Why do immigrant kids perform so well in America (2): The Nigerian example – Tola Adenle

June 13, 2011

The Diaspora

by Tola Adenle

In the United States of America, Nigerians are generally a despised lot.  Yeah, there is the little problem of a great notoriety earned by their country through the fraudulent mails that have defrauded thousands of foreigners millions of dollars, perhaps especially, Americans. Nigerian professionals, of course, are not despised among their peers because of this smear by association.  In a highly stratified society where race matters a whole lot, African-Americans are at the bottom of the pile because of the history of slavery.

Immigrants in America are always a very enterprising and hardworking group which explains why the country looks to rejuvenate itself by encouraging legal migration through the Diversity Lottery Program started over two decades ago.  Even within this group, the Nigerian is legendary.  He/she combines the I’m-hungry-to-succeed attitude of immigrants which calls for hard work with the chutzpah of the typical Nigerian, not difficult for a people not having been held back by even slight vestiges of slavery that are very difficult to shake off in African-Americans no matter the status.  It often comes across to Americans, especially African-Americans – as arrogance.

To make matters worse – as far as relationships between African-Americans and Nigerians in America – is a fact that galls African-Americans: Nigerians as “usurpers” of what are theirs.  Being generally well-educated, Nigerians – hundreds of thousands are naturalized citizens – are seen as preferred hires by employers who want to hire African-Americans.

While most immigrant groups are widely and easily embraced by their kinds, African-Americans have not seen a group like Nigerians as being more of positive than people to be despised.  The stereotypes embedded in the American system about ‘blacks’ could be easily debunked IF statistics of Africans, especially Nigerians, are included.  Lack of ambition, truancy in kids, teenage pregnancies and other social problems that always feature prominently in American statistics as being generically ‘black’ are all results of the deprived environment and the conditioning drilled into African-Americans, albeit subtly. They do not hold true in the Nigerian community or even the wider African community.

If Venus and Serena Williams had been sent to THAT fancy Florida tennis academy instead of their father famously studying tennis books and taking on the coaching of his girls they would not have become the great champions they are.  Subtle put-down as “praises” – oh, you are doing well for a black girl – would have probably seen them to accomplished tennis players but nothing to what they have become.

Nobody ever tells a Nigerian child – be she or he from Ajegunle slum or an Ondo State tiny hamlet – that he will never come to anything.  No teacher steers a Gwagwalada, Abuja poor kid to subjects that would ensure he or she never really benefits from a secondary education but for African-Americans, it has always been a reality.  A daughter experienced this at Potomac Maryland’s Beverly Farms Elementary School where she was placed in a “slow learners’” group of Fifth Graders in spite of having completed the same class as one of the top students at Maryhill Elementary School, Ibadan.  Anybody familiar with the rigorous standards of private education in Nigeria of the 1980s would wonder at what could have happened to the girl on the flight to America, especially since she was not new to the place and had her family support to remove any loneliness.  What’s more, she would  flourish and even had a double promotion when we moved out West to Nevada from the East Coast after that school year.  It is apparent from this personal example that the booby traps to African-Americans are very real and could send kids with no learning problems to lives of.non-achievements if the parents do not have the advantage we had:  coming from another system where a kid had performed very well AND being very familiar with the U.S. system in earlier student days.

The Nigerian therefore arrives in America – or is the child of parents who arrived in America on this latter-day “Mayflower” journey and races through school and college (university) which he knows is the first step to success.  Except, perhaps in the last decade with tons of stolen cash available to politicians and top civil servants, most Nigerian students in America always had to work jobs – sometimes multiple – to put themselves through college. My husband and I did.  Yet, they’ve been turning out success stories year after year. I do not think any of those featured here is an offspring of Nigerian looters which makes their achievements all the more cheery news.

