Today’s Abroad Life is about Alafia Olutimehin (Aly), a 24-year-old consultant living in America. She went to uni in North Carolina with the belief she’d return to Lagos to work after school. Nigeria changed, she changed and one lunch granted her access to working in corporate America. Here’s how it happened:
When did you move to America?
I moved here seven years ago in the summer of 2012 for undergrad. Before then, I lived in Lagos. When I finished undergrad, I got admission into grad school and started working afterwards. I’ve been working for about two and a half years in America.
Yooo. Slow down. In seven years, you went from being a student to being a member of the working class in a foreign country?
Hahaha. I know, it’s ridiculous how quick time flies. I can’t believe it’s been seven years already!
So was this always the plan? Leave Nigeria for America, start with school and then go on to get a job?
When I was leaving, I definitely didn’t think or know I was going to stay long term. I was 17 when I moved and in my head, I was going to return to Nigeria. But Nigeria just kept breaking my heart day by day. Midway through undergrad, I started to ask myself, “Where am I really going back to?” I realised that I definitely wanted to work in America where the job market seemed very promising. So I started looking for internships here. By the time I graduated, I had made up my mind about not moving back. I was like, “It’s not me and them, I’m not doing.” And as each day goes by, I’m less likely to move back home. Not until I have the option of coming back when I want to.
I see you sis. That’s like the plan of every other lazy Nigerian yoot living in Nigeria or that has gone abroad. The Nigerian dream is to japa. What was it like leaving for America at such a young age?
I was excited to leave home. It didn’t dawn on me until a semester after that I was in a fucking different country. I didn’t realise what I was getting into. After my first semester, I went back home for the Christmas break and I was around for about three weeks. When I was returning, I was like hay, I’m going back to the cold.
Other than just wanting to leave, the move was easy for me because my sister was an alumnus. So I didn’t really have the international student experience at my school, a small private school in North Carolina — I had the answers to all my questions through my sister.
It however got difficult when I realised how alone I still was. My school was also not very diverse.
Ooh. So like no fellow Nigerians? Africans? Black people?
I was actually the only international student from Nigeria in my school. From Africa, we were like five or six. The larger population of international students were from Asia — about 200 of them. I think there were 5% black students across the whole school out of about 5000 students. My first year at the school marked 50 years since since the school got integrated. Which is wild considering these numbers.
So was racism an issue?
It’s crazy but before I moved to America, I was very ignorant about racial relations in America. I was one of those people who thought racism was just a thing in people’s heads. But going to school in the south helped me to see differently because I also became a minority. I thought I was an international student from Nigeria, but when people saw me, they saw that black student in their class. There were occasional stupid remarks; the microaggression you had to deal with every now and then, nothing major. I had a good experience there.
Do you still live in North Carolina?
Yes, but in Charlotte which is a bigger city. It is a lot more diverse than uni.
So you applied for internships and got them when you were in uni. How did that even happen? Tell us your secrets please.
So interesting story: I wasn’t into accounting or anything related when I was in school. When I moved here for undergrad, I got a very random email from a random woman from the business school saying, “Hey, if you want to learn about the different majors we have, I’d like to get lunch with you and talk.” I was like NOPE, thank you, I’m good please. The plan was to major in chemistry or ECON. But she persisted, so I went to lunch with her. She told me about the business school and the different majors. From there, I met the company that I currently work for. A bunch of different interactions encouraged me to try out accounting.
So in my sophomore year, I took accounting and I fell in love with it. From there, I got an internship with the company I work for now. I got another internship for the summer, another internship for the winter… and then after grad school, they gave me a full time offer.
I’m just wondering how this story would’ve been different if you never responded to that email, or ignored that woman’s persistence.
I actually always wonder about this. Because I’ve realised that my experience is very different from the experiences of several international students. If I had studied ECON, I’d probably be back in Lagos. It would have been difficult to find jobs that would be willing to help me figure out the immigration process especially with the current process and given what’s happening now with the current president. It’s my company that’s helping me with the immigration process. I think it was a combination of luck and responding to the email from that woman.
What’s work for you?
I work in consulting. When I started, work was scary because I didn’t know what I was doing, I felt like I was messing everything up. But I’m learning and gaining new experiences everyday. The coolest thing is looking back at my projects and seeing how much I’ve grown. I’ve been lucky to have a good mix of local and international projects. I like my coworkers and It’s a good working environment. They’re compensating properly, but they could really step it up. Hahaha.
I know you said that it’s very very unlikely that you’ll move back to Lagos, but I’m just wondering is there something that can provoke you to want to move back?
The cold is so uncomfortable. It’s currently got very cold. Thankfully, my current project is pretty flexible, so I can work from home. I only need to go in when I absolutely need to. If you see me outside once it reaches 50°F, then something must be wrong. I really don’t like it. Seasonal depression is real.
