Diane Cilengi was born in United States, but her earliest memory is from South Africa.

Diane Cilengi

Johannesburg, South Africa
(9,119 miles from Crookston)



How did you make your way to the University of Minnesota Crookston?

A lot of interesting things happened along the way I guess. I had applied to all five of the U of M campuses, but I only visited three. I visited the main U, I visited Rochester and then I visited here. It was definitely the longest drive to here. I liked the layout of the campus, and it was different for me. I had lived in a city, I’ve lived in a suburb. I’ve never been in a rural part of a country.

Was tennis a deciding factor in your choice?

Actually, no. I didn’t join the tennis team until recently. I had played tennis all of high school, but I wasn’t thinking of being a college athlete just because I thought that the pre-med courses would be enough to keep me super, super busy, but I like having a very busy schedule.

How did you come to join the tennis team?

It was through some friends. I had a friend who had a friend on the tennis team, and they were recruiting. They were just looking for people who had some experience. I told them that I had played for 12 years. They asked me to come in, play a little bit, challenge one of them and that’s how I got on.

How do you feel being a student-athlete differed from being just a student?

You definitely don’t have your own time. Wow. I’m definitely someone who likes spontaneity, so I just like doing what I want when I want to do it. But because of team workouts and the occasional team lift, practice, your own practice, you really don’t have your time. It’s school time, sport time, sleep time.

Were you looking to venture a decent distance away from home?

Yes and no. I definitely wanted something different. Not too far away from home like I am. I wasn’t opposed to the idea. I like challenges. I like being in unfamiliar places, being uncomfortable for a little bit just to find comfort in that. Crookston was definitely a stretch. I have family in the cities, so I don’t feel like I’m too far.

Aside from the U of M campuses, were you looking at any other schools in other states or countries?

I was looking at Chicago. Loyola University has a good program there. I know I was looking at Switzerland and Finland. They have some very good med programs there. Just their healthcare system is a model I definitely want to study at some point.

Did having family in the United States help you lean towards it over the other countries?

I was born in the United States, so I guess that kind of persuaded me even more. As much as I would be an international student, because I went to high school out of the United States, I technically wasn’t an international student. I get a bit of both I guess.

Where were you born in the United States?

In Brooklyn Park north of Minneapolis.

How did you end up moving to South Africa?

My parents decided not to stay. They went back. I guess they just missed Africa too much.

How old were you when you moved to Africa?

Like, an infant. I literally don’t remember this place.

When you returned to the United States, did you feel any familiarity at all?

None. It was totally new, like, learning how to use the currency, because we don’t have as many coins, the accent, how people greet, how to spell. I still struggle with that because American English is different from British English.

What was the biggest cultural transition you had to make?

Cultural-wise, South Africa is very much a pot of mixtures. We have many different tribes, many different cultures as well. In the cities, it’s literally a boiling pot of everything, so I didn’t feel a cultural difference as much. I did live in the city, so I wasn’t too unfamiliar with how cities work. I just had to drive on the opposite side of the road.

How often do get to go home?

I think I’ve been home three times. The most recent being this winter break. I was there over summer, and I didn’t get a summer, because we have opposite seasons, so I had to go during winter break to get some sort of sunshine.

What struggles come with missing birthdays and holidays with your family?

It’s sad. It is so sad. It’s funny that you mentioned that, because people don’t really think about that when you move. I miss my family, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more than that. I went to high school with people, and they’ve all gone to college and met each other in different networks. They’re all living their lives, and I’m living mine here. Even though we’re on the same journey, it feels like we’re on two completely different planes.

Do you still consider moving to the United States the best decision for you?

Yeah. I definitely grew a lot.

What do you think you would have missed out on had you stayed in South Africa?

Independence. The way America runs things. In South Africa, you can’t work until you’re 18. When I came here, I saw people my age and younger already getting into the workforce. Learning how things work like taxes, deductions, things like that. That was impressive, because in high school, that was the last thing I was thinking about. I was like, I’ll go to college, and by the time I’m 26, I’ll have my first job. Because that’s how that works there. You don’t drive until you’re 18. Everything is much later in life. When I came here, I had to grow up instantly.

How long did it take you to get used to it?

A couple months. I moved here in February, and I started school that fall. So I had about six months to adjust.