In six years, Nigeria has had three MacArthur ‘Genius’ awardees!  Not bad for a single country.  I’ve included Chimamanda Adichie who does not really belong in this essay but the MacArthur Fellowship is an American foundation that gifts $500,000 “no strings attached” to worthy recipients which she won three years ago.  The two other recipients are Funmi Olopade (nee Falusi) for her pioneering cancer research work at the University of Chicago; Funmi donated generously of hers to the University of Ibadan, her alma mater and the Obafemi Awolowo University for cancer research.  John Dabiri, a 30-year old biophysicist and Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Bioengineering with the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) received his award last year to enable him “reflect, create and explore”.  Funmi’s awards was in 2005.  Some years ago after her award, she had a sort of home-coming lecture at which I was present at the UCH, Ibadan to which she was accompanied by her husband (also a medical professor in Chicago with UI roots) as well as other colleagues from the University of Chicago.  Her pioneering work on African-American women which has extended to include sample area in Nigeria, was the subject.  Olopade, is also a past recipient of the Doris Duke Distinguished Clinical Scientist Award.

As Number 10: Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” March No. 1 in D, the melody called “Land of Hope and Glory”, a standard in the United States aired from Coast to Coast beginning last month, here are some high achievers from the land of the Mighty River Niger, Nigeria which, hopefully, will one day be able to live up to its full potential IF it can tackle the corruption that pervades every strata of governance.

Since saharareporters.com broke the story of Saheela Ibrahim, there has not been a day since this blog carried the story on May 6 that search engines, etcetera have not sent readers to check out the story of the 15-year old Nigerian girl who had a problem picking the college to attend: she chose Harvard from among over a dozen colleges including MIT!  Saheela is the daughter of immigrants who live in Edison, New Jersey outside New York.  To show she’s an all rounder, Saheela speaks Arabic, Spanish and Latin and also plays sports.

Still on the East Coast of the U.S. is Anuoluwatomiwa Osunkoya, was one of two valedictorians in the class of 2011 at Cheney Univeristy at Easton, Pennsylvania, a first in the college’s history.  Valedictorians are the highest academic honor bestowed upon an undergraduate student. The school describes the two as “exceptional young scholars”.  Anu is a Chemical Engineering student.

Also from Pennsylvania is Ebelechukwu Nwafor who is a member of the Keystone Honors Academy, and completed the baccalaureate degree in Com0puter and Information Science, with a minor in mathematics. Ebelechukwu is already on his way to a great career which he plans “within the Academy” with research internships at the University of Pennsylvania and at Thomas Jefferson University where he has worked with world-renowned bio statisticians and epidemiologists, researching cancer and health disparities.  He has been published in the HBCU-Up journal.

The academic achievement of Victor Chukwueke is the story of triumph over all odds as the 25-year old Nigerian had to have a fund-raiser organized for him by several people and organizations so that his mother could witness her son deliver the Commencement Speech to the Wayne State University, Detroit Class of 2011.  He had not seen his mother since 2001 when they parted in tears.  Victor had six major surgeries to remove large tumors from the top of his head and the side of his face and lost an eye but he also earned his GED [High School equivalence] as he recovered here with missionary nuns according to the Detroit Free Press from which I wrote this story.

“Chukwueke has neurofibromatosis, a disorder that causes tumor growth in the nervous system. An estimated 100,000 in the U.S. have it, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Quicken Loans used its Washington connections to help.

“I was reading the paper and the story caught my eye,” said Joyce Keller, philanthropic adviser for the company. Dan Gilbert, the founder, has a relative with neurofibromatosis.

“With everything (Chukwueke) has been through and this one obstacle still standing in his way, it was an easy decision to see if we could help,” she said.

Quicken’s governmental relations staff worked with Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who called the Consular General in Nigeria. The visa process was shortened from months to days.”

Victor is headed to Medical School and all Nigerians at home and everywhere wish the young man well.

Law graduate, Chioma Udeagbala might never have spoken to a large audience but it was a rite of passage she had to embrace as a co-commencement speaker at the recent UCLA School of Law commencement ceremony last month where she had to face 425 fellow graduating students..  The other speaker was Obama adviser, Valerie Jarret, also an attorney. Chioma had qualified as a lawyer in Nigeria at UniJos and practiced with Banwo & Ighodalo, a leading commercial law firm before travelling to the States to attend California’s renowned UCLA for the one-year master’s program.  This young lady “would like to work to achieve a more functional government system and improve the lives of Nigerian citizens.”  UCLA also benefitted from Chioma’s education and experiences: “She deepened our understanding of how human rights issues are seen throughout the world,” Stemple of the UCLA Law School states.

