Commentary: A Nigerian in the Diaspora writes about his journey to the U.S. and how he is giving back to his home country

By Akin Olaoye

Is that a form I-20 attached to your passport and what school are you going to?…… She replied “Alabama State University”. A question I asked a young lady (Tolu) standing ahead of me while waiting to board the delta flight from Lagos to Atlanta August 14th 2011.

I got this same form I-20 and was embarking on this  journey exactly 10 years ago. It was a joyous moment and exhilarating period for me and my friends who went through the same experience many years back.

On growing up…

I grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria where my dad had worked with Shell oil & gas for 28yrs after retiring as a management staff. The community I grew up in was heavily influenced by a foreign way of life, which provided the most suitable environment for raising kids and opportunities that made “life a walk in the park”.
From enjoying a surreal life with company paid holiday vacations on a Donier private jet multiple times a year to exotic vacation spots like Obudu Cattle ranch or Yankari game reserve.

Also unrestricted access to an Olympic sized swimming pool,in door basketball court, tennis & racquet ball courts, Air-conditioned buses to and from school, working home telephones, ever constant water supply, uninterrupted power generation and streets with patrol policemen and German Shepherd dogs on patrol round the clock, I must say that’s the Nigeria I hope for everyone.

All these would make the average Nigerian twitch their noses in disbelief, but I tell you it was my life growing up in Nigeria. Living in a large residential area with other Nigerian and expatriate families made life seem like a vacation considering the hardships that existed outside the walls of the Shell Estate. Going through the Nigerian secondary school (high school education) often created the opportunity to be served that dose of reality while being away from home from 8am -2pm. However once you are back home, life feels like Suburban New Jersey.

My  journey to America in 2001 was one filled with ambition, determination and strife as the assumption was that, a kid with my background will have an easy passage through the hoops of gaining admissions and getting a student visa…FALSE!!!

My dad had always been a patriotic Nigerian and a die-hard “OAU Ife Alumnus”, in which he held Regional Chapter president for a while and had a disdain for overseas undergraduate education. My dad was an advocate for everything Nigerian from taking vacations within Nigeria as a kid in the 80’s and 90’s to learning about Nigerian cultural heritage not even taught in classrooms.

How do I even confront a man like him with his education, exposure, success and a love for his country that the education I seek lies outside the shores of Nigeria without getting a slap in the face? Like other friends who grew up in this privileged environment, a number of them were faced with the same dilemma.
One hot summer afternoon in 1998 I picked up some old U.S college brochures my older brother had received, but lost interest in following through with application process.

Looking for schools…

I began looking through pages of beautiful U.S college campuses, student testimonials and extramural activities advertised by the colleges to prospective students. I said to myself there is no way I will subject myself to a University of Port Harcourt or OAU Ife even considering the comfort or easy lifestyle that would be available to me if I attended college in Nigeria.

My older siblings had enrolled in Nigerian universities and loved every second of it considering the fact that they were legacy kids at OAU and lived in our fully furnished vacation estate 10mins from campus, with most amenities not available to a lot of people in the area (Nitel phone, Water, constant Light, nicely furnished home with video games etc). Their monthly allowances were almost at par with an entry level lecturer’s monthly pay and talk about the numerous textbook requests and other supplies that were opportunities for additional cash.

After graduating high school in June of 1999 and acing my JAMB exams with high scores (261), all of the perks they got did not entice or deter me from being distracted with my Ambition to school in America.

A lot of my friends who had similar ambitions shared stories of their parents discouraging them from even considering ther thought and this became a common story with the exception of 1 or 2 pals getting the full support of their parents. We unconsciously began congregating at a pal’s residence to establish communications with U.S institutions, receiving mails at their home addresses and asking their parents with the payment for SAT, application fees and other materials to conceal any ambition till the moment was right.

We were often considered “Dreamers” by others who had made the resolve to school in Nigeria or the ones that were simply going “no-where”.

