Studying abroad: the unceasing struggle for freedom from fear

It is unbelievable that we are already four months into the year as we observe a month genuinely worthy of its commemoration. 27 April 1994 is a day symbolic of South Africa’s democratic leap, the day which saw Africans from all walks of life vote in the country’s first democratic elections. It’s been 29 years, and we have come a long way as a country. Like many other South African holidays in 2022 and 2023, I will celebrate Freedom Day from the U.S.

While thinking about Freedom Day, I decided to look up the definition of freedom in the Oxford dictionary, and among the results I found was ‘the state of not being imprisoned’. This struck a chord with me because of my experience as a visiting student researcher in a developed country. The definition of freedom has often represented the opposite of my experience as a South African student in the U.S., specifically during the first couple of months abroad. I should, however, add that these feelings never entirely subside. They persist throughout what should be and what sometimes is the best time of your life. In many instances, I have felt imprisoned by fears of not being good enough, smart enough, productive enough, or feeling like an imposter.

Of course, when one attains a scholarship as prestigious as the Fulbright, there is a great sense of recognition that you are capable and deserving. And, sometimes, I certainly feel more confident and driven to keep pushing forward. And often, I give it my best shot. However, those fearful moments creep in occasionally, filling you with self-doubt and becoming difficult to avoid.

No one talks much about how quickly the honeymoon phase of living abroad fizzles out. The excitement upon arrival has you site seeing every weekend and opening yourself up to make new friends, despite being hugely introverted. But despite that, about a month into the transition and having adjusted to – in my case – a new time zone, everything sets in, and you remember, ‘oh, this is now my new normal’. In the same breath, you are confronted with the fact that you are now in what’s often referred to as the land of the free, which implies that the U.S. is not only the place of endless opportunities but that you should seize each opportunity on offer. And even though the positives of the new normal substantially outweigh the negatives, a feeling which closely resembles the isolation of the 2020/2021 lockdown lingers persistently.

A good few of the contributing factors to what I have now identified as fear are the massive culture shock, being away from your family and support network, adjusting to different work culture, having to master a new lifestyle, missing out on special milestones of loved ones back home, financial difficulties, adapting to local food, feeling like you do not belong, trying to make friends, the gloomy weather and oh my soul, the time difference in my case. Travelling to study abroad without a booked returned ticket is a topic I will unpack in a future post.

But, as ever, fear remains the constant by-product of change. And so long as we are willing to adjust and adapt to the change, the opportunity for growth will follow. With time, I have learned to acknowledge the fear and attempt to pinpoint what brought it up. I have had to do this every day to not stand in my own way of taking advantage of every opportunity presented to me during this time.

And so, for the past eight months, alongside leaning into this period to stretch me as it should, I have been using the following mechanisms to help free me from fear and anxiety: sharing playlists with my loved ones, getting some sunlight, leaning on my parents for support, taking walks, working out, prioritising social events, planning holidays, and being honest about my feelings and experience and asking for help.

Some might notice that listening to podcasts is not featured on this list, as it was in my ‘day in the life vlog’, and that is because the painful beauty of living abroad relies heavily on a willingness to adapt to the inevitable changes and finding new ways to move away from fear to find happiness. To a great deal, this is an initially challenging realisation for those who, like me, thrive under a strict routine. A final and principal realisation has been that while in the comfort of physically being in South Africa, we may be riddled by fear and anxiety, which prompts us to hide behind high walls and electric fences, but there is no greater freedom than being home, and that is a freedom I look forward to upon my return to South Africa.


One might ask, ‘is race-based hair discrimination a thing?’ Well, in her LinkedIn live on Bias Against Black Women with Natural Hair, Professor Ashleigh Rosette from Duke university’s Fuqua business school argues that hair discrimination is indeed a thing.

One might further ask whether this is not an isolated American or Western thing. In the University of Pretoria’s public lecture: At Crossroads: Reimaging Management Sciences and Inclusivity, Professor Stella Nkomo points out that with hair being a particular marker of a woman’s beauty, it is incredulous that race-based hair discrimination is a thing, particularly in Africa. The lecture was based on a 2020 Clicks advert for Tresemme haircare products which labelled black women’s hair as ‘dry and damaged’ and ‘frizzy and dull,While highlighting white women’s hair as ‘normal’ and ‘fine and flat.’ This certainly caused a nationwide outcry against the advert as this was not the first time that such disdain and classification was expressed towards black women’s hair in South Africa.

In 2016 black students at Pretoria girls high school recalled being told that their natural hair was ‘unladylike and ‘untidy’ among other things, which included writing exams if they did not ‘fix’ their hair. More recently, in 2021, black learners of Cornwall Hill College in Pretoria recalled a teacher saying, ‘your hair is unrepresentable, messy, and it is not the Cornwall way.’

I personally recall learning how to braid my hair in high school because a teacher told me to ‘make sure that your hair is neat when you come to school tomorrow’ all because I had gone with my small natural afro to school that day. I now don beautiful thick dreadlocks, but it took me some time to get confidence in how my hair naturally grows out of my scalp.

I imagine many others must negotiate between their ‘true self’ and what the mainstream deems ‘neat’, ‘tidy’, and even ‘professional’. Most of the scientific literature that examines race-based hair discrimination and hair bias against black women is conducted in the United States of America through empirical research, and increasingly in the United Kingdom through the lens of professional identity. Very few studies capture the lived experiences of black women to find out how this discrimination negatively impacts their perception of themselves and the strategies they use to overcome these deeply entrenched and persistent messages that their hair is not good enough. I wanted to fill this gap in my own research because when people share their experiences, they experience a sense of belonging which may lend a hand in what Dr Doyin Atewologun puts as ‘repairing and strengthening their stigmatized identities.’

Therefore, my PhD looks at black African women occupying professional positions in Corporate. The research examines their experiences of race-based hair discrimination, manifesting from the intersections of race, gender, and social class throughout their lives. The hair discrimination against them is attributed to the legacies of colonialism, apartheid, and patriarchy. The study uses a socio-political-historical lens to investigate Black African women’s professional and personal identities concerning their hair.

Similarly, my research in the U.S. builds on the CROWN Act. It explores hairstyle bias against Black women by looking at the connections between the societal forces which determine and sustain hair bias, work group dynamics which may act against black women and black women’s experiences of hairstyle bias on their identities.

This research lays the foundation for a path of study that responds to the negative impact on black women’s subjective view of their value in the world and the negative effect on how they navigate their schooling and, later, workplace systems and structures.