How long did it take you to get used to saying Crookston is your home?

A while. At the beginning, I was very hesitant to accept it. It was hard, not just being a way from home, but being in such a different place. I want to say not until sophomore year.

Do you have a memory from when you felt at home?

The biggest thing I can think of right now is I had to take out my braids not too long ago. One of my roommates, Amber Schoenicke, said she would help me. I said I’ll be home in a second, and she said, “I’ll be here.” I thought that’s so comforting to know I can go home to someone who makes me feel safe and at home.

Was there anyone else that helped you get acclimated to living here?

I guess not really anyone on my team. We’re still kind of new to each other. I could definitely say my first roommate. Her name is Hannah Krueger. She’s been there from day one. From the first day I met her to this very second, she’s been there. She’s from East Grand Forks, so she’s more accustomed to this area than I am. She’s helped me out with so much.

Does your family often visit you in Crookston?

Besides putting me here when I came here freshman year, they came out again my sophomore year. My mom actually came out to visit me about a year ago around this time. They never hesitate to come through if I need them.

How many connections does it take to get back and forth?

It depends. I know Delta has this flight. I just tried it, and it’s 17 hours straight from South Africa to Detroit. That’s the shortest one. That one’s like three planes at most. Usually I go from MSP, and then I fly from MSP to Amsterdam, and then Amsterdam to South Africa.

How long have you been playing tennis?

Since first grade. My mom had this dream that my sister and I would be the next Williams sisters. My sister stopped playing tennis, but I carried on until my senior year. I only stopped when I came here and started again.

What other sports did you play in high school?

I swam until like eighth grade. I did track until 10th grade. Soccer from sixth grade to senior year. That was one of my favorite sports. I did rock climbing. Then I did a sport you guys don’t have here, which breaks my heart. It’s called netball. It’s, honestly, one of my favorite passions. My sister’s on the national team.

What was the appeal to tennis?

Definitely the strong female presence. Besides Serena and Venus, Maria Sharapova, Sloane Stephens. It’s easier to look up to them, because they’re so prominent. Even in South Africa. They’re not South African, but we know of them. We know their achievements, we know their titles, we know their life stories. My mom was very in to tennis. It was just a matter of the familiarity, but also I know I can improve, and I can see my improvement as I keep working.  

Why do you feel it is important to travel away from home to new places?

People don’t really know what they’re capable of until they’re removed from a comfortable situation. If you had talked to me three or four years ago about traveling on my own on busses, trains, flights, I would’ve been terrified. There’s no way I could have done that. My sister just moved to the states, and I’m teaching her how to do that. Not that we were sheltered or anything, but it’s really a different concept to organize and accomplish things on your own.

What are you planning to do after you graduate?

I want to do a lot of things. It’s pretty much two routes. Either med school or law school. Med school to be an OB-GYN, or law school to go into healthcare practice. I just feel like there’s a lot to do in the field. I just don’t know where my place is exactly. Today, it’s probably be the law side. I just feel like there’s a lot of inequality that could be addressed that isn’t really being sought to right now. I know America is really trying to fix their healthcare system, so this is the perfect time to hop in on that project. But at the same time, I don’t know what all of that entails. I’m only starting to understand how Medicaid works, what Obamacare was, why they don’t want it. Things like that.

Did you persuade your sister to move to the U.S.?

Not at all. That was all her. I actually told her not to come here, because then I’d have to worry about her. I knew she wouldn’t be on this campus with me. She’s in Duluth.

If you were talking to someone on the fence about moving far away from home, what is some advice you’d give them?

I would emphasize becoming yourself. The person I am, or who I was, back home, is looking at me and she’s like, “Wow. You did that. You grew up. You overcame your fears. You did things that most people couldn’t do.” I think I really surprised myself, and that in itself was really self-rewarding.

Where do you want to live after you graduate?

I definitely want to see the east coast. I’m strangely drawn to Rhode Island. I visited Boston a couple times, and I just liked the feel of the city. It wasn’t too busy, but it wasn’t quiet.

Where are you looking for law school or medical school?

I am looking at Brown University. I’m also looking at some schools in Chicago. I really wanted to live in Chicago. I just think I want to live in every major city. Internationally, I’m looking at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. If I could move to South Africa, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I just know that a degree from here would go further.

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