Being privileged with an environment that had all the recreational activities available to a kid in Suburban Houston, we picked basketball as a hobby with a number of kids even honing ambitions to get scholarships or play in the NBA. This indoor basketball court was a playground as well as a recruitment center for those looking to school overseas.

A number of friends who had never seen SAT forms, developed interest at this basketball gym and began chasing similar ambitions. (Obviously this spot was a chick magnet, considering the fact there was minimal parental supervision for teenagers)

It was exciting to see eight to ten 17-year olds trying to fulfill an ambition of schooling in a distant land with no supervision or fear of being alone. From taking the SAT exams to sharing tips on application process and all the tricks to finding scholarships/tuition assistance, we became admission experts in our own right. At the time you could a name any school in America and I will tell you the student size, application fee, ranking on USNEWS, Courses offered and tuition cost to the closest decimal figure! Talk, we even fathomed the idea of starting that site back in 2000.

All this made us sound very knowledgeable and convincing while talking to any adult, including our parents on the pros and cons of schooling outside Nigeria. At some point each kid in the group had about 4-5 form I-20’s in their folders with more admissions packets en-route from one school or another. At the time we soon figured that getting an I-20 was as easy as sending an email, however the difficult part was convincing dad or mum to open the war chest that will fund the college education.

This was a period of trials and tribulations for most of my pals including “yours respectfully”. Thinking we belonged to some elite part of society would make this an easy conversation, considering the fact that the exposure and financial abilities our parents had to fund a U.S education. But I must confess the Naija old-school mentality soon dawned on us as my dad considered it penny wise, pound foolish to send his 4th child to America while three siblings were successfully enrolled in one of Nigeria’s prestigious university (As of 1999).

For me since I had a JAMB score that provided red carpet access to any Nigerian institution to study engineering, I realized I had a steeper Achilles hill in the “art of convincing” ahead of me, unlike a number of my pals who didn’t attempt the JAMB exam. My dad after several discouraging sessions to quit my ambitions and focus on schooling in Nigeria left me with a condition that I at least gain some exposure at OAU and maybe we could consider the U.S as an option.

The ploy was to suck me into the good life and thrills of a Nigerian university campus and by being distracted I will forgo the ambition of schooling in America. I was forced to pack my bag and depart for OAU but I left will all my I-20 forms, college catalogs and immediately emailed all the schools to extend my enrollment date for another 12months. I guess “old man” assumed it was the JAMB style once the admission is gone; you lose the opportunity to enroll…haah!

Studying at Obafemi Awolowo University

I arrived late at OAU and had been kicked off the admissions list for Electrical Engineering and they got me into the Computer Maths program (what the hell is computer Maths?). I hated and loved every moment while enrolled at OAU, I had a lot of money, nice clothes, clothes (Timberland and NIKE shoes that made the average undergrad invisible). To hell with all that for me I was convinced my stay was temporary from day one!
I made a number of great friends, hated the academic structure and hustle that was associated with class schedules. From fighting for seats at 4am in the morning for a Chemistry class (Angel of chemistry), hot lecture venues in the afternoon and no relaxation areas with air-conditioning that would encourage an undergraduate to achieve the highest potentials. Call me a spoilt brat, I totally admit I was one! I definitely enjoyed the ALUTA “student riots” and occasional protests plus raiding of coca cola trucks when they were barred from campus…LOL!!!! Also New Bukateria meals were very affordable to me and because I lived on campus I didn’t have to deal with the difficult dorm life. I enjoyed visiting the freshman dormitory at night “Mozambique hall” while trying to date some of the prettiest girls in which I was very unsuccessful “Thank God” (They mostly favored stallites – term for 300 or 400 year students). I guess that would have sealed my fate as presumed by my old man!

