Surviving study abroad – As a student and a new mother

In Zimbabwe, I grew up in a strict and religious environment where girls were given timelines on when to settle down and have a family but never encouragement to better themselves. I was happy to challenge the status quo and attain a degree.

The chance to study abroad was one of the biggest breaks of my life; it came with many life-changing possibilities. I left Zimbabwe with the hope of accessing a quality education which would increase my employment opportunities and help me to secure a career in global health and nutrition.

Coming from a low-income country, being an international student afforded me the chance to meet, connect and learn with students from different parts of the globe. Furthermore, I would be exposed to rich and diverse cultures and all this would and has helped to shape my perspective on life.

I got to know about universities in Northern Cyprus through a newspaper advertisement and then attended a consultation programme offered by various universities in my home country. Unlike many African students who had been duped or misled by agents, I had done my own research and applications online, settling eventually for Girne American University, as it was the only university that offered my choice of degree in English.

There was also a 50% scholarship for international students, which made my degree affordable compared to other universities across Europe.

When the plane landed at Ercan Airport in Northern Cyprus, I had US$500 in my purse. A family friend and businessman had agreed to fund my education and my family would help with monthly allowances to cover accommodation, food and bills. Nevertheless, I knew the pursuit of a better educational opportunity would come with a lot of work and sacrifice.

A housing nightmare

Girne was the heart of the island, a beautiful city set between the mountains and overlooking the sea. Being a tourist resort meant that the cost of living was much higher compared to other cities such as Lefkosa. Affordable housing that is also comfortable, safe and secure was almost impossible to find for students. One in three African students complained about the state of the houses they lived in – the leaking taps, old furnishings and outdated sewer systems were just part of the problem.

For me, the payment terms presented an unforeseen challenge. The landlord required a three-month upfront payment and deposit in pounds and the housing agent also required a commission. Eventually I settled for the cheapest apartment I could find, and that meant compromising on standards and having to share with a fellow African student from Ghana. Sharing of apartments and even rooms was regarded as normal, especially among international students trying to save all they can.

The transitional period once I got to Northern Cyprus was crucial for me as it included the decision to find part-time work for extra income. Between rental, bills and study material, I was struggling to put food on the table. Competition for menial jobs was fierce and it was several weeks before I got hired to do housekeeping for a hotel and residency. In many cases I was forced to miss my morning classes in order to work. That also meant sleeping less in order to catch up on my studies.

Back in Zimbabwe, inflation was on the rise and foreign currency was becoming increasingly hard to access. As a result my allowances were either delayed or way less than expected.

During my first summer break, I worked harder than ever before. With more tourists coming in as guests, this meant more working hours for a salary that remained almost the same. During conversations with fellow African students I discovered that working long hours for less was the norm, especially for international students. It became apparent then that many of us who came in to access a better quality of education had to do so while living below the poverty line.

Becoming a mother

I was in my second year when I fell pregnant. My partner was in his final year studying civil engineering. We knew each other from Zimbabwe and had decided to rekindle our relationship when we met again on the island.

The journey wasn’t as easy as I had thought it would be, but I somehow found the courage and strength to continue. One of the most important things was making sure I had a healthy pregnancy and we decided to use private healthcare as my student insurance didn’t cover blood tests and foetal ultrasounds, even in public hospitals. This meant that we had to tighten our budget to cover child-birth costs, medication and baby preparation needs.

As a first time mother, I found it depressing to be so far away from home and its familiar faces and voices. Even with my partner’s presence, I craved the kind of support and stability I would have received from my family.

On many occasions, health complications interfered with my ability to focus and study. Gallstones, which I had developed during pregnancy, and a recurring urinary infection often forced me to miss classes and seek medical attention. By the time I was due, I was on the brink of a physical and mental breakdown.

Guidance and support

I sought help from one of the international student advisors, a Nigerian woman who had been in North Cyprus for more than 10 years and was raising three children, two of whom she had given birth to on the island, with very little social support. Her assurance and guidance helped me to pull through what was a difficult period in my life.

Despite the cultural and language barriers during child delivery, the health staff were professional and respectful.

This chapter of my life taught me that there is nothing wrong with asking for help and leaning on those around you for support. Staying sane as a new mother depended on having that extra pair of hands to cuddle the baby while l got some much-needed sleep, a ready-made meal and sometimes just having someone to talk to.

In between breastfeeding, healing from the birth process and medical check-ups, it was a few months before I felt normal again. In order to get to this point, however, I had to cancel one of my semesters.

Creating a balance

I had never understood the value of time until the day I became a mother trying to balance studies and motherhood. Every minute was as precious as every penny earned. Time lost meant skipping a lecture and staying up late to catch up. The trick for me was to create a routine and be consistent.

Being a parent as a student never guaranteed any favours. I still had to sit for exams like every other student and score above average. In order to succeed as an international student, I needed more than just determination because there was often a thin line between making it to graduation day and succumbing to hardships and returning home empty-handed.

However, for me, becoming a mother was all the motivation I needed to continue my studies and, despite the odds against me, I intend to stay the course and finish.