Far From Campus or Far From Home: A Pandemic Winter Break Wears on Two Berkeley Students From Africa

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UC Berkeley grad student Abdoul Aziz Sandotin Coulibaly, from the Ivory Coast, is stuck in Berkeley for the holidays. (Courtesy Abdoul Aziz Sandotin Coulibaly)

When the UC Berkeley campus shuts down for the winter break, student Abdoul Aziz Sandotin Coulibaly usually returns home to spend the holidays with his family in the western Ivory Coast city of Man.

"We follow the traditional way," Coulibaly said to KQED about his family holiday traditions in Africa. "Just getting some chicken, and then cook and eat together."

But not this year.

The 23-year-old graduate student studying for a Ph.D. in structural engineering is stuck in Berkeley because of the pandemic.

"It has been hell," Coulibaly said. "I never really thought I would have to go through something like that. And especially alone."

With cases of the coronavirus increasing around the globe and a no-travel advisory in full force across the Bay Area, many people are making the difficult choice to spend the holidays without family and friends. But for international students like Coulibaly, who infrequently see their families throughout the school year due to distance and cost of travel, it’s an especially bittersweet time.

Coulibaly ultimately made the decision to stay in the Bay Area due to the complicated travel guidance both here and at home, and because of concern about the spread of the virus.

Life at UC Berkeley has never been easy. Coulibaly has been at the school for a while. But while he made many friends as an undergrad, they’ve mostly all graduated and moved on, while he stayed behind.

"So starting the grad program, I really felt isolated," he said.

And the pandemic has only made those feelings of isolation worse.

While being an international student in the U.S. can be difficult overall, the situation is particularly acute for African students at Berkeley. There are only around 60 students from Africa at the school right now — about 1% of the international student population — and half of those are undergraduates. With such a small population, it can be hard to connect with people who have shared life experiences, especially during a pandemic.

UC Berkeley 2020 international student enrollment by country (Courtesy Berkeley International Office)

At the same time, Coulibaly said it’s been tough to fit in with Berkeley’s Black and African American student groups.

"Even with the people that look like you, you don't really understand the struggle that they have been through being in this country," Coulibaly said.

While Coulibaly has a generous scholarship, he’s had to work side jobs on campus to send extra cash back home to his family in the Ivory Coast, though this type of work is currently on hold while the school is closed for winter break.

He's also been navigating issues of racism and discrimination on campus, like the time he overheard a couple of students say they would never date a Black guy.

"I never experienced that before coming to the United States," he said.

Coulibaly said he’s reached out to his campus counselor and psychiatrist for help. But he wishes he could get more emotional support from his family. He said there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues in his home country.

"The way mental health is taken back home, just like 'you will be fine' or 'it’s going to pass' and stuff like this. So I had a lot of breakdowns," he said.

Right now, Coulibaly said, he’s just focused on getting through the holiday.

"I'm listening to African music from home and cooking. That's all I can do," he said. "And I'm hoping that this situation gets better and be at least able to go home next winter break."

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Remote Learning, Thousands of Miles Away

Unlike Coulibaly, many of the international students that chose to enroll this year haven’t even set foot on campus because of the pandemic.

Roughly one-sixth of UC Berkeley’s student population comes from outside the U.S. And they pay more than twice as much in tuition fees and living expenses as their in-state counterparts. International student enrollment was at an all-time high during the last academic year, at nearly 7,000 students. But the numbers plunged for the fall 2020 semester, down to less than 6,000.

And getting a remote education has come with a whole different set of challenges.

UC Berkeley international student enrollment over the years (Courtesy Berkeley International Office)

"It's just been a roller coaster, basically," said Idris Muktar Ibrahim, a journalism student.

Ibrahim said he'd prefer to be on campus. But since UC Berkeley classes have been happening online during the pandemic, it made more sense for him to stay in Nairobi.

"I haven’t been to Berkeley. I was really excited, like, when I got the news that I’ve been accepted," he said. "It’s my dream. I really want to do a graduate program, because of the networking and, of course, enhance my skills.”

But going to school remotely means dealing with the 11-hour time difference between his home in Nairobi and the U.S. west coast. Ibrahim’s classes on Zoom typically begin at around 7 p.m. Nairobi time and run till 2 or 3 in the morning.

UC Berkeley journalism student Idris Muktar Ibrahim is currently studying from Nairobi. (Courtesy Idris Muktar Ibrahim)

He said he plans to spend most of this holiday season recovering from the fall semester.

"I'm sleeping, first of all," he said.

The 28-year-old scholarship student also said he's been hammered by intermittent tech outages.

"In the middle of class, the power goes off, or there's no internet," Ibrahim said. "I miss a lot of the lectures and the discussions. It really frustrates me."

All this after working a full shift at his day job, producing video news stories for the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle — like this one commemorating the anniversary of an Ethiopian Airlines flight crash.

As if things weren’t already hard, Ibrahim came down with COVID-19 at the start of the fall semester.

"I thought I was dying, to be honest with you," Ibrahim said.

Since then, he's made a full recovery, and decided to quit his day job so he can focus full time on his studies.

"It's a sacrifice," he said — one of many he has to make this holiday season.

He hopes to make it to the UC Berkeley campus sometime next year.

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