While on campus I was fortunate to be a PC operator in the Maths dept computer lab which was the only other place other than the computer science department that had internet accessible to students. Having access to internet back at home in 1999 allowed me to man the computers at times with un-restricted access, which allowed me to keep my correspondences with the U.S schools and I updated my admission status for another 15months. In March of 2001, there was a long strike that had gone on for over 7 months, this is when I seized the golden opportunity. I went back to PHC and by then 3 of my pals had departed, 1 had been denied a U.S visa 2 times in which he received later and I was told the visa process just got more difficult (Talk of losing hope). I began a strategy to convince my old man to free the Israelites…LOL! I became best friends with my mum and influenced a number of my family friends to become advocates including my dearest aunt who is departed (bless her soul).

My Visa Interview…

After months of sitting at home while school was on strike, I finally convinced my old man that it would be worthwhile attempting a visa interview. He gave me “partial blessings” and honestly hoped they will kill my ambition at the Embassy. At 18yrs of age, I gained extreme confidence after practicing visa interviews with numerous family friends that had sent their kids off to college in the U.S and finally it was my turn. I spent the night at a family friend’s house who was a Naval Admiral in Lagos and he gave me a confidence parade overnight and I got to the dreaded embassy line at 6.15am in the morning to meet other F-1 sojourners like me. (F**ked one or maybe Fortunate ones)
It was a typical visa interview situation, little nervousness and a mix of confidence, “total honesty” and charisma while responding to questions. Perhaps my Dad’s occupation, home address and proof I had attempted a Nigerian Institution which happened to be on ASUU strike was a enough proof I had valuable reasons and strong ties to be qualified for a student visa. Oh by the way, my dad only gave me a letter from the bank with no bank statements at the time, that move was definitively a student visa killer! Perhaps disclosing his financial capacity wasn’t going to help him win this battle in the long run he may have thought!!!

I rang home at 5.15pm after picking up my visa broke the bad news to my old man “I got the visa”. I am sure he probably lost 20lbs hearing that from me, he said ok that’s “some news”. We would talk when you get home; I knew the worst still laid ahead of me considering the fact that another pal’s old man had informed him “visa or no visa you are stuck in Naija”.

I had to get “mummy” of course to plot my final departure and the remittance of tuition and fees, trust me visa or no visa it boils down to funding! I started washing my old man’s cars at least twice a day, my laundry skills were top notch with me ironing 3-4 times daily and any possible errands that will keep him happy.

It became apparent to him that my ambition and focus was enough let me live in a foreign land with no relatives in clear sight to keep track or monitor my activities. I guess this was the same fear for many Nigerian parents at the time and it’s still the same way today (Well Skyping and Facebook have definitely eased this concern). This is a decision each parent needs to make regardless of what the next individual chooses to do, parents you know your kids better and you are to decide if it’s in their best interest.
I departed Nigeria Mid-August and met up with 6 of my pals who went through the ritual for a little retreat in Atlanta before resuming college. I graduated college Summa Cum Laude with an Engineering degree in 4 years and frequented Nigeria on summer holidays just to keep close ties with my friends and relatives. How incredible that 4 years later my classmates at OAU where in Year 3 of their studies, after I had lost 2 years (It took them almost7yrs). This is not in jest to the setbacks they suffered but to highlight the condition of our educational system. (At least strikes are not as long as they used to be “thank God for minimum wage, but we can do without them).

I appreciate the exposure I received at OAU and even considering the challenges Nigerian undergraduates are faced with, each individual has a destiny and my pals that didn’t fulfill that ambition to school in America are very successful in their fields back home as “your location shouldn’t determine your situation”. My story only reflects the challenges all humans are confronted with whether privileged or poor.
Today, I live in America and frequent Nigeria multiple times a year to manage a start-up product that I started with 2 of my pals who came here to study. Schooling overseas doesn’t make you more knowledgeable or superior, however if you can apply yourself and tap into the opportunities available in an educational system, it can be used in positive ways to contribute to your home country.

