Q&A with Winnie Biwott

Q: What year in school are you, and what do you study?
A: I’m a senior studying economics and environmental policy.

Q: Where do you call home?
A: Western Kenya.

Q: Why did you come to Duke?
A: I always wanted to go abroad to study. I knew someone who had gone to Princeton who was from my hometown, so that sparked my interest. Duke stood out to me because of the academics, but it was also very a spirited school. I was a big sports person in high school, and the spirit that Duke promised to offer drew me in.

Q: What was it like settling into a new place?
A: It was quite an experience. It was exciting, but at the same time you don’t know what’s going on because now you’re meeting a lot of Americans but also a lot of people from other countries too, so there are a lot of cultures clashing. It was a lot of things—adapting to food, adapting to the way lectures are conducted, and also just the way you interact with people. This was my first time coming to the U.S., so all I knew about American culture was based on TV shows or movies or books or stories. I watched "One Tree Hill." That was one classic TV show that I loved, but that show transitions from high school straight to people working, so you miss that college gap, but in terms of culture I thought it was similar.

Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced so far?
A: I think navigating professor-student relationships has been challenging. In Kenya there’s kind of a hierarchy with your parents or your elders, so that also applies to teachers in school. You have to show respect, and you don’t call them by their first names. It’s “Ms. Somebody” or “Mr. Somebody.” But at Duke, there are some professors that really insist on breaking that, where they really want to encourage that professor-student interaction, so for me when I started freshman year, it was very awkward. I was trying to battle the two; I didn’t want to get left behind, but at the same time I want to feel like I’m true to myself and what I know.

Q: What do you like most about living and studying here?
A: One thing I like about Duke is that there are so many things you can do on campus, ranging from clubs you can get involved in to the classes you can take, the professors you can talk to… there are so many opportunities. Duke in itself is such a diverse place; I met people I think from every continent, and people here care about so many different things.

Q: What are some of the main cultural differences you have noticed in your time here?
A: Does dressing count? Maybe this is just a college thing, but people wearing sweatpants and pajamas to class. That kind of threw me off a little bit. In Kenya, people like dressing up. Even going to class you’d see people in heels. After some time at Duke I was like, “Oh, okay, well, I guess I can just wear my sweatpants now!” So that was a big difference.

I also hinted at interaction. People speak their minds here, and that’s very different from Kenya. Speaking between friends is fine, but professors and people older than you, you kind of try to restrain yourself in Kenya. But here, people like to speak out.

Q: Have you joined any clubs or groups since you arrived at Duke that have helped ease the transition?
A: I’m part of a selective living group called Languages Dorm, but we just call it LangDorm, which is basically people who are interested in languages but also learning about other people’s cultures. I’m a big language person; I’m intrigued by being able to speak different languages, so I think the diversity in the group has helped me learn a lot about other people and how to be sensitive about other cultures.

Freshman year I was also part of InterVarsity, which is a Christian club. I’m Christian, so I was looking for that environment to be with other people who identify as Christian. Although I’ve stopped going to InterVarsity, as a freshman you’re trying to explore many things, and InterVarsity was very good for me.

Q: What could other students do to help make the transition easier?
A: For the next incoming class, I would say be as open-minded as possible and accept some of the things you don’t believe in. I think people should come here to make friends, because if you make that group of friends—both international and American friends, because you shouldn’t restrict yourself—it helps. For me, freshman year, one of my friends who is an American invited me to her house in Pennsylvania for Christmas because I couldn’t go home, and that opened my mind to how Americans celebrate Christmas and how Americans interact. So I think if you make friends, the transition process will be easier.