Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Africans living the American dream

African-American college students encourage people to vote in Alabama

The BBC's African Perspective programme is investigating what life is like for some of an estimated 20 million Africans who live in the diaspora.

On the eve of an election that may see a president with Kenyan roots in the White House, Miriam Quansah meets some African students in the United States to find out what drives them.

It is said that Africans studying in the US tend to be highly motivated, with educated parents and do extremely well.

Immigrant blacks tend to be viewed more favourably in American society than American blacks do
Dr Camille Charles
University of Pennsylvania

Dr Camille Charles of the University of Pennsylvania studied the experiences of immigrant students in the US by examining students at 28 selective colleges and universities, including several "Ivy League" institutions like Princeton, Yale, University of Pennsylvania.

She explains: "We found that roughly half of the black student population are immigrants or second-generation immigrants; and a good percentage being from the continent of Africa, mainly from Ghana and Nigeria.

"This group is about 6% of the US's total black population. But of this group, roughly half of them end up in the most selective colleges and universities, so they are really successful in this regard."

Dark days

Not all Africans students succeed straight away though. Victoria Njau, 24, came to the US from Kenya on a church scholarship but things did not go according to plan.

Victoria modelling [Photo: DAVE MCKEEN]
Victoria is a model and a student

"The church split and couldn't afford to pay my fees anymore," says Victoria remembering her times of darkness. "I was left homeless. It was tough."

"But I know what it means to everyone who would love to be in America - what that opportunity means. I am the backbone of my family and when you hold the hope of a whole family; if you break down, they all break down.

"I had to use my opportunity to better myself, my family and my village."

Victoria then moved to Dallas where she had no friends, no family, no money and nowhere to live.

'Most likely to succeed'

"I lived in a homeless shelter for two months. I managed to get myself a job and moved out after I started getting paid."

She now combines her studies with several jobs, including modelling.

Dr Charles' study also found that: "Of all of the immigrants to the US, the ones that come with the highest level of education from the very beginning are from the continent of Africa.

"Generally immigrants come to improve their economic status. They are a self-selected group.

"They are those individuals who are the most likely to succeed anyway because they are the ones who decided to make the sacrifice and take all the risks."

Nigerian Chiodu Collins Odegu followed his sister by coming to the US to study. He is a senior accounting major at Harvard University and has interned on Wall Street in New York.

'The American dream'

"For me it was the opportunity to have a diversified education. One that could give me international exposure and present me with another level of opportunities," he says.

Al Agami
I am a political refugee. I wound up in Denmark because of my father's stress with the Idi Amin [a former Ugandan dictator] era
Rapper Al Agami

"Essentially it is the American dream."

Nineteen-year-old and second-generation African immigrant Rennie Curran plays American football for Georgia University team, the Bulldogs, and is fast becoming a national celebrity.

His parents are both from Liberia. They arrived in the US just before war broke out at home.

Rennie has never been to Liberia, but he says his drive to succeed is thanks to his parents and his African heritage.

"It's helped me not to forget where I've come from and instilled in me a need to be humble. I'm very blessed because not everyone is enjoying. I need to work hard so I can go over there and contribute."

Student stereotypes

For all the apparent success of African students in the US, it is not without consequences.

There is tension between them and their African-American counterparts.

Painting of Barack Obama by artist David Choe hangs on a wall an art exhibition, New York
Barack Obama has challenged the idea of being African-American

One reason could lie with the fact that Africans appear to be benefiting from affirmative action - a government policy aimed at redressing the injustices of the past, when the US was segregated on racial lines.

It aims to ensure that the descendants of slaves have access to universities and other institutions.

But Dr Charles says: "Immigrant black students, African and Caribbean, are hugely over-represented relative to American-born blacks.

"Immigrant black students are about two-and-a-half times more likely to be enrolled in the 10 most selective schools."

Dr Charles says this is a concern because, "immigrant blacks tend to be viewed more favourably in American society than American blacks do. They have this sort of immigrant mythology tied to them: they're more hard-working; they value education more.

"It's possible that admissions officers are sort of buying into stereotypes.

"But it doesn't mean that immigrant black students shouldn't benefit because there is discrimination based on race in the present and they will suffer from that, to a large degree to the same extent as American blacks do."

Victoria is one of these beneficiaries - all her university fees are covered by government grants.

Do her American classmates resent this?

"Not many know about my story. I don't share it," she answers.

Being black

Africans in the US may feel that African-Americans are ignorant of their realities, but Dr Charles explains, African-Americans can also feel offended by the failure of Africans to appreciate where they are coming from.

Thanks to the US history of slavery and segregation, their overriding identity is being black. It is about politics and it is about solidarity.

"In the US, we place much more emphasis on our socially constructed racial classifications, wherein most of the rest of the world it seems that national origin and ties to one's country or homeland can be much more important and so I think that often American blacks misunderstand the national pride expressed by Ghanaians or Nigerians or Jamaicans as an effort to distance themselves with American blacks," says Dr Charles.

US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has challenged the prevailing idea of what it means to be an African-American and that his presence is a positive force.

"I'm proud of him for the fact that he's a Kenyan and he's black," says Victoria.

"He is the idea that you can be anyone you want to be, as long as you try."

Click here to listen to African Perspective's Africans Abroad: Part II. The programme will be available for a week on the website.

Part III on Saturday 8 November will feature Africans who have voluntarily made the former slave island of Jamaica their home.

Print Sponsor


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific