UC Berkeley graduate student Abdoul Aziz Sandotin Coulibaly. (Courtesy Abdoul Aziz Sandotin Coulibaly)
Abdoul Aziz Sandotin Coulibaly has seen plenty of riots and civil unrest in his native Ivory Coast. But the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol this week shocked and saddened the 23-year-old UC Berkeley graduate student.
"I am not really sure if there will be any real inclusion or acceptance of diversity or end to racism in this country," he wrote in an email to KQED. "Despite the constant praise of the U.S. as being a country that upholds democracy, this is a clear statement that the U.S. today is like a developing country – susceptible to coups and such actions."
For international students like Coulibaly, attending school in the U.S. – and especially California – has long been held up as a dream. The state's universities draw people from all over the world, many of whom arrive on these shores full of notions of inclusivity, openness and opportunity. Grappling with the caustic political climate is one challenge Coulibaly and fellow students from Africa studying at UC Berkeley have faced.
Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is another.
"It has been hell," said Coulibaly. "I never really thought I would have to go through something like that. And especially alone."
Sustained by Dreams of California, Met With a Different Reality
Coulibaly was just a little kid when civil war broke out in Ivory Coast in the early 2000s. Coulibaly said his family was forced to flee their home in the western city of Man as a militia swarmed in. It was a terrifying time – but the war subsided and life went on. Coulibaly was a good student, so he was sent to the capital city when he was just 13 years old to get a better education.
"Leaving my family, especially my mom, was extremely hard," he said.
He said what kept him going as a teenager in the big city all alone was the far-off dream of going to school in California.
"That was what was in my mind – the place where diverse people support each other and come together and flourish," he said.
Coulibaly was thrilled to get a scholarship to UC Berkeley as an undergrad. But he said it didn’t take long for his expectations to part ways with reality. One day at the library, he overheard a couple of fellow students saying they would never date a Black guy.
"That day really, really like broke that idea of diversity that I had in my heart," he said.
On top of the racism he’s experienced on campus, Coulibaly said his life experiences don't necessarily match up with those of the members of the school’s Black student groups.
"Even with the people that look like you, you don't really understand the struggle that they have been through while being in this country," he said.
When Coulibaly started studying for his doctorate in engineering this past fall, most of the friends he’d made as an undergrad had finished their degrees and moved on.
"So starting the grad program, I really felt isolated," he said.
He 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 gonna pass' and stuff like this," Coulibaly said. "So I had a lot of breakdowns."
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.
Other than going out for occasional runs and bike rides, Coulibaly spends most of his time indoors. He said he’s just focused on getting through the next few months.
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 (and one-seventh of the overall UC system student population) comes from outside the United States. 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 Berkeley, 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.
"It's just been a roller coaster, basically," said Idris Muktar Ibrahim, a master's in journalism student at UC Berkeley who's been studying remotely from Kenya.
And that wild ride began during orientation when he came down with COVID-19.
"I thought I was dying," Ibrahim said.
The 28-year-old scholarship student didn’t immediately seek medical help because he said there’s a culture of shame around the virus.
"So I kept it to myself," he said. "I didn't tell family. I didn't tell anyone."
Ibrahim eventually regained his health. But he continued to struggle, trying to keep up a day job to help put his siblings through school, at the same time as studying in the face of constant power and internet outages. And that's to say nothing of the 11-hour time difference between his home in Nairobi and the U.S. west coast.
Ibrahim's journalism classes on Zoom typically begin at around 7 p.m. his time and run until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.
"I would start the class like, high momentum, high energy," he said. "But by the time it's midnight, I'm like out. I'm done. I can’t even concentrate."
He recently decided to quit his day job, working as a reporter for the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, so he can focus full time on his studies.
"It's a sacrifice," he said.
But Ibrahim is nothing if not a survivor. He grew up in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s toughest neighborhoods.
"I think it made us mature at a very early age," Ibrahim said. "We were forced to be adults when we were supposed to be kids."
He said crime was an everyday occurrence. Ibrahim was in high school when his father – who had instilled in his son a love of books – was murdered by gang members.
"That was like my turning point," Ibrahim said. "And I started writing."
He started submitting video stories about crime in his neighborhood to local news outlets and eventually started working regularly as a reporter, covering difficult topics like the widespread rape of Kenyan women and plane crashes.
Ibrahim said he’s witnessed a lot of violence in Africa. But he’s worried about what’s in store for him in the United States.
"I've never been made aware of my skin color," he said. "I've never been made aware of where I'm from, or opportunities, or being privileged or not being privileged."
Ibrahim said systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement have been a hot topic of discussion in his UC Berkeley journalism classes. But like fellow African student Coulibaly, he’s found it hard to relate.
"I couldn't actively participate in the discussion because I don't understand the context," he said. "I don’t relate the same to the issues."
The idea that he himself might be a target of racial violence frightened Ibrahim for a while.
"It's one of the reasons that got me thinking, like, do I really want to do this? Do I really want to move to America?" he said.
Despite his fears, Ibrahim has decided to come to the U.S. anyway. There’s something about what Berkeley, in particular, represents that’s pulling him.
COVID-19-related travel restrictions permitting, he just found out he’ll be flying out next week – in time for the start of the spring semester.
"Berkeley, I've always read, is a liberal university, is a center of democracy and protests," he said. "So I want to see this for myself."