Lucy Ogbu-Nwobodo is an immigrant from Nigeria who has been though a crucible of hardships that would have destroyed countless other souls. Instead her trials intensified her will to overcome everything that might have held her back. No one said the life of a young immigrant in the U.S. should be easy, but it shouldn't be as hard as what Lucy has been through. Hers is a story of amazing resiliency and spiritual strength.
Lucy came from a large impoverished family in Nigeria, and at the age of 11, family members brought her to Oakland to live with American guardian parents. Oakland was the toughest 'hood in the Bay Area (more or less San Francisco's version of Compton). Her new adoptive family looked upon her less as their child and more like a house maid, and she endured countless instances of domestic abuse at their hands during all the years she lived with them.
It didn't faze her. She did her schoolwork when they weren't paying attention--excellence in school threatened her status as house maid, so she worked in secret. Life at school was better, but not by much, thanks to the mockery of other students--she was so young, and so different, with her mixed accent, that she didn't fit into any particular circle. And yet, with all of that opposition at home and in the school halls, she graduated first in her class, ready for college at the age of 15. Secretly, she applied to Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley and was accepted by them all, but there was a catch. Her guardians neglected to properly file her immigration papers. She was told she was ineligible to enroll at any of those schools. That was maybe the only moment in her life when all hope seemed lost.
"It was the worst moment of my life. I thought it was all over," she said, during our phone conversation. In limbo, she went on with her life, giving up on the sort of future she had prepared herself for, thinking that she had no chance for college. One day, miraculously, one of her high school teachers recognized her on the street and immediately pledged to get her enrolled at California State University at East Bay, then known as CSU Hayward.
This was the first of what Lucy calls her "angels" (in my own life I have had what I call "guardian angels" who helped me, as a young immigrant, in the same way). The second was the woman she met in admissions who looked at the enormous achievements of this 15-year-old girl, and on the spot assigned her a student ID number. Her admissions counselor told her, right then and there: "You're in." Lucy started weeping with relief and joy. Everything she has done since then has been to prove these two women were right.
After graduation, she stayed at East Bay and went on to earn a master's in neuroscience. At the same time she had been volunteering at Highland Hospital, where she created a program allowing students to "audit" surgeries--she had to lobby every surgeon in the building garnering the full support of the Chairman of Surgery. It has become something of an educational institution there now. All the time she was at CSU East Bay, she lied to her adoptive parents saying that she had a free ride--all expenses covered--instead she was subsidizing her education by baking cookies which sold on campus to help pay her tuition. Because of the way she astonished everyone she met at East Bay and Highland Hospital, and because every postgraduate class in neuroscience she took awarded her an A+, she was a shoo-in at UC Davis where she is now studying to become a surgeon.
She applied for a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans and was awarded a scholarship that paid for part of her tuition as well as an additional living stipend she used to support work at a free clinic, helping people from neighborhoods like hers in Oakland. She burns with a determination to reach out to those who think the best health care is a privilege for people with better luck and more money. She's determined to spread social justice, in the form of affordable health care, to hundreds or thousands of others by helping them find the healing they need. Right now, she's on her way to a career as a neurosurgeon. As a trustee of the Soros Fellowship Foundation, I have come across many remarkable stories not unlike Lucy's. I am always amazed and inspired by so many immigrants who come to America for freedom and opportunity. Lucy had a horrible start in this country. She clearly did not deserve that. But as many immigrants do, she persevered. The strength of American culture is, in part, the strength brought to it by immigrants like her--thanks in part to the "angels" who recognize it and help people with that passion and capability find ways to make all of our lives better.
Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.