Now, The Bronx may be in America but it’s as rough as Ajegunle and it’s not a place one looks up to but it has been choice residential addresses of many top Nigerians since the early 60s as it provides cheap rentals for these people when they were students.  Add to that elite group – I won’t name names of the quite a few that I know – City University of New York’s 165th Commencement Speaker, Joshua Usani who spoke to the Class of 2011 as Valedictorian this past week.  A Bronx resident and Nigerian immigrant who arrived the USA in 2006 and just received a BS in Biology, summa cum laude. Joshua will attend Yale University School of Medicine in August.

Kolade O. Adebowale, Student Speaker at the 2011 commencement of the is definitely not from a well-off family but it has not stopped him from attending “Illinois Institute of Technology by way of the Collens Scholars Program, a need-based scholarship provides graduates of Chicago Public Schools the chance to attend IIT as a full-time student with financial support for tuition, books, and fees.”  Kolade streeses his mother’s influence “for teaching him the value of hard work, family, and education” as key to his success. Even though he arrived in the U.S. with his brothers to join their mother in 2006, his high school performance opened the doors to IIT.  Kolade, who is involved in social and professional organizations, earned a Clinton E. Stryker Distinguished Service Award. He has a degree in Chemical Engineering

This list is by no means exhaustive this graduating season nor is it something new in the Nigerian community in the U.S.A.

The key to all these successes: the Nigerians’ hunger to do well in life; parental discipline and guidance and hard work.

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8 Comments on “Why do immigrant kids perform so well in America (2): The Nigerian example – Tola Adenle”

  1. ed Says:




  2. ed Says:

    You can never judge African success in the Americas or Europe.. . that really doesn’t say much. The real success is in Africa and let me tell you, so much work is needed… blacks are always so divise in their thinking and comments, always… the whites will always unite and rule.

    Based on this article the whites love Africans over Black americans.. not really; they hate us both and use us against each other… And also in Africa. Now I have nothing but love for Nigerians and all my African brethren… but let’s clean up Africa and make it a better place to live… so many African kids and families suffer… so many… let’s be judged by Africa and how we went back and make a difference and not how we escape to come to a westernized country. I recently went to Nigeria.. nothing but love for my African family but surely applause at what I saw and governance.

    The really sad part so many educated Africans and nothing really changes in Africa… what really does that say about us… So many Nigerian billionaires and look at Nigeria… What is going on… people wake up!



  3. Anonymous Says:

    Also, to add one last thought: I knew one of the Sangodeyi sisters while at MIT. At the same time I also knew two African American sisters who were not Nigerian, but one was at MIT and one was at Harvard. They too saw education as a way out of poverty.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Thanks, ANON. It is not only “poor” immigrant Africans and Asians who perform well because “they see education as way out of poverty” but also our African-American brothers and sisters and cousins and others. If truth be told, however, most immigrant kids FROM NIGERIA who perform well do so [sort of] by default, if you’ll pardon me. Many come from homes where both parents are very educated and you will agree with me that it is the same situation in good old USA: kids of educated professionals generally move on to perform well in schools because it is easier for them and the conditions are right. In Nigeria, generally speaking, education is NOT seen as a way out of poverty; kids go to schools and the subsequent levels their parents can afford almost instinctively! Of course there must be many who can see far ahead and therefore take education seriously. Regards, and thanks for contributing to this important subject. TOLA.



  4. Anonymous Says:

    I am half Nigerian and half African American, and so probably have a deep understanding of the rift between Nigerians and African Americans. I think many Nigerians perceive it as you describe, but African Americans perceive it subtly differently. African Americans perceive Africans (including Nigerians) as viewing themselves as different. There is a “we came here with nothing and we work hard, unlike you.” African Americans feel that Africans look at their situation, ascribe it all to slavery, and feel that they know what is holding African Americans back simply by looking, but not by doing any research into the situation. It is this attitude that African Americans object to, it’s not considered an arrogance, but it makes African Americans feel as though Africans think they are better than African Americans.

    As far as your statement that nobody would tell a Nigerian kid they would not amount to anything, I know several examples of where that is false, having heard several Nigerian fathers tell that to their underachieving children to try to motivate them. It unfortunately backfired each time.

