Nkemjika Obi, Nigerian immigrant and SM North graduate going to Stanford
From an early age, Nkemjika Obi knew how important education was to her family. Born and raised in the town of Enugu in Enugu, Nigeria, her family immigrated to the United States so that she and her four siblings could have a better education. Many of her family still live in her home state of Anambra.
When tragedy struck her family, she turned grief into triumph by pursuing her dreams. A graduate of Shawnee Mission North with the class of 2021, she is attending Stanford University this fall with the intention of pursuing studies in political science, international relations, and African and African American studies.
Obi has been heavily involved in high school activities including: Shawnee Mission North Pep Club (chair), National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Key Club (a voluntary organization), Overland Park Teen Council, and Kansas Youth and Government. She also played football and tennis in high school.
In her first year, she and Hananeel Morinville co-founded the Coalition for Racial Equality (CORE) at SM North. Through this organization, which serves as a platform for discussing social justice issues, she found her people and realized that if she focused on something, it could work. She hopes to reunite with her people at Stanford University this fall.
In addition to her native Igbo and English, she is studying the Spanish language. Outside of school activities, Obi enjoys playing in the hammock and listening to nature, reading and listening to audiobooks. At the moment, she is reading “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.
She encourages low-income students to turn to CollegePoint, which has helped her pursue her dreams of higher education. She lives in Mission.
I was obviously born and raised in Nigeria until I was 9 years old. My schooling was there. I loved it there. This is where my extended family is and I have very strong cultural roots there. I am ethnically Igbo, growing up in South East Nigeria.
My dad always wanted to move our family to the United States because part of our extended family on my dad’s side was already living here, and he wanted us to move here for a better education because it was a huge thing to him.
He was disabled, in fact. He had an injury to his leg, so it affected the way he walked a lot. So he had a difficult childhood growing up, and his siblings took him to medical school, pharmacy school, which was really difficult for him. But it was always his dream, so he understood the value of an education.
And he succeeded. He became a pharmacist in Nigeria; he was deputy director of pharmacy for the public hospital, so he did it pretty well. Again, it showed how very committed he was to education.
So we grew up in Nigeria, we were in private schools, but he knew there could be a better education for us. We didn’t really want to leave Nigeria, but that’s precisely what made my father want to take us somewhere where we could be offered a better education.
The immigration process, the visa process, is very intense. I don’t really remember because I was so young at the time. I was probably 6 years old when it started, with four sisters and a brother.
It was a big process, but it was my dad’s dream. And we did. But when I was about 9, the last year we were going to move here was 2012, my dad got really sick. He fell ill and came here to the United States for treatment. But nothing really came of it, so we went home and he passed away before he could join us.
My mom and sisters were already here too – we already had family in the Kansas City, Missouri area – so after my dad passed away, my mom brought the rest of our siblings. He had been to the United States before, but he never really saw us all together here.
My dad really liked it. I remember little moments with him and memories with him. In our house in Nigeria, we would go up to the roof at night and watch the stars and watch the starlight with him. He taught me everything I know about math. He made me memorize my math multiplication tables. He and my mother taught me to read at home even before I went to school.
I had long discussions with him mainly about life and everything. He did not treat his daughters any differently from his son. It was something he was really passionate about. I think my dad was a feminist at heart, really (laughs).
But yeah, I miss him for sure. He marked my life. And I think, really, that’s where I got my motivation to try so hard academically, even now, always. His presence is still there.
So yeah, it was just my mom and five kids. It was hard on my mother. We were all in mourning moving completely to a new country and things. Those years are blurry in my memory, but I just remember coming to a new school – I went to Rushton Elementary in Mission – and just the culture shock of being in a new place.
Language was not a barrier for me because I already spoke English so the transition to American English was good, although it was a little weird because Americans speak a bit of a different English.
I went to school every day, because I hadn’t been to school as regularly all the time, and I’m just getting used to my classmates – to be honest, I never had seen white people in my life until I came to Rushton – but my teachers were super fun. I was actually supposed to be a fourth grader, but got pushed back a year because of the transition. But I joined Girl Scouts, it was fun. Good time.
The first year of high school was a really big year for me. I had big dreams, I guess, forever, but first year was when it was like, oh that’s it, I have to start now.
I had a very good teacher, Ms. [Natalie] Johnson-Berry. It goes through Mrs. JB. She was my English teacher, she had a huge influence on my life throughout high school, because she was the one who finally put in perspective for me that I could really do it; if I wanted to make it a top-notch college or university, that was plausible. She introduced me to QuestBridge, a program for low-income or first-generation students who want to go to college. It’s a great program.
And she was the one who said you can really do this, you just need to get good grades, stay engaged, and do things that you passionate about in high school.
The only reason we came here was for a great education. If I want to do this, why not make the most of the best?
It’s almost like I hear my father’s voice in my head. It wasn’t like a pressure thing; he never pressured us. I just knew it was his passion, this is what he wanted for his life, and he wanted it for our life.
At one point, it also became my dream. So even subconsciously all I did, when I signed up for class, when I wanted to drop out, like oh that’s a lot of work, it’s like his presence is there, cheering me on like hey, you can really do that, that’s what you’re here for, and you can take the opportunities that you have and not take it for granted. You can do it.
I want to give words of encouragement to young people, because I was in the same situation. It’s only impossible until you do, right? I think a lot of it just takes that first step. Don’t even think about it; just take that first step. You can never really know until you do it.
I think a lot of times when I told myself that something was impossible, I limited myself. I was telling myself that I am not good enough to do something. And once you do that, you stop before you even start. You abandon the race before starting the race.
So the most important thing for me is to take a step, dream big and not hold back. You don’t know what the limit is, so don’t try to limit it before you even know what it is.
Even in sixth grade, when I knew I wanted to go to Stanford, it was a huge dream. I thought how was this going to happen? But if I had said it was too impossible and hadn’t even tried, what could I have given up? You never know until you try anything.
And you are not alone. There are people who want to help you. If you look you will find them.