We’ve all faced situations where we’ve been the new kid in town or school and it’s not easy, especially for kids. You miss your old life, you feel homesick and disoriented and want to be welcomed and understood in your new community. You want to belong. Dealing with such a change as a teenager can be especially challenging, so we asked Wanja Ochwada, who moved from South Africa to the US when she was ten years old, to share important advice about how she successfully and confidently overcame it.
An interview with Wanja Ochwada,
Fundraising and Communications Officer
Starfish Greathearts Foundation, White Plains, New York, USA
You moved from Kenya to the US when you were ten years old and were then exposed to very different experiences and a different culture.What were the most exciting and the most challenging parts of being in a different environment?
I think the most exciting part of moving to New York City, was that everything I had seen in the movies was finally real! I loved Times Square and going to see the Empire State Building, as they were in all my favorite TV shows and movies. I loved seeing the Macy’s Christmas lights display – I felt like I was in a movie that night.
I think the big challenges were finding friends at first as we moved in the middle of a school year, and then figuring out the new lingo (slang). What on earth are sneakers? Where I grew up we called them ‘trainers’, so that was confusing.
Moving can be difficult for kids and teenagers and disrupt important friendships. What would your advice be for girls that feel a little disoriented or homesick and are having a difficult time reaching out to form new friendships?
Hold on to your old friends and don’t try to rush into making new friends – it takes time. We’re so lucky to be able to use Facetime, Whatsapp and Snapchat to talk to people thousands of miles away, so stay in touch with old friends while you make new friends.It takes the pressure off of having to make new friends fast, and you feel less alone as you figure out your new school and neighborhood. And when you do make new friends, don’t abandon the old ones – one of my best friends today was my third-grade desk buddy!
Some kids move to a different country speaking very little English (or not at all), and this can make them feel less intelligent or capable than their peers. What would be a helpful daily tool to start improving their language skills and confidence?
It’s so great to have the internet to use in moments like this. I use the Duolingo app which is great for learning new languages quite easily. It’s important to remember that just because you don’t know a few words, doesn’t mean you’re not smart You can be bright and funny in any language, but you’re twice as smart because you know two languages, and some of the greatest books ever written were not written in English.
How would you encourage girls to stay true to themselves while they are desperately wanting to fit in?
The best thing about being yourself is that people can tell you’re genuine and they’ll appreciate that and gravitate towards you. It’s hard to figure out who you are when you’re young, but my general rule is: don’t do anything you’ll regret or be mad at yourself for, and try to be polite and kind.
What was the most important lesson you learned from the experience of being new and how have you applied it to your adult life?
The most important thing I have learned is that being kind and polite will get you very far in life and that not everyone in life will like you even if you are kind to them. The most you can ever do is listen to your conscience – the little voice of goodness in your heart and try your best in everything you do.
Tips and tricks:
- Stay in touch with your old friends while you try to make new friends, it takes the pressure off of having to make new friends fast, and you feel less alone
- Being kind and polite will get you very far in life
- Not everyone in life will like you even if you are kind to them, and that’s’ okay
- Listen to your conscience – the little voice of goodness in your heart and try your best in everything you do
- If you are curious and living your own life and doing what you want to do, you are less concerned what others may think of you