International graduate students have an added challenge when they come to Illinois State University. Obtaining a master’s degree is difficult for anyone but imagine what it is like for those students who must also learn a new culture and sometimes overcome language and dialect barriers as well. I spoke with three current international graduate students in sociology to learn more about their experiences in coming to the program. All three are women from Africa studying sociology, and their experiences shared here are very similar, while their stories are all different.    

Mercy Chepkosgei (so named by her mother as a tribute to her smooth pregnancy and delivery) Kiprop (her surname that she received from her father) is from suburban Eldoret in Kenya. Mercy is the middle child of 5, down to earth, and active, and has a smile that never stops! While growing up, Mercy enjoyed reading, running, traveling, walking in the woods, and being with friends.  In 2012, she was the second best in her country in Ping-Pong!

Mercy relaxing with her two happy nieces.
Mercy and her two nieces

Mercy received a degree in community development at Laikipia University and a master’s in project planning and management from Nairobi University. Yes, that’s right, she already has a master’s degree, but is at Illinois State getting a second master’s degree that focuses on housing struggles among international graduate students, a recent switch from her original course of child mortality, because of the relevancy and significance of the housing issue. After that, she plans to possibly take a break for a year and then get a doctorate in sociology and perhaps teach or do research and data management.

I like that I am encouraged to “think outside the box” here and that everyone has their own way about looking at sociology.

Mercy Chepkosgei

Why did Mercy choose ISU? “Serendipity!” she exclaims! But ultimately, she wanted a personalized program with strong student/teacher interaction which she has found in our sociology program. One of the best things she has learned here is that she can and should “think outside the box” and that everyone has their own way about looking at sociology.

She has also learned that she loves mashed potatoes and bacon.

And mac and cheese.

And since she’s tired of doughnuts, Biaggi’s New York cheesecake. 

As well as pickleball, badminton, darts, bowling, and trying new things. Her goal this summer: travel!

But nothing here will replace her family and longing for home and things like ugali, her favorite food in Kenya.

Despite all the preplanning for this phase of her life, she wishes she had done more. Having given much thought and preparation for her adventure overseas, Mercy worked and saved up enough money to relieve certain financial insecurities, but she still found that she was not prepared emotionally and mentally for the challenge. Only after many months of some homesickness, loneliness, and frustration, is she finally getting her footing. “Americans here are very individualistic,” she says, which made it difficult at first. Back home, she never lived alone and spent much time with family. 

Her advice? Prepare mentally, read books, and watch videos by those who have traveled abroad, and ask questions. Find connections ahead of time. Know that it will not just be a matter of finances. Thankfully, her housing needs were met by connecting ahead of time to a communications grad student, Ja Tavia, who needed a roommate. Ja Tavia picked her up from the airport in fall 2021, showed her around the area, and ultimately became Mercy’s best friend! This is in addition to making great friends like Sophie and Bree, also in the sociology program. If it weren’t for those connections, things would’ve been a lot harder.

Four graduate students posing on a bench who became friends at ISU
New friends (left to right): Bree McCall, Mercy Chepkosgei, Ja Tavia, and Sophie Rout

Melon Tanui is the youngest of four, and also from Kenya, specifically, Iten in Elgeyo Marakwet County. Iten, because of its high altitude, is known for producing world marathon champions and is a training ground for athletes from around the world! When Melon was home, she was active in volunteering and helping her family. She also spent a lot of time taking care of her nephews and nieces. During the peak of coronavirus (COVID-19), her family came up with an idea to start a tissue manufacturing company in Iten that is managed by herself, her mother, and her brother.

Melon and her mother and brother standing in front of a stone building in Kenya.
Melon, right, with mother and brother in front of their tissue manufacturing building, which is now fully operational 

Melon received her undergraduate degree in tourism management from Moi University in Eldoret, which is also Mercy’s home. Melon spent some time in Colombia and Japan and, as you can see by the parachute picture, practicing some of her tourism management studies on the back end—as a tourist! Her occupation for the one year in Colombia was as a volunteer English teacher in a local public school in Cali. She enjoyed teaching so much so that she moved to Tokyo, where she taught alongside Japanese teachers as an assistant language teacher for four years.

Fast forward to December 29, 2021, when she landed in O’Hare Airport, staring at what appeared to her to be supersized portions of food at the local Mcdonald’s. Melon is looking forward with fresh eyes to her first experience in the American education system, specifically Illinois State, where she hopes to receive a quality education. She is not disappointed! She finds Normal to be small and safe, and she finds most Americans to be nice and helpful. Melon says specifically about Americans, “I like how people try to engage in some small talk every time you bump into them.”  

I love the professors. They are always willing to help; the staff are super helpful too. My cohort has some amazing people! 

Melon Tanui

She enjoys biking on the Constitution Trail and has made friends. Let’s not forget about the food—Flingers Pizza is her favorite! And the department?  “I love the professors, Melon said. “They are always willing to help; the staff are super helpful too. My cohort has some amazing people!” 

After she presents her thesis on Perspectives of Kenyan women (Elgeyo Marakwet county) on Female Genital Mutilation and graduates in December 2023, what does she expect to do? Melon would like to work with women here or in Kenya. And she will have the tools, experience, certifications, and connections to prepare her way. Her words of encouragement to others who are thinking of doing the same thing, “It’s going to be tough at first: homesick, adjusting to a new environment, building a new community, working, and making sure you do your best in class. You got this and you will excel if you keep a positive attitude. Reach out to other people and they will guide you along the way.”

Vivian Yawson, in the spring semester, arrived from Takoradi, Ghana, to complete the sociology cohort. Vivian, the eldest of four children, is Fante, which is a subgroup of the Akan people and literally means “the half that left,” since they broke away from the Akan people. 

Vivian and her sister in the parking lot of the airport in Ghana
Vivian, left, and her sister at the airport before leaving Ghana for the United States

In 2017 Vivian graduated with a B.A. in sociology and geography from the University of Cape Coast in the Central Region of Ghana. Incidentally, Dr. Winfred Avogo also attended the University of Cape Coast, though considerably earlier, he likes to say. In January 2020, she embarked on a humanitarian project with AIESEC Ghana to Moscow, Russia, where she taught English to disadvantaged and/or orphaned children in a social center. Because of this experience, Vivian came to Illinois State University with hopes to study the impact of family violence on children, but IRB (Institutional Review Board) guidelines have necessitated a shift in that focus for now.

Per Vivian, what also brought her to Illinois State University was “the quest for knowledge …as it is a research-intensive university and has a great environment for international students. This is my first time being in the U.S., and I love being in Normal because it is a quiet place, and it facilitates smooth learning. There are great and excellent professors in my department.” She particularly enjoys the beautiful campus and the support services for students which help to provide things like laptops and calculators to those who are in need.  A sports enthusiast, Vivian played netball (a women’s sport akin to basketball minus the dribbling) and football (soccer) back home, but now that she is here, she has taken up tennis, table tennis, and basketball. 

Graduate Students Vivian and Melon posing in the stands at an ISU women's redbird basketball game
Vivian, left, with Melon Tanui. “As a sports lady, I normally go to the gym, or watch games.
Melon and I took that pic during a game between ISU women’s basketball team
and Southern Illinois basketball team during Black History Month in February.”

What about the weather in Normal? It is not the best attribute! In fact, Vivian would say it was the worst. Who doesn’t love a good snowstorm? Apparently, those from warmer climates. One might even say those from here don’t all like the winter either. 

It is clear that for all three of these international students who travel, housing, financial insecurities, and cultural differences create significant obstacles to their educational experience. This is so much the case that Vivian plans to refocus her thesis topic on the coping strategies of international students.  After Vivian defends this thesis, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. and continue research in family studies.

I love my program because it’s given me the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds and express my views from my cultural perspective.

Vivian Yawson

Having international students in our program has enriched our classes with a global perspective for those who are willing to embrace that opportunity. Mercy spoke specifically of Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Chris Wellin’s tenacious effort of inclusivity in his gerontology class (SOC: 311/411), engaging the students’ perspectives often, allowing for sharing of ideas, especially those of other cultures, reducing the threat of ethnocentricity. Vivian said, “I love my program because it’s given me the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds and express my view from my cultural perspective.”  

We have much to give, much to gain, and much to learn from our international students. May the experiences gained by these new Redbirds lead them bravely and confidently on their journeys. 

Six graduate students sitting on a bench who have become friends
Grad students who found each other and became friends (left to right): Mercy, Vivian, Christine (Department of Family and Consumer Sciences grad student), Melon, Ja Tavia (School of Communication grad student), and Sophie (sociology grad student)