Reflections on an Extraordinary Journey

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By Jennifer (Nchedo) Ezeokoli
Stanford University & Students Rising Above

In just a few short months, I will be a graduate of Stanford University. As I reflect on my childhood and education experiences, I fondly realize that while I was focused on supporting others, others were quietly, often behind the scenes, supporting me.

As a young child, my family and I came to America from Nigeria, where my father eventually started his own taxi company and my mother worked nights. My parents worked non-stop to make ends meet, and by the age of thirteen, I worked as well to help support my family and save financially. I vividly remember the feeling of dread as the van dropped me off in unfamiliar neighborhoods, where depending on the day, I would walk around for up to twelve hours, selling miscellaneous items. At the end of the week, I was fortunate to pocket twenty-five percent of what I had sold, typically barely 200 dollars.

Violence was a natural occurrence in my neighborhood, which was already riddled with gunshots and drug dealing. A defining moment occurred one night when my father was on his way home from work, and I heard gunshots being fired right outside my home. Through immense terror, I grabbed my siblings and pushed them down to the floor as I had learned to do in these situations. I had to aspire to rise above this negativity- and knew that education was the key to ending my family's impoverishment.

Bridging Connections
Day in and out, I would drag my exhausted body out of bed and prepare for school. Throughout high school, I was waking up at 5:00 a.m. for an hour-long bus ride to San Pablo, where I attended Middle College High School (MCHS). During these years, I felt as if I was sagging under all the weight on my shoulders. But my parent's hard work, constant encouragement, and emphasis on education gave me a foundation on which to focus my efforts that would continually allow me to succeed. Witnessing their immense work ethic, and knowing how they sacrificed daily for my siblings and I, helped create my strong drive to persevere. I eventually graduated high school in 2011 as one of two valedictorians, and concurrently graduated from Contra Costa College with two associate's degrees. I was seventeen.

In my junior year of high school, I was introduced to Students Rising Above (SRA)- a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that focuses on enabling low-income, first-generation students to attend a four-year college and secure a career-ladder job. My SRA mentor provided me with the guidance and tools to prove, initially to myself, that I would succeed despite hindering circumstances.

I applied and received acceptance to 22 colleges, and ultimately chose Stanford for two reasons: I still felt obligated to be there for my family, and felt my presence was needed nearby. In addition, I didn't feel quite ready to sever myself from the familiarity that had surrounded me growing up in the Bay Area.

As well as receiving many scholarships, I was fortunate to be named a recipient of the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which recognizes outstanding minority students with significant financial need, and enables them to reach their highest potential by reducing financial barriers. Students Rising Above provided me with financial assistance (that most scholarships don't cover) for personal expenses. It was a wonderful feeling knowing that I would be able to attend college knowing that my hard work in high school translated to not having to worry about money or finances. I felt blessed. What would be more difficult, as I learned quickly, was the emotional aspect of getting through college.

Becoming Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
Even though I had grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, when I arrived at Stanford University, I experienced a huge culture shock. As a first-generation college student, I found myself surrounded by students from very different backgrounds. There were many times I thought that Stanford had made a mistake accepting me. I felt alone and alienated, and witnessed my self-confidence and self-esteem plummet due to a perceived incompatibility and false sense of inadequacy.

Students Rising Above offered me a community of loving, caring and supportive people that taught me how to be vulnerable and believe in my own self-worth.

My SRA advisor and mentor were a constant source of guidance as I worked through the unique academic, emotional and social challenges associated with being a low-income, minority, first-generation college student. I knew that if I did not rely on my support system, then I ultimately would wind up as another college dropout statistic. So, I learned to embrace being comfortable with being uncomfortable- because throughout the process I was growing. I relied on my creative and resourceful mindset to think outside the box and carve a niche at Stanford. I came to the realization that my success was dependent on understanding the complexities and nuances of a culture that I would eventually come to call in part my own.

The SRA organization also provided me with the necessary insight and guidance in terms of networking and internships that have allowed me to broaden my horizons and gain experience in public health and medicine. Internships, volunteering, study abroad programs and campus leadership experiences have been pivotal in defining my success at Stanford. I revitalized, revamped and have served as the president of the Nigerian Students Association. I have also served as a campus-based leader for the Gates Millennium Students organization, a resident assistant at the Stanford Institute of General Management, and a team leader for ThinkMath. I have completed coursework and internships abroad in South Africa, Italy and India.

Domestically, I have interned with Genentech in South San Francisco, and participated in Columbia University School of Public Health's Biostatistics Enrichment Training Program in New York. I continue to assist low-income, minority, first-generation high school students with college counseling and mentorship via the Phoenix Scholars & Stanford Medical Youth Summer programs.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Through Education
I was fortunate to recognize early on in my life that education was the key to ending an impoverished cycle. I'm grateful for the support and mentoring that I received through the years from my family, Students Rising Above, my peers, professors and others. I consider myself extremely blessed and lucky because I know that many low-income, minority and first-generation college students in my position have not received the necessary guidance from mentors in order to further guide them towards success. My life is a testament of the impact that mentors and education can have on a young mind.

In all, despite the rocky moments, I have enjoyed my time at Stanford. Now, as that time is coming to an end, my only hope going forward is that I am eventually able to give back, through future work in public health and medicine, to the communities that have been such a formative part of my life.

Jennifer (Nchedo) Ezeokoli is a first-generation college senior at Stanford University, and will graduate this spring with a bachelor's degree from The Program for Science, Technology, and Society, in addition to minors in African Studies and Chemistry.