By Andani Kholinar (YES ’07, Ghana, placed with AFS-USA in Silver Spring, MD)
Almost 15 years ago, as a 15-year old from a poor family in Northern Ghana, I first had my interaction with the U.S. Embassy in Ghana and the State Department through the YES program. This opportunity opened my small world to wider horizons through my experience of American life. My experience as a PhD student in Texas was a continuation of that intercultural exchange journey that began with the YES program. I've had to lean on some of the knowledge and skills from those exchange years to navigate my time as a graduate student in rural Texas.
I recently graduated with my PhD in English from Texas A&M University, College Station. My graduation is a culmination of my near 15-year experience with American people and America. And you all have had a strong hand in this success.
When I was coming to start my doctoral degree, one of the scariest statistics I learned was that up to 50% of PhD students quit before finishing. It was therefore with trepidation that I started my graduate degree at Texas A&M. And true to form, I saw some colleagues leave before they were able to finish. I had my moments. There were multiple times I thought about quitting. The lonesome nature of graduate school and its impact on mental health cannot be overestimated.
But I was able to stay the course thanks to several motivations and tools in my arsenal. Topmost among these were the support and encouragement from my mother, my father, and my elder brother all the way from Ghana. I'll always be grateful to my parents for this. My good friends Elias, Stephen, and Jacqueline have been absolutely critical to keeping my mental health in a good place to go through this program. I can't imagine having to do this without their support. My department was very helpful as my funding was extended to cover the extra year I needed to complete my studies. I can’t thank my supervisor, Dr. Nandra Perry, enough for believing in me and seeing me through this journey. She is the very best. But in addition to the people I've mentioned above, there are some adaptive skills that saw me through this program that deserve attention.
These life skills are the ones I learned during my time as a teenager on the U.S. State Department's YES Program. The intercultural skills I learned during that critical year of my life saw me through a challenging PhD journey. Having only experienced American life in the Northeast—Washington, D.C., New York, and Massachusetts—coming down south to the Lone Star State of Texas promised to be a challenge. But I had in hand my intercultural training from YES and AFS.
A week into moving into my apartment near the popular Northgate district in College Station, I took a leap to make friends and to get to know people in the town. While checking my mailbox, I took the opportunity to open up a conversation with two gentlemen who stood talking by the curb. It turned out to be the most important first step I could have taken on my PhD journey. The two gentlemen, both Aggies, ended up being members of a local church called Antioch. I immediately built a rapport with one of the gentlemen and today he remains one of my very best friends—a brother, truly. I simply took the initiative to get to know members of the community and it paid off more than I could have hoped.
I have been able to visit ranches, go to shooting ranges, and pick wild pecans in rural Texas. I've patted horses and cows. I've spent multiple Christmases and Thanksgiving in rural Texas homes. In short, my time in graduate school was enriched because, like my YES exchange experience, I had a family here in the U.S. away from my family back in Northern Ghana.
I have grown to respect rural Texans. I've grown to love them because I've been invited to their homes, talked politics with elderly white ladies, talked school with judges, talked life with a surrogate mother (like my two other “moms”, she always packed extra food for me when it was time to go back to campus), and went fishing in the pond and on the coast. I thoroughly loved my time in Texas more than I expected and it all has to do with adopting a family like it was another YES year. My friend is more like a brother to me now. I was lucky enough that he got the opportunity to visit Ghana and my family in Tamale. He is the first person my mother asks about when she calls. My mother loves him a lot. They call him my "white giant." He also gave me a brother and an amazing sister in-law, as well as amazing nieces.
The Antioch church was also instrumental to my great time here in Texas. As someone from a Muslim background, and having gone through YES, it was organic for me to accompany my friend to church services just like I did with my host family during my YES years in Washington, D.C. Antioch provided a loving community to a stray like me, lost in the den called graduate school.
All I can say is that I believe I'm going to miss my buddy and his family (now my family) when I leave Texas. But I leave with a contented heart. I am leaving with a doctoral degree. I'm leaving knowing that I have a family here. I have brothers and nieces and a sister in-law and a father and a mother. They will stay with me through the memories we made together. Hopefully I'll have the opportunity to see them periodically as I embark on this next phase of my life teaching college in Ghana. Like YES taught me, our experiences during the exchange years must remain with us for the rest of our lives.
I am also currently raising funds for computer equipment for the Sang Community Day School in rural Ghana. Visit the Facebook page to learn more about the school and donate if you can.
NB: I recently changed my name to Andani for cultural reasons. Most YES alumni know me as Umar.