African student builds new life in America

By Callie Jennings – cjenning@unca.edu – Staff Writer | Oct. 15, 2014 |

After moving from his home in Onitsha, Nigeria, Emeka Okonkwo, a senior, represents the growing number of international students enrolling at UNC Asheville to continue their education in the United States.

“I came here from Nigeria with my parents and my siblings on March 7, 2011. My dad won the American Visa Lottery. So when my dad applied, he was lucky that he won it, but I was already in the university. I was in pharmacy school,” Okonkwo said.

Emeka
Emeka Okonkwo

According to Okonkwo, people in Africa apply for these lotteries in hopes to gain the liberties to come to live in America as a permanent resident. After five years, they can apply for citizenship.

Okonkwo and his family came straight to Charlotte to live in an apartment that a family friend found for them.

“I wanted to come to America – I was 20 when we moved here, but it was hard to leave my friends and everyone we knew. But I knew I had to try and adapt to make new friends. Which was hard because I was all about staying inside, not going out. I was trying to stay home,” Okonkwo said.

According to Okonkwo two months passed with little accomplished.

“It was time for me to get back to school. That’s one of the reasons I was so willing to come with my dad here. I have more opportunities at school here than I would in Nigeria. So I applied,” Okonkwo said.

Okonkwo applied to many schools including UNC Charlotte, UNCA and South Carolina University.

Okonkwo, after only being in the United States for three months and armed with his transcripts from Nigeria, was denied. The universities did not yet see him as a resident of North Carolina and told him he would need to pay out-of-state tuition.

“I went to so many universities but they all said I would have to pay out-of-state. That got me mad. I went home and told my dad that they said I would have to wait a year to be an in-state student, but if I want to start right now I would have to pay out-of-state,” Okonkwo said. “They gave me options, like loans and things, but no, I didn’t want to do that. So I told my dad I wanted to go back to Nigeria. I wasn’t enjoying America anymore.”

Okonkwo’s mindset of starting school right away and begged his father to pay for a plane ticket to send him home so he could be in pharmacy school again. His father refused.

“He told me I needed to have patience and adapt to American life. I am so happy today that he did that, but I wasn’t happy with him at the time, we had little conversation. So I started making calls to anyone who would get me a ticket so I could go back home,” Okonkwo said.

Finally, after a year of waiting and working, Okonkwo was finally able to go to school. He chose UNCA because of the pharmacy school program, the scenery and the distance from his home.

“After the first month, I started making connections and I have good friends here. Not that I wouldn’t like to go back to Nigeria and visit those friends, but we’re not as close as we used to be. I want to stay in America ever since I started school in Asheville.

Okonkwo graduates in May and he has not been back to visit Nigeria since he moved here.

“Emeka is a great guy, very fun and down to earth. He truly embodies the spirit of positivity. There hasn’t been a time where I haven’t seen a smile on his face or he isn’t trying to help someone,” said Mirlesna Azor, community director of Founders Hall.

Azor worked with Okonkwo two years now and she herself can relate to his story. Azor moved to Boston from her hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

“If you are an international student or if you’re coming from another country there are things that are going to make you love it or hate it. Quite often people don’t realize that in media, America is portrayed as something and you have to find out what that something is for you. It was a big leap of faith. I’m glad that he stayed,” Azor said.

Someone else who is glad he stayed is Jazz Person, a junior. Person and Okonkwo dated for the past two years.

“I first met Emeka on bingo night my freshman year, two years ago. Toward the end of the night this tall guy saunters over and just stands over us, it was really weird. But he talked to my friend in order to figure out who I was and told her he was interested in getting to know me,” Person said.

Person agrees with Azor that Okonkwo is very positive.

“He’s always laughing. He encourages other people to get in a better mood but I don’t think he realizes how impactful his personality is. If people see him not talking they find it scary because it’s not normal. I’m just glad he has finally found a good place to be,” Person said.

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