Giving back…

I had a pledge to find ways to contribute to my country either remotely or physically and our start-up has employed over 30 people and continues to improve lives in the country which I grew up and loved so much. My old man is proud, I feel accomplished and I proved the doubters wrong…(A neighbor that felt it was his duty to highlight kids whom had gotten deported for mischievous reasons).

There is nothing wrong with dreaming while working very hard to achieve goals either to further your studies overseas or back in Nigeria. My dad sold firewood to pay his college tuition at OAU in the 1960’s, so not everyone will be privileged as a number of undergraduates find themselves in the same situation today in Nigeria, U.K or America. (My hats off you if you are self-financing or financed your education)
As I disembarked the business class cabin after my 11hr flight to Atlanta and looked to the economy section, stirring at over 100 plus F-1 students waiting in line to enter America for this 1st time to begin their studies, I asked myself what is their story and what would it be like after 10years?

Will they be “F**ked trying to survive in a country they have no ties or are they fortunate to have the opportunity to study here and eventually make a difference by contributing to their Fatherland they just departed?

Regardless of your story in receiving an overseas or local education + Skill, find a way give back contribute to Nigeria/Africa as the exposure and education you have gained in America or UK should be a tool for our National Development!!!!

I wish all the students embarking on this journey during the Spring 2012 Academic Semester all the best and wish you continued success in your endeavors!

Akin Olaoye is a co-founder of a business listings product in Nigeria with multiple business interests in Nigeria.

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7 thoughts on “Commentary: A Nigerian in the Diaspora writes about his journey to the U.S. and how he is giving back to his home country

  • Edos

    (May 3, 2012 - 6:23 pm)

    very funny yet an Intriguing perspective. I will share this with my ex-OAU alumni, this brings back alot of fond memories. I hope Nigerians in diaspora think like this.

  • sherif

    (May 3, 2012 - 10:36 pm)

    This is interesting and encouraging. Its lovely knowing that the father son approval stuff is not oly me

  • Ibitoye bamidele

    (May 4, 2012 - 1:43 am)

    I nid help 4rm u people. And i appreciate wot is here.

  • Ibitoye bamidele

    (May 4, 2012 - 1:43 am)

    Tank u

  • Ije

    (May 4, 2012 - 12:51 pm)

    Excellent write-up !
    Give back to Nigeria , should remain our refrain at worse and at best, celebrate what is right with Nigeria-the Naija spirit and do your best to help transform the land of our birth !
    Ije Jidenma.

  • Ezinma

    (May 9, 2012 - 5:37 pm)

    Great article, very encouraging for those face with similar situations, and who have dreams and hopes of studying abroad. One thing I must point out though is that OAU cannot be that bad if it produced your father, a graduate who retired from Shell in a Management position – same position that people who gained the very same degrees abroad are invited to fill (expatriates). Also, there was an excessive mention of the writers privileged background – however, I couldn’t see the points these were aiming at. Finally, I think the article in general would have read better with more on the “giving back” and less on the visa process and fathers money. Just my opinion, but great article nonetheless.

  • ola

    (May 11, 2012 - 2:30 pm)

    @Ezinma – OAU of the 70’s is different from OAU of today, thesame way Nigeria of the 70s is different from nigeria of today.
    I think the author was highlighting his privileged early life, as a backdrop for his journey into hardships and a pledge to give back. How many of the privilege kids of the 90s will engage in giving back to their community today? They are more interested in the next Vodka brand launch and how they will shine on the red carpet of the next nollywood extravaganza.
    I think you failed to understand what the “giving back” aspect of the write up was. Giving back includes sharing experiences (as the author did above) and also offering encouragement and hope.
    What I got out of the story was – the I-20 form is ur ticket in to the US, but when you touch US soil, what path does that I-20 direct you to. The path of the “I got a degree in the US and Gods shall lead the way to NYSC” or the path of “I got a US degree and I feel very accomoplished and fulfilled to improve naija”.

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