From Nigeria to St. Cloud, and back again

US_NIGERIAGoing away to college is one of those defining, life-altering moments. Imagine not just going to another city or state for college, but, instead, leaving the only country you’ve ever known to fly across the world, alone, to attend school in St. Cloud, MN. We have many students at SCSU that do that each year!

14866-ilorin-locator-mapOluwatobi Ife Oluwagbeni, or Tobi for short, is originally from Africa. She was born in Ilorin, the medium-sized capital of Kwara State in Western Nigeria. She is the only child in her family and is the first person in her extended family to leave her country for college. Tobi searched the internet for schools in America and ended up applying in California and Hawaii and Minnesota. During her first winter here in St. Cloud, she asked herself one question: “Um, why didn’t I choose to go to the beach?” 🙂

“I came to America in 2014,” Tobi explained, “carrying everything I had in two really huge bags. After I landed in the Minneapolis airport, the first thing I did was get lost! I knew that was the time I would sink or swim so, I began to ask strangers for directions.” Tobi was determined to make this American college experience work: “I’m going to school in America, not only for me, but for my mom who never had this chance.” Having lived in multiple countries, she now knows that she loves to travel and is excited to explore other parts of the globe when she graduates. “The world is a book” Tobi explains. “If you live in only one place, you’ve only read one chapter.”

13329549_1630829020571363_6270942431184498614_oTobi will graduate in 2017 with degrees in International Relations and Women’s Studies. “After I graduate, I will go back home to Nigeria. There are so many opportunities there for me with an American degree.” She desires to work on global women’s issues – especially gender equality. She strongly believes that women should never be treated as less than men. Growing up, she was told that the woman’s role was to stay home, raise kids, and cook. She desires to empower women to be independent, understanding that they have more to bring to their towns and villages than just cooking and cleaning.

Tobi’s dad does not agree with the idea of empowering women. He truly believes women shouldn’t aim too high in life and that they certainly should not challenge men. Her dad did not support her decision to come to the US for college. Mustering up a determined look on her face, Tobi vows: “If someday I have a life partner, they will trust me and support my dreams.”  

Tobi credits her mom with helping her to realize early on that she could do anything she put her mind to. Her eyes glistened with tears, thinking of her mom and missing her greatly. Tobi is a goal-setter and credits her mom with instilling that trait in her. Her main goal is to help others but a very close second is to make her mom proud.

12998181_1606959449624987_5785478559648903094_o“I don’t want to spend time focusing on myself” says Tobi. “Before I came to St. Cloud, I didn’t know who I was. Now I know I am strong and independent.” While focusing hard on academic excellence, she is also a Jugaad leadership program member and has won awards at SCSU, including “Most Involved Student” and SCSU’s Multicultural Student Services “National Engaged Leader” award.

Tobi has been here for a while now, and has been intrigued by some of the differences between American life and the way she grew up. “I don’t understand when I see people in the cafeteria here leave a bunch of food on their plates and then throw it away. There are so many hungry people in this world. Why can’t we work in small ways to help them? Some ways to help are so simple – don’t waste food. Think about others that don’t have the life that you do.”

Tobi is also amazed at how many college students do not take advantage of the opportunities offered by SCSU. “They don’t seem to get what I fully understand: the opportunity that I’ve been presented with in coming to America for college. An opportunity that many of my classmates growing up in Nigeria did not have.”

While she is grateful for the opportunity to attend SCSU, figuring out a new country, alone, has been very hard. “I thought America would be roses and money and that people would be waiting to welcome me with open arms. I thought everything here was perfect and that I wouldn’t struggle. But I did struggle.”

There have been people at the college and in the St. Cloud area that have helped her through her struggles. One such story happened during finals week. “I have to take the bus each day to school – and I missed the 10:40 bus. This was not good at all because my finals presentation was at 11. My first thought was for my mom and how, if I missed this final, I could disappoint her. I knew it would take me 30 minutes to walk to class, so, I started trying to flag down cars.” Finally, a woman stopped. Tobi explained the situation, and she was given a ride to class. “Thank you – you saved my life and my career. I’m so grateful that you stopped while other passed me by.”

Ilorin_round_aboutWe talked for some time about what it will be like to go back to Nigeria next year. “In Nigeria, people don’t have jobs because of government corruption. You can graduate and then not get a job. Without jobs, there is crime.” I asked Tobi what people will think about her desire to empower women. “I have role models like Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Whenever you stand for something, you have haters. Haters don’t stop me, they motivate me. If you try to stop me from doing something, I now have twice the power to do it because I already wanted to do it and now I also want to show you that I can do it!”

13350444_1630447500609515_5722903395843960055_oWomen in Nigeria, especially women in politics, have had to get divorces to achieve their dreams. “This is not the way it should be!” Tobi exclaimed. “I should be able to do anything. Don’t put women in a box. I define myself, don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. And, don’t tell me who I am – I know who I am. I’m about to get my degree – which is an instrument of empowerment. I want girls in Nigeria and around the world to be educated so they can be empowered too.” ”

As we ended out interview, I told Tobi that she inspires me greatly and that her story will inspire so many others as she lives out her goals and dreams, honoring her mother every step of the way. “God has something for me that nobody can stop.” Tobi stated resolutely. “I can’t wait to see where I will be in 3 years or 5 years since I have come this far in just a couple years in America.”

About the Author

Natalie Ringsmuth

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Natalie grew up in Central Minnesota and received her Music Education degree from Concordia College in Moorhead. She taught middle school choir in Georgia and worked in the church sector for over a decade. She now works as a legal assistant at Tripiciano Immigration Law, a trainer with the CARE (Community Anti-Racism Education) Team at SCSU (St Cloud State University), and as Founder and Director of #unitecloud, a non-profit working to reduce racial, religious, and cultural tensions in Central MN. She is a member of the Community Impact Team at United Way of Central MN and is a member of the St Cloud District 742 school board. In her spare time (haha) she loves to spend time with her husband and 3 children.