Michelle Osiyah’s first interaction with Syracuse University didn’t quite go as planned. She was at home in Nairobi, Kenya, anticipating an interview with Jennifer Mathews, Syracuse University’s director of international admissions. Mathews had traveled to Africa to visit high schools and meet with prospective students and families. Osiyah had selected Syracuse University as her first-choice destination from more than 80 partner schools of the Zawadi Africa Education Fund. Founded in 2002, the highly competitive program provides scholarships to academically advanced girls who want to pursue higher education in the U.S. and Africa to create a pipeline of young African women leaders with the skills needed to make significant impact in their communities.

“I wanted to make a good impression, but the meeting was an amazing mixture of everything that could go wrong,” Osiyah remembers. “First, I wasn’t sure what to wear for the interview. Then I got lost looking for the hotel in Nairobi where Jennifer Mathews was staying. I walked into the lobby 30 minutes after the scheduled meeting time, dressed in jeans, and there was Jennifer, still waiting for me. What a sight!”

Vibrant Energy

Osiyah thought she might have missed her chance at a scholarship, so she resolved to just relax and let fate decide her future. “I gave her tips on the Kenyan vibe, what foods to eat and which coffee and tea to drink, all the while thinking I was probably not going to be admitted to Syracuse,” Osiyah recalls. But Mathews responded openly and with great interest in what Osiyah had to say. “What Jennifer Mathews represented as an admissions counselor was all I needed to understand the vibrancy of the Syracuse community,” Osiyah says. “I loved her energy!”

Michelle Osiyah and Jennifer Matthews

The feeling was mutual. “I knew immediately that Michelle was someone we would want in our community,” Mathews says. “She is witty, academically gifted and eager to return to Kenya to improve the country’s technology infrastructure and create opportunities for women in STEM fields.”

What Jennifer Mathews represented as an admissions counselor was all I needed to understand the vibrancy of the Syracuse community. I loved her energy!

Osiyah was admitted to Syracuse University with a financial aid package that made it possible to experience what once seemed unattainable. It was hard to leave her three older siblings, beloved niece and nephews and especially her mother, but she keeps them close to her heart. “I miss my mum’s cooking, her scent and her hugs,” she says. “But she really deserves to brag that she has a daughter abroad!”

Designing a Dream Career

Now a sophomore in the School of Information Studies (iSchool) majoring in information management and technology, Osiyah plans to add a minor in computer science this fall. “I’m interested in user experience and interface design, so I’m learning the basics of UX/UI design. My dream career would be to do research and analysis to understand the user needs and friendliness of a platform developed by a company, and then create a prototype of that platform.”

After arriving in Syracuse in 2019, she found that adjusting to American life would require an open mind and good attitude. “Michelle is someone who maximizes every opportunity she is given with joy and gratitude,” says Mathews. “Within a month of being on campus, she had tried ice skating, joined a slam poetry group, and attended a play, several guest lectures and Mass at our interfaith chapel. In her second semester, Michelle joined our admissions student ambassador group, applied to be a resident advisor and found a part-time job in athletic concessions, where she assisted in the training of new employees. Her smile lights up our office when she visits and fills us in on her latest adventures.”

A Community of Caring

In 2019-20, international students comprised 19.6 percent of Syracuse University’s total enrollment and 14.4 percent of undergraduates. The University is committed to ensuring that international students are part of a supportive community, Osiyah observes. “Everyone from resident advisors to faculty makes a student feel welcomed here. It’s amazing how they become more like your immediate family.” Ongoing support is tailored to individual needs like assistance with visa status, travel itinerary and even arranging rides to and from the airport.

The Center for International Services encourages student immersion with activities like Mix-It-Up, a biweekly gathering where students share a meal and engage in facilitated discussions about identity, intercultural communication and cultural differences. In the fall, there’s an International Student Welcome dinner where undergraduates from across the globe dine together, meet faculty and staff, and learn about their new home.

Michelle Osiyah and roomate

Osiyah quickly learned that having a diverse group of friends was the best remedy for homesickness. “I was so shy about making friends at first, but I had a God-sent roommate,” she says. “Sofia de la Grana is a cocktail of everything amazing and has taught me so much. She introduced me to her friends, forced me into crowds and always took me along to the Quad, the Dome and the mall. I met a lot of friends during international student orientation week and made some close friends in the residence hall and in my classes.”

Poetry in a Safe Space

She discovered Verbal Blend shortly after arriving in Syracuse. The seven-week spoken-word program boosts students’ confidence in writing and performing original poems. Run by Cedric Bolton through the Office of Multicultural Affairs, it features writing workshops, student performances and peer reviews. “Verbal Blend has given me new ways to express myself and address societal issues,” Osiyah says. “I love it because it creates a safe space, yet still makes you aware of the power your voice carries.”

Being immersed in a new environment in an unfamiliar country has some unexpected benefits. “The culture is definitely different,” Osiyah observes. “But what really stands out is the openness in conversation about everything—mental health, sex education, diversity, race and racism, the justice system, religion and LGBTQ+ issues.”

There’s also the American fondness for consumerism. “Being an aunt is the best thing about being part of a family, and my niece and nephews are skilled at making me bankrupt,” she jokes. “They sway me to impulse purchases I can’t even explain, but the good news is they are only 7, 4 and 2 once!”

What really stands out is the openness in conversation about everything—mental health, sex education, diversity, race and racism, the justice system, religion and LGBTQ+ issues.

African student mentors played an important role in helping Osiyah transition to life on the Syracuse University campus, and their benevolence has inspired her to want to pay it forward. “Pauline Gitau ’20 and graduate student Regina Kuria ’16 mentored me through freshman year,” she says. “They kept me going, checking in on me during exam weeks, sharing resources and allowing me to call them anytime for advice. I plan to do the same not only for Kenyan students, but for any African student who needs my support as a student and an alum.”

International Student Accommodations

When on-campus classes transitioned to remote learning in March due to the new coronavirus, Osiyah says the University recognized the challenges facing international students and made generous accommodations for them. “We were allowed to stay on in the residential blocks and then later checked into South Campus, where every possible need we had was taken care of—food pantries, utensils, bedsheets, masks,” she says. “I stayed on campus until May 4 and then went to stay with my aunt in Houston for summer break.”

Even though she’s disappointed the summer research program she’d planned to complete was canceled, Osiyah is busily preparing herself for the rigors and rewards of three more years at Syracuse University. “What has kept me going is the idea that this is a one-shot opportunity, and I want to take it,” she says. “I can achieve so much for those who have not been able to attend college—girls who need an example of what they can do once they take the first step. When I graduate, I’ll bleed Orange all the way!”

-Mary Beth Horsington

This story was first published on June 23, 2020 and last updated on .