Overwhelmed with homesickness, Sunasia Echols laid awake until 5 a.m. on her first night in Ethiopia.
“I was just like: ‘Oh, I just want to go home. I can’t believe I’m here,’” said the University of Michigan senior majoring in psychology. “But at the same time, I was like: ‘I can’t believe I’m here! I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. It was one of my biggest dreams.’ “
Before coming to Ethiopia, Echols had never been abroad. Many students pick a more traditional route, studying in places like Rome, London and Madrid. So by choosing Ethiopia, Echols was making a bold move.
Her family was happy to hear she was going to Ethiopia to spend the summer with two other U-M undergraduates and a second-year medical student working on a research project about women’s health. The students are part of the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program.
“My dad said, ‘I don’t want you to go, but I really want you to go.’ They were scared of me going away so far,” she said. “My mom was really excited. She never had the opportunity to do it, so she said, ‘Yeah, you should go for it. I really want you to go.’”
While Echols is mostly over her homesickness, she said it still flares up during important family events she’s missing, such as her father’s recent birthday.
She has had to experience some other hardships, including sporadic Internet access and limited water supply in her dorm. And a pickpocket stole her iPhone. But she’s still having a great time.
“Going to the cultural restaurants and seeing Ethiopia’s history is just amazing,” she said. “I’m not a history-type person, but going there and learning about it is great.”
One of Echols’ research partners, Ninette Musili, was born in Kenya and moved to the U.S. when she was 9 years old. Although she loves hot weather and wishes Ethiopia’s often chilly rainy season would be warmer, she’s enjoying her time in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“The city is still developing and the country is on a rapid development program. It’s a little bit like Nairobi was when they decided to redo the city and there was construction everywhere. It’s a little bit familiar but at the same time it’s very different because the culture is different,” said Musili, a junior majoring in biomolecular science.
She added, “I appreciate the fact that Ethiopia is a lot safer in some ways than Kenya is. In general, people are more willing to help. If you’re out late at night, it feels safer because people don’t bother you as much than if you were out late in Kenya.”
The medical student in the group, Sarah Bell, added that Addis Ababa is regarded to be one of the safest cities in Africa.
The third undergraduate in the group is Emilia Iglesias, who was born in Guatemala and moved to the U.S. when she was 9 months old. Since then, she had never gone overseas – not even to Canada, even though she grew up in Michigan.
“I’ve always dreamt of going abroad,” said the junior majoring in neuroscience. “It didn’t really matter where I went. I just wanted to go somewhere, but I’m glad I came here because everyone is so friendly, just amazing. I’m going to be very sad to leave. I’d love to come back, but I really want to go to other countries.”