“I wish someone had expressed to me the reality of being a foreign student in South Africa so that I could have been better prepared. I presumed that because I was going to a university in Africa there wouldn’t be a drastic difference between where I was coming from and where I was going. I did not know what to expect going to university but I was immediately overwhelmed when I walked onto the campus because there were so many people from so many contrasting walks of life and I immediately felt out of place.
Back then I was not yet fully aware that I suffered from anxiety and depression. What I was sure of was I did not know exactly who I was or who I wanted to be. I hoped that I would find myself at university because this was the first time in my life that I had complete autonomy. I had the freedom to choose what modules I wanted to do, what societies I was going to join and who my friends would be. I have always been a control freak (which in hindsight was one of the early signs of my anxiety). But what I forgot to consider was even though I was making my own choices and decisions, there would be so many other factors at play that I could not control.
I hadn’t even been at university for more than two weeks before I realised that even though I was black (something that I assumed would be an advantage), I was not the right type of black. I went to borrow a book from the library and once I started talking I was met with a quick “you aren’t South African, are you?” to which I replied no because I didn’t think it mattered what my nationality was. I continued to speak but I was interrupted again with a “so you’re from Zimbabwe then?”, to which I replied no again, after which the person behind the counter immediately lost interest in our conversation. It felt like now that she knew I was neither from South Africa or Zimbabwe, I was no longer worth her time. I tried not to let it get to me but that incident reinforced my fears that I was out of place and I started to fear that I may never find my place.
Things got worse as the year went on. During tutorial sessions, I’d find myself left out of a lot of discussions because students would fall into cliques in which communication was usually done in a local Southern African language which meant I could not engage. Often, the only person in the sessions I could interact with was the tutor which only increased the divide between my classmates and myself. I found it hard to make friends with people in my lectures which made attending class extremely uncomfortable for me. I slowly found myself getting more and more anxious about going to class because I felt that none of my contributions would be taken seriously. Every morning I’d wake up dreading another day of feeling insignificant and inconsequential in my contributions during lectures and tutorials. I eventually got to the point where I figured there was no point in attending lectures anymore.
When I realised I was not going to have the kind of academic impact I expected, I turned to my social life. Seeing as I had failed to make friends in class, I thought I’d have more success in more social settings. I tried to get more involved in some of the societies on campus but then I found that the same cliques we had in our lectures carried on in social gatherings too. The fact that I was not well versed in Shona, Ndebele, isiXhosa or Zulu, meant that again I couldn’t take part in many discussions with other black students. Cultural differences made it difficult for me to connect with white students; we came from such divergent backgrounds that even when a connection was formed, it was never deep enough to cultivate a friendship. The second problem I faced was that even when discussions were in English, my opinion was disregarded because I was not South African. Any discussions on issues at the university and on political and social issues in South Africa were discussions I was left out of because my opinion had no bearing. I therefore found myself feeling like an outcast everywhere I went.
Before I could grasp what was happening to me, I became an emotional wreck. Each day my self-esteem was taking a beating either in class or outside class. I’d wake up each day sick to my stomach with fear and anxiety about going to lectures because sitting in those venues was a constant reminder of how much of a wallflower I was. I decided that I would teach myself with the university’s online resources, but this led to an entirely new set of problems. Because I was no longer going to class, I would get extremely anxious about tests and exams as I really had no idea what was happening. Thirty minutes before every test, I was in a bathroom throwing up and hyperventilating. In hindsight, that is probably the time I should have sought some help from a tutor, mentor, even a friend really. But since I was a control freak I took matters into my hands.
I continued to withdraw from all types of gatherings because I just didn’t know how to conduct myself and who to interact with. But as time went on it became increasingly difficult to avoid all those gatherings and I began self-medicating in order to cope with the feelings of being overwhelmed and left out. Self-medication was the way so many of us coped with our stress at university – we didn’t think anything of it; it’s just the way things were. I ended up gravitating towards people who were just as lost as I was. When we would hang out together we didn’t encourage or discourage one another, we simply ignored all our negative feelings and never talked about the pressures we were facing. We would focus on good times and our dreams for the future. We ended up being so far moved from reality, but we were surviving and that was all that mattered.
I self-medicated all through university, but in my final year the academic and social pressures pushed me to my breaking point. I was a full-blown addict, barely leaving the house for anything because I was barely even surviving at this point. If I did leave my house, I was so heavily medicated that I was numb to everything. Reality finally hit me like a ton of bricks when I failed my first semester. I was so distraught because I felt that if I couldn’t get through university then all the anguish I had undergone for the last few years would amount to nothing. It was then that I finally admitted to myself that I had a problem. I only had a few months to redeem myself so that I would be able to graduate. I realised that I had been so caught up with finding my place when I should have been creating my place. I didn’t have a lot of time left but it was enough time for me to make a difference.
I put aside my fears by focusing on what I could gain rather what I could lose. Armed with more knowledge of my triggers, I decided to change my approach to both my academics and my social life. I started interacting with more international students who were living through very similar experiences. With my new friends, I felt more accepted and consequently I was able to engage more, which helped me regain some of my self-confidence. I also decided to begin consulting my lecturers privately during their office hours, and those one-on-one sessions really helped me with a lot of the problem areas that were one of the greatest sources of my anxiety. It was an uphill battle getting to graduation, a battle that forced me to confront my anxiety and depression and the unhealthy practices that I had developed to cope.
The first step to winning that battle was to stop thinking about the opinions others had of me and pay more attention to what I thought of myself. At the end of the day, it should not have mattered where I came from but it is human nature to rely on stereotypes and gravitate towards people who we are similar to. Whereas we cannot do anything to influence how other people treat us, we can always choose how to respond. For those of us who suffer from anxiety and depression, our first response is usually to withdraw because we often feel ashamed when we are disregarded. So, we need to solicit help from people who can equip us with the tools we need to respond positively. There is no shame in asking for help, especially because without it we only go from bad to worse.”
– Olivia Bulyaba