Secondly, no matter how comfortable life here is — I mean, I’m not dealing with the incompetence of Nigeria all the time — it’s not home. Your entire life in a different country sometimes feels like you’re not your complete self: You have to adapt to the environment that you’re in. I have to adapt to be the best version of Aly that can work in corporate America. When I’m working with my coworkers, I can’t talk the way I’m talking right now.
I really look forward to being back home every year, even though I know that I’ll complain two weeks in about the traffic in Lagos. But I know that in Lagos, there is no filter.
That makes me wonder about the Nigerian community in Charlotte.
You know how Nigerians are everywhere? Yeah, they are here, but very few, so the Nigerian community is almost nonexistent. It’s not prominent in the way it is in Atlanta and Houston where you can basically build your life around other Nigerians. We don’t have this thriving big community. The only time I’ve seen a lot of Nigerians at once was when I went to Redeemed church.
So you want to eat Jollof rice or pounded yam now, where do you go?
Mehn, I’m suffering in this city. Anytime I’m in DC, Houston, that’s when I get to eat Nigerian food. I mean there are a few places here, but they’re not that good. The other alternative is to go to the store, get my ingredients and cook for myself. I’m really suffering.
So how do you cope in Charlotte? No good Jollof rice lurking in the nearest restaurant; no community; December when you’ll return to Traffic land is still far away. How do you have fun?
When I want fun, or community or food — if I can afford to, I park my load and I’m off to DC or Houston. Charlotte is a good city if you’re working in finance. It’s a good career city. It’s not very expensive. You can live very comfortably here. But it’s not the place you’re coming to for excitement except you’re white.
Honestly sha, I am tired of having to buy a ticket anytime I want to have a good time.
Are you open to moving?
I’m very open to moving elsewhere. I’m still in my 20s, I should enjoy myself a little.
Speaking of moving, when you first decided to stay back in America, what were your parent’s thoughts? I mean you were pretty young.
My parents don’t force down their opinions on me or my siblings. Initially, they wanted me to work in America for a couple of years and then return. But seeing how Nigeria is going, they are less likely to push for that. In fact, If I say I’m coming back to Nigeria today, they’ll come and check if I’m okay.
Hahaha. Hilarious, but true. The life of the average Nigerian girl is quite linear in the eyes of their parents: finish uni, do NYSC, get married, have kids. Are there any expectations from your parents?
Definitely not my parents. If they’re thinking about it, then they are not telling me. Maybe family members who joke about the fact that they were married around my age. Remember that Redeemed church I said I went to?
I met a Nigerian woman who considered all my accomplishments and said the next step was marriage. Seriously?
Nigerians Eh. Smh.
My parents are pretty conservative and my family is pretty traditional, but I don’t get a lot of that. Maybe it’s because I have older unmarried cousins they’re still bothering, so my time has not come yet. And I’m grateful for that. Please I have not enjoyed my life yet. So I’m not settling down soon.
Dating scene in Charlotte?
Nonexistent for me tbh. Tears.
What’s your advice for Nigerians in American schools right now, or about to start?
Pick a field/major that have companies filing for their international employees. Like finance or accounting. It’s key because if you don’t, staying back in America would likely not work out. You’re allowed to stay only a year after your degree and the only way to stay in America is through employment.
What’s the future like for you?
I think I’m definitely going to be here for the next couple of years. When I get my green card, which is soon, thanks to my company, I can be pretty flexible with where I want to live. So I’m not leaving until I get my green card and even then, I still need to maintain residency in America for a bit. And man, I need a second passport in my life. The Nigerian passport will disgrace you.
AH LMAO. What’s the worst thing that has happened to you because you have the Nigerian passport?
I had to renew my passport in the embassy recently, and let me just tell you; all of them are mad. First they were out of booklets. Booklets o. As if it’s natural resources that are scarce Next thing, the printer was not working and they were calling Abuja. And I was like what the hell is Abuja supposed to do? I’m tired of the disrespect.
But that’s not even the experience. I’m supposed to go to Thailand for a wedding. It’s super easy to get a visa if you’re from any other country. But if you’re Nigerian, you have to get a clearance from NDLEA. So me that I’m gainfully employed with proof of that, I’m a drug dealer abi? I sha somehow got it, thanks to my parents. But that’s not all, you’re also supposed to take that clearance to the ministry of foreign affairs to get it authenticated. Then you’ll take it to the Thai embassy in Abuja, before flying that paper to America. For what? I told my friend about the process and she was shocked. I was like you dunno my life, sis.
We are rooting for you Aly. Get that green card, and live your best life!
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