small farming community in the Volta region of Ghana, where I was raised by my aunt. In 2018, I was awarded the Ashinaga Africa Initiative scholarship to pursue a university degree. I am currently a sophomore at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where I am studying Biomedical Engineering. I hope to go back to my country one day and help cure viral diseases.

The COVID-19 pandemic came as a surprise to many of us and as a result, our efforts and goals for the spring semester and beyond were put on a different trajectory. One of the biggest impacts this pandemic had on us is that it changed the way we learned. For me, this was the first time I had to learn remotely, and I had no experience with taking classes online. Thus, I had a great difficulty adjusting and adapting to remote learning.

Emotionally, I was stressed out for most of the time and it was no help that during the last months of my freshman year (April, May and June) New York became an epicenter for surging cases, leading stress to turn into fear. But I found some solace in music to help deal with the stress. The song, “Coming from the Cold” by Bob Marley helped me cope with some of my uncertain thoughts.

Thankfully, my fear of contracting the virus dwindled as New York state started seeing positive results through quarantines and social distancing. But my anxieties were rekindled by another fear after the death of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and the unrest that followed. As an international student, there’s a lot that I need to learn about race-relations and policing in America, but as a Black person, I found myself fearful that I could be a victim of police brutality at any moment in my stay in the United States. I was scared of even going out for a walk alone; I was scared of the police.

The pandemic and the unrest that followed the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery affected me in all aspects: psychologically, socially, emotionally and academically. I was shattered for a while. I could not comprehend what was going on around me in this new country. And due to the uncertainties that many colleges including mine were and still are having, as the spring term was getting close to the end, anxieties about food and accommodation started settling in.

Luckily, Union College, as many colleges and universities did, supported international and other students who couldn’t leave campus during the pandemic with food and accommodation. Additionally, I was awarded emergency funding from the Institute of International Education to last me throughout the summer. I am thankful for the initiatives my college has taken to make sure that we’re safe and sound.

In addition to advocating for myself and others to get the funding we needed, I learned to attend office hours as frequently as possible and also to join peer reviews and discussions. This made remote learning easier to adjust to as time went on.

I also developed a much-needed self-care skill. I always want to look ‘presentable,’ but in the midst of the pandemic, the majority of shops, including barber shops, were closed. My hair was unkempt. Back home in Ghana, I had already started experimenting with barbering by styling my friends, but I had never tried it on myself. So, I decided to try it out and to my surprise, I did a good job. This small skill has significance, because it is allowing me to save a lot of money.

After the end of my first year in college and the United States, I realized the importance of utilizing the resources around me: for my academics, my social needs, and my wellbeing in general.

Finally, using my learnings from this year, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice for any incoming international students:

  • College can be a fun experience if you always plan ahead. I thought I had a lot of time but in reality, there is no time to waste.
  • I learned that I should choose friends wisely. I value friends who can give me constructive criticism. Those friends are rare to find but last for a lifetime.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but make sure you learn from them so that they don’t jeopardize your future.
  • Ask questions because that is the way to get answers to your worries.