Home Featured News From Senegal to Grand Rapids

From Senegal to Grand Rapids

Martine Coly
Coly. Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez

By Martine Coly – Collegiate Staff

I was born and raised in Dakar Senegal, located on the Cap Vert peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean.

As a child I had lots of fun in Senegal. I would spend most of my time playing outside with my best friends Angelique, Françoise, Deborah and Esther. Life back home was great because my entire family, lived close to me. I was surrounded by those who meant the most to me.

I was living with my mom, my sister Vanessa Felicite, and my brother Yannick Nestore. At the time, my dad was not living with us because he has been in the United State since 2002. In 2008, my mom told me that we were going to move to the United States. Until that point, I never thought that one day I would get to live in another country.

At first I was not very excited with the news, then I felt sadness all over me. I was going to leave the place that I spent my childhood in. I was going to be away from my best friends that I had spent my childhood with. I was going to be far away from the rest of my family, including my grandparents that I love dearly. I was going to be far away from my country, the place I had always called home.

Inside my mind I was asking several questions. How will the new country look? What is life like there? How will I be able to communicate with people once I’m there, knowing that the only languages I spoke were French, Wolof (my country’s second National language), and Diola? I was aware, from school, that English was the language spoken in America, but I never learned how to speak it while in Senegal.

On the other hand I was a little happy because I was going to discover another country half way around the world. I was also excited because I was going to get on an airplane. Ever since I was little, I watched the airplanes in the sky fly by, wondering when will I finally get to see airplanes up close, right in front of my eyes, get inside one of them to see what they look like, and experience the feeling of being inside an airplane that is flying.

I was also going to see snow for the very first time in my life once in America. For several years I wanted to know how snow looked when it fell from the sky. It never snows in Africa.

One positive thing about this voyage is that it was going to answer all the questions that I had.

Another benefit is that unlike many people who never got to travel I got the opportunity to live in two different continents that were miles away from each other. It was simply a blessing, because I am a very curious person. I like to know everything and discover new things all the time.

When the day finally came to leave my country, I said my final goodbyes to my family and friends with tears and sadness all over my face, knowing that I will not be able to see them again for a very long time. At the airport I boarded the plane with excitement because it was my first time on an airplane. And I got my answer to one of my questions. The airplane looked bigger in front of my eyes compared to its side when I used to see it fly in the sky.

Flying in an airplane is amazing and I loved it. I was sitting by the window when I saw the beautiful view of the clouds. I spent the rest of my time sleeping.

The plane stopped in Morocco for several hours, then we took a second plane to New York. From New York we took a Greyhound to Detroit. From Detroit my dad came to pick us up, and drove us back to Grand Rapids. The voyage took us 8 hours and 40 minutes to fly from Dakar to New York City. I arrived in America on Nov. 4, 2008, a significant date I will always remember.

Because I was 14 when I arrived, my dad took me straight to high school. At first we went to Creston High School, but because they did not offer ESL courses, I was not accepted. So he took me to Adelante High School, a school that offers students ESL classes and teaches students how to speak English.

The first few months of school were very difficult for me due to the language barrier, but despite this challenge I was excelling and getting good grades. I practiced how to speak English at school, through the amazing program at my school, books, homework, watching the Disney Channel, and with the help of my amazing teacher, Ms. Clark, who did a wonderful job as my ESL teacher.

I can’t complain but be rather thankful because I was given all the resources necessary to speak fluent English. Within six months I was able to speak and understand the English language. Six months earlier I carried a piece of paper given to me by Ms. Clark with a note on it that I would show to my bus driver for my destination from school to home, because I was not able to communicate.

I also got the answer to the rest of my questions when I saw how beautiful the snow was when falling and how amazing of a country the United States really is. After my freshman year in high school I moved to Creston High School for my sophomore year. At the end of my sophomore year, we moved to Kentwood where I attended East Kentwood High School for my junior and senior years. In 2012, I graduated from East Kentwood. The following fall I enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College.

Having the chance to go through this journey helped me see the difference between two different countries, where the weather, the culture, the language along with the education system are all different. I am today a very different person from the innocent fourteen year old girl who made that journey, because the voyage made me more mature. Back home I would have to rely on my parents for everything, even at twenty, due to the fact that there is a lack of jobs there. Here in America, I have learned to be independent by getting a job, and at the same time going to school.

I have learned what hard work really means.


  1. My husband and I lived in Dakar for seven years with two of our children, and enjoyed reading your article. Leaving behind friends and family is never easy, as you have shared, but the new land always holds opportunities for growth and learning. You have done a wonderful job of mastering the English language – it is not an easy language to learn. Perhaps our paths will one day cross. We have settled in Wisconsin now, but have a son living in Grand Rapids with his family. Blessings as you continue your new life here.

  2. […] From Senegal to Grand Rapids As a child I had lots of fun in Senegal. I would spend most of my time playing outside with my best friends Angelique, Françoise, Deborah and Esther. Life back home was great because my entire family, lived close to me. I was surrounded by those who … Read more on The Collegiate […]

Comments are closed.