Smooth Transitions…

“Hi. My name is Senzeni.”

I stretched my hand expectantly towards the tall bespectacled Brazilian freshman on my right. Instead of taking it and shaking it profusely as I expected, he gasped and  stared at me incredulously.

“You ARE Senzeni?” he asked, his question punctuated with a thousand exclamation marks. “Are you the Senzeni from Zimbabwe?”

I nodded and licked my lips nervously. As far as I knew, I was not  related to anyone in the Brazilian mafia. Neither had I submitted any works to be reviewed by the Pulitzer Prize Panel nor had I appeared on Rede Globo, the famous Brazilian TV Channel. At the  time, I was just a simple Zimbabwean freshman, who in true freshman spirit, was trying to maximize Freshman Orientation week by meeting as many people as possible. Other than accidentally setting off a couple of alarms, I had not done anything that would make anyone’s face light up with recognition at the mention of my name.

“I am Paulo! USAP Brazil!” He announced.

As if on cue, we screamed with excitement. We hugged, held hands and jumped about in pure delight. He fired a barrage of questions at me, and  I counteracted them with my own. Then we stepped back and laughed at ourselves and at the faces of the bemused people around us whose heads kept turning in our direction.

Paulo and I applied to Yale under the USAP (U.S. Student Achievers) program. Started in Zimbabwe in 1999, the USAP program seeks to identify outstanding, academically motivated individuals from low income backgrounds who demonstrate great leadership potential and ethos of giving back to their communities. USAP students are given financial, academic and emotional support to help them gain admission into top US tertiary institutions.

I have found that, more than just a program, USAP is a global community of scholars who are passionate about knowledge and the welfare of those around them. It is a diverse family of people who dare to dream, and when they wake up, put their dreams into action.

USAP now operates in fifteen countries, namely Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Latvia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mongolia, Nigeria, Serbia, South Africa, Uganda, the United Kingdom, Zambia, Zimbabwe. The successes of USAP students in one country are shared with the rest of the USAP family and hence meeting Paulo was just a matter of matching the face to the name.

A month into my freshman year, I discovered that quite  a significant number of my Kenyan friends had also received some form of institutional support during their application period through programs called Zawadi Africa and the Kenya Scholar Athlete Project (KenSAP). The goals of these programs are similar to those of USAP. However, Zawadi Africa is for girls only and KenSAP is for students with athletic potential from the Rift Valley region of Kenya. This is the area from which big names in athletics such as Kipchoge Keino and Henry Rono originate.

The benefits of being a part of these programs are phenomenal. Not only did Paulo and I look cool during Orientation as we discussed people who were known only by the two of us, but we were  also confident of what we were doing, thanks to the numerous workshops that all USAP students undergo to prepare them for life in the US.

I remember a time when all freshmen had to attend a reception with the Dean of the University. Formal attire was compulsory. I had been advised to carry formal clothing with me and hence I did not panic at this announcement. Sadly, the same could not be said for some of my colleagues who had solely relied on Google for advice on what to pack. As I watched a friend of mine shuffle uncomfortably in jeans, black sneakers, a shirt, tie and sports blazer, I swelled with gratitude towards all those people who work tirelessly to make these programs a success.

Editor’s Note: For more on your options when it comes to study abroad programs, look at our previous post about applying to exchange and study abroad programs.