Brian Shangwa ’15

8,024.23 miles away from home
Thursday, March 3, 2016

A native of Harare, Zimbabwe, Brian Shangwa earned a B.S. degree from Appalachian on December 12, 2015, with a major in psychology with a concentration in business. Following an internship during spring semester 2016 with a marketing firm in Cary, North Carolina, he plans to complete his degree in accounting and pursue an M.B.A. degree in human resource management, with a concentration in organizational psychology. His first choices in graduate schools are Duke University and the University of Georgia.

This is an impressive trajectory by any standard. However, it was not the life plan Brian’s parents had envisioned for him.

Public school

“Back home,” Brian said, “life plans are strictly school based. Parents want you to be a doctor or a lawyer. My father has an accounting background and wants me to become a CPA, but I do not want to follow that path. One of the things I have learned to love about this country is that here, parents want you to be happy. You shouldn’t do something you don’t like, or try to be someone you don’t want to be. I wish that parents in Zimbabwe were more tolerant of their children’s hopes and dreams, as they are in the United States.”

Brian enrolled at Appalachian as a college student in 2011, but he first came to the United States in 2007, when he was thirteen years old. While here, he visited North Carolina State University (NCSU) for the first time. About that visit he said, “All I knew about the United States was from watching American shows on television. I thought everyone was a celebrity. I thought I was going to see Chris Brown and all. Then, I came to North Carolina.”

Brian’s path to higher education was not without obstacles. He has two older brothers and one older sister, all of whom have advanced professional degrees. Many of his high school friends had the option of studying in England, something Brian says is not unusual in his country. His dad earned a business management degree at the University of Nottingham, and his mother earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at the Women’s Africa University in Zimbabwe. But Brian did not do well in school. “People did not think I would graduate,” he said. “In the undergraduate years, I would only pass three of the ten classes we were required to take. Every Saturday, when I had breakfast with my father he would not ask me, ‘What is going on in your life?” Instead, he would say, ‘I hope you are studying.’ I was so despondent at times that the only person I could go to was God. But then, I decided to stop socializing with some friends who were not good influences on me, and I started studying. It was a great day in my senior year when I passed seven out of ten classes.”

Preparation for university

Brian applied late to college and was on the waiting list for North Carolina State University (NCSU) for a year. In the meantime, he attended Wake Technical Institute his freshman year. While there, he “Googled” the “Best Colleges in North Carolina” which brought up NCSU, Wake Forest University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Appalachian State University. He applied to all four and was accepted at Wake Forest and Appalachian. “Wake was too expensive,” Brian said. “I chose App because a friend from Zimbabwe was on the women’s field hockey team here, and that meant I would know at least one person. I came to visit and thought, ‘This looks like a nice place.’”

However, Brian said that his first day at Appalachian was, “kind of weird!” He did not arrive early enough to get to know the campus, so he had to find all of his classroom buildings the first day. Class introductions were awkward. “I thought App was more diverse,” he said. “People talked to me because they seemed to understand that my situation was awkward. I was scared to communicate because I came here very shy. The group of international students I came in with were mostly exchange students, so I would only get to know them for a year.”

In considering how Appalachian might provide particular resources for incoming international students, Brian suggested that the university might host a large dinner the first weekend students are on campus, so that incoming freshmen could meet up with sophomores. Appalachian’s Office of International Education and Development (OIED) does something similar for international students. “It would be great if domestic students of color were invited, too,” Brian said, “if the invitation could be presented in a way that did not look like profiling.” Such an occasion might help students of color and international students not to feel so isolated their first week. “It would provide a little head start on making friends,” Brian said.

Making connections

Though Brian was homesick for his family early on, he said his classmates were very good to him. “They have thanked me for telling them about my country. One of my classmates, Collin McGinnis, made me a cake! This was in a First Year Seminar, and they were happy they got to know someone from a different culture.”

When Brian met his roommate, it appeared that they had nothing in common. They did not talk much at all. But one day Brian asked him to lunch, and then, he said, “Our friendship naturalized. We were roommates for three years, and now, he is my best friend.”

Early in his time at Appalachian, Brian found a special belonging place in the Appalachian African Community (AAC), an organization with about 35 members. Also known as African Student Association or African Club, AAC seeks to network Africans with the rest of the Appalachian region and to raise awareness of African culture. The club is open to all community members, Appalachian faculty and staff, and students, regardless of race or ethnic background. For latest updates from the club, go to http://aac.appstate.edu.

Brian also joined Kappa Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity on campus. The fraternity has monthly services and also holds special sessions when the campus is going through difficult times, as Appalachian did in the fall of 2014, with the deaths of students. “People paint a bad picture of fraternities,” he said. “But in this fraternity, I feel like family. I was not asked to change who I am or abandon my culture. We went on a retreat to South Carolina, and some time afterward, a Brother from SC sent me a ticket to a game down there!”

Serving his community

The fraternity has established a strong presence in the High Country community, working with Western Youth Network and Opposing Abuse with Service, Information and Shelter (O.A.S.I.S.). In addition to their collective work, each member donates $30.00 to sponsor an orphan boy in Uganda and one in India. Because of Brian’s involvement with Kappa Upsilon, he hopes to establish his own orphanage one day.

Brian also volunteered for OIED by giving presentations at local elementary schools. “It’s widely thought that people in Africa live in huts,” he said, “My home town of Harare is the capital city of Zimbabwe with a population of over 2 million people! I think I’ve helped further the work of diversity by opening a window on the larger world just a bit.”

In reaching out to this community, Brian said he has grown, too. “I never thought I’d have the confidence to stand in front of a class and have people say, ‘We like you because you talk from the heart,’” he said. “College has really changed my confidence level. I feel like I’ve given of who I am, where I am, to Appalachian.”

Sports and surprises

In addition to his studies and extracurricular activities, Brian enjoyed playing soccer and field hockey, listening to music, meeting new people and traveling. His favorite American foods “would have to be at Chipotle and Noodles & Company,” he said. “The burritos at Chipotle are the best. My favorite Zimbabwean meal would be my mum's homemade cottage pie with carrots and mincemeat in it and the famous rice and chicken curry.”

One thing that surprised Brian while he was here was a growing fondness for football. “I was not a fan,” he said, ‘but one of my classes had a lot of football players in it and so I decided to go to a game. Tailgating was a whole new experience for me. It was the first time I ever saw a funnel cake! Now, it’s almost unbelievable to realize that I actually watched games in Kidd Brewer Stadium, the home of a team that has brought three national championships to this small town called Boone.

“My home is literally 8,024.23 miles from Boone. I didn’t know what to expect at Appalachian, but I am glad I have been able to find a community through my Kappa Upsilon Chi and the Appalachian African Community,” Brian said. “I cannot believe that my time at this amazing place has ended. Since coming to Appalachian, I have grown more confident of my abilities. I’ve learned that the biggest mistake I ever made was not believing in myself. Now, I know that I can be whatever I want to be. I’ve been so blessed to come to such an amazing school, and I would recommend Appalachian to any international student who is considering studying abroad. You never know: I might be back here for graduate school. It’s always good to be a Mountaineer!”