    As far as why Nigerians and other immigrants perform so well, if you consider the immigrants who perform well, it is largely African and Asian immigrants from places like India and China, where there is ubiquitous poverty and education is highly regarded and seen as a way out of poverty. In the US, slavery is not what is keeping African Americans back, it is the aftermath of slavery, the products of segregation and the aftereffects of that. After World War 2, the first mortgages were allowed. But they were allowed only for whites. This resulted in whites being allowed to own homes, while blacks were not. What resulted was that whites took over suburbia while blacks were confined to urban areas, where inner cities developed. Fast forward to the 60s where this law was ended. Although it was legally ended, the practice continued until 2000, when it was finally enforced and blacks finally began getting mortgages at the same rate as whites. This matters because in the US, houses are borrowing power.

    A family that bought a house at the end of WW2 was able to send their kids to college using that house. They could then give their children this house, and those kids could use that borrowing power to get a bigger house, more money for college, and so on and so on. What resulted was a widening rift in wealth that was tied directly into houses. For many African Americans without this access to that kind of wealth, college was only accessible if you could earn a scholarship, and these were limited. For the ones who got scholarships, they went on to succeed. For the ones who did not, some went into debt to go to school, while others found jobs. And there is where the problem begins. While the African comes here with nothing, but with the idea that education is a way out, the African American often starts with a huge debt that they are trying to pay, and sports is seen as a way out of that debt, not education. If they have to pay for that education, that is more debt that they can not afford. A scholarship for education will not help pay the debt and will not guarantee a high paying job afterwards, but a sports scholarship will. This is all very well documented by the PBS documentary “Race: the power of an Illusion” You can check it out on their website.

    So to say that African Americans do not succeed because of slavery is to misunderstand the situation, and to again do what African Americans object to: set Africans as different because they did not experience slavery. No living African American has experienced slavery – it is a part of the shared history, but not a personal experience. Africans and African Americans both succeed at what they perceive as a way out of poverty: Africans see education as a way out, and excel at that like no other. African Americans see sports as a way out, and excel at that like no other. As example, you listed the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods. I would add to that all the basketball, track, football and olympic athletes that are disproportionately African American.

    Thus, both Africans and African Americans are more alike than different: what they set out to succeed at, they do, whether it be sports or education.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Thanks for this well-thought out response, ANON. I think my statement about nobody telling Nigerian kids they would not amount to anything has been misread. What I mean is the INSTITUTIONAL subtle and often not-subtle brainwashing and put-downs. Check out the Williams Sisters’ essay. Put an African-American kid under a white tennis coach and another – with the same inherent tennis talent – under a coach who is African-American and the results could be miles apart. “you are doing very well for a black kid” or the like is not the kind of statement that would encourage a kid to reach the stars.

      Your comments contain many details that I’ll post it on Monday, August 22 as a featured essay, so that it can be read by many over a long period of time. TOLA.



  5. Morolayo Says:

    Love this post, but what about the Ewedemi Brother who did his PHD in Chemical Engineering at Stanford and his only sibling who did her under graduate at Yale and is now a doctor in Texas? Or ther four sisters from Minnesota that all attended Harvard? Or the Nigerian twins that both attended Harvard and got what was a perfect score at the time 1600 on their SAT’s? There are a tens of thousands of these Nigerian over acheivers. . . not only academically, but the 19 year old boy that finished college in 3 years and got drafted in the NFL at age 19? Notice in the last Superbowl, three players had charities and two of the football players were Nigerian? We have both brains and braun, some of use have siblings that play in the NFL, NBA and yes even the NHL (those of use that made it to Canada) and also have siblings at the Ivy League. What we’ve benefited from in Nigeria is a lack of direct experience in the last two hundred years with slavery, neither as slave owners or slaves and we know the sky is the limit for everyone, regardlless of race, sex or natural origin. I puts us in a serious advantage to americans who hold on to their “stereotypes.” for their existence. Why can most caucasian Europeans breakdance and every white Americans can bearly do the two step? They’ve limited themselves to stereotypes.



    • emotan77 Says:

      Thanks for this, Morolayo. My research was never elaborate but mainly a few of those I could check out, including a few that I personally know about to highlight that immigrants, especially blacks can and DO perform well when given the opportunities. I really appreciate the examples given and I’ll use your comments as well as that of an anonymous contributor on Monday, August 22 because the comments generally may not get as much look-overs as when presented as essays. Tola.



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