Shawnee Mission Faces: Nkemjika Obi, Nigerian immigrant and SM North grad going to Stanford

From a very young age, Nkemjika Obi knew how important education was to her family. Born and raised in Enugu City in Enugu, Nigeria, her family immigrated to the United States so she and her four siblings could have a better education. Many of her family members still live in her native Anambra State.

When tragedy struck in her family, she turned grief into triumph as she followed her dreams. A Shawnee Mission North grad with the Class of 2021, she is attending Stanford University this fall with plans to pursue an education in political science, international relations and African and African-American studies.

Obi has been very involved in high school activities, including: Shawnee Mission North Pep Club (president), National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, Key Club (a volunteer organization), Overland Park Teen Council and Kansas Youth and Government. She also played high school soccer and tennis.

Her freshman year, she and Hananeel Morinville co-founded the Coalition for Racial Equality (CORE) at SM North. Through that organization, which acts as a platform for discussing social justice issues, she found her people and realized that if she put her mind to something, then it can work. She hopes to find her people again at Stanford University this fall.

On top of her native Igbo and English, she is studying Spanish language. Outside of school activities, Obi enjoys hammocking and listening to nature, and reading and listening to audiobooks. Right now, she’s reading “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.

She encourages low-income students to look into CollegePoint, which helped her pursue her dreams of higher education. She lives in Mission.

I was obviously born and raised in Nigeria till I was 9 years old. My schooling was there. I loved it there. That’s where my extended family is, and I have very strong cultural roots there. I am ethnically Igbo, growing up in southeastern 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 ‘cause that was a huge thing for him.

He was disabled, actually. He had an injury in his leg, so it affected the way he walked a lot. So he had a rough childhood growing up, and his siblings actually put him through medical school, pharmacy school, which was really hard for him. But it was always his dream, so he understood the value of an education.

And he made it through. He became a pharmacist in Nigeria; he was an assistant director of pharmacy for the state hospital, so he made it pretty well. Again, that just showed how very committed he was to education.

So us growing up in Nigeria, we were in private schools, but he knew that there could be a better education for us. We didn’t really want to leave Nigeria, but just that fact is what made my dad want to take us somewhere that we could be offered a better education.

The immigration process, the visa process, is very intense. I can’t really remember ‘cause I was so young at the time. I was probably 6 years old when it started, with four sisters and one brother.

It was a big process, but that was my dad’s dream. And we were making it. But when I was around 9, basically the last year that we were going to move here, that was 2012, my dad got really sick. He fell ill, and he actually came over here to the United States for treatment. But nothing really came of it, so we came back home, and he passed away before he could go over with us.

My mom and my sisters were already over 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 over. He had been to the United States before, but he never truly saw all of us together here. 

My dad was really loving. I remember little moments with him and memories with him. In our house in Nigeria, we used to go up to the rooftop at night and watch the stars and watch the starlight with him. He taught me everything basically I know about math. He would make me memorize my multiplication tables in math. He and my mom taught me how to read at home before I even went to school.

I had long talks with him basically about life and everything. He didn’t treat his daughters any differently than his son. That’s something that he was really passionate about. I think my dad was a feminist at heart, truly (laughs).

But yeah, I miss him for sure. He was a huge imprint on my life. And I think, really, that’s where I got my motivation to try so hard academically, even now, still. His presence is still there.

So yeah, it was just my mom and five kids. It was hard on my mom. We were all grieving while completely moving to a new country and everything. Those years are fuzzy 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.

The language wasn’t a barrier for me ‘cause I already spoke English, so transitioning to American English was fine, even though it was a little weird ‘cause Americans do speak a little bit of a different English. 

Just going to school every day, ‘cause I hadn’t gone to school that consistently all the time, and just getting used to my classmates — to be honest, I hadn’t seen white people ever in my life until I came to Rushton — but my teachers were super fun. I was actually supposed to be a fourth grader but I was pushed back a grade ‘cause of transitioning. But I joined Girl Scouts, that was fun. Good times.

Freshman year of high school was a really big year for me. I’ve had big dreams, I guess, for forever, but freshman year was when it was like, oh this is it, I’ve got to start now. 

I had a really great teacher, Mrs. [Natalie] Johnson-Berry. She goes by Mrs. JB. She was my English teacher, she was a huge influence on my life throughout high school, ‘cause she’s the one who finally put it into perspective for me that I could really do it; if I wanted to make it into a top college or a top university, that it was plausible. She introduced me to QuestBridge, a program for low-income or first-generation students to apply to college. It’s a great program.

And she’s the one who said you can really do this, you just have to get good grades and stay committed and do things you’re passionate about in high school.

The only reason we came here was for a great education. If I’m going to do that, why not get the best of the best?

It’s almost like I could hear my dad’s voice in my head. It wasn’t like a pressuring thing; he never pressured us. I just knew that was his passion, that’s what he wanted for his life, and he wanted it for our life. 

At some point, it became my dream too. So even subconsciously, everything that I did, when I signed up for classes, when I wanted to give up, like oh this is a lot of work, it’s like his presence was there, encouraging me like hey, you really can do this, that’s what you’re here for, and you can take advantage of 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 shoes. It’s only impossible until you do it, right? I think a lot of it is just taking 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 something was impossible, I was putting a limit on myself. I was telling myself that I’m not good enough to do something. And once you do that, you’re stopping yourself before you even start. You’re giving up on the race before you start the race.

So the biggest thing for me is to take a step, to dream big and to not hold yourself back. You don’t know what the limit is, so don’t try to put a limit on it before you even know what it is.

Even in sixth grade, when I knew I wanted to go to Stanford, that was a huge dream. I thought how is that ever going to happen? But if I had said it’s too impossible and I didn’t even try, what could I have given up on? You never know until you actually try anything. 

And you’re not alone. There are people out there who want to help you. If you look, you’ll find them.