My journey to America: What it means to be a BHEARD scholar

posted on September 29, 2015 3:48pm

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Irene Kargbo will be studying agricultural entomology and invertebrate biology at Ohio State University. (view larger image)

Irene Sepeya Kargbo left Liberia in mid-August with mixed emotions about her three-year academic commitment. But she knows her ultimate goal will help her family and her home country attain a better standard of living.

The Chinese proverb that states “The journey of a million miles begins with a single step” pretty much describes my journey and transition into the multicultural environment of the United States of America. That “single step” for me began with an interview for the selection process to determine academic eligibility, even though I had strong TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores. And, finally after another interview for the visa, it was clear to me that I had been considered along with three other successful candidates from Liberia to participate in the BHEARD Fellows program.  I just couldn’t miss this opportunity that rarely comes one’s way! 

*****

 I will never forget that fateful day – Tuesday, Aug. 18 – when the aircraft taxied along the runway and before I knew it, we were already flying hundreds of feet above the sea level. Joining me on that flight from Roberts International Airport were three other BHEARD scholars from Liberia; we were all traveling to the U.S. for three years doctoral studies under the Borlaug Higher Education Agricultural Research and Development program.

Looking at these colleagues and others on that flight traveling to different destinations and for different purposes, I suddenly realized that I would not see the people who mean the most to me in life for the next three years – my daughters, especially the youngest, ages 7 years and 6 months old.

As the aircraft soars through the thick clouds and gradually gained a stable altitude, a sense of guilt began to fill me and images of being a terrible mother to my children consumed me like an uncontrollable bush fire. At some point I began the self-interrogation by asking, “Did I make the right decision?” “What kind of a mother would abandon her children in pursuit of studies abroad?” Even though I had arranged with one of my siblings to assume the motherly role during my three-year study absence (my father took care of this during my master’s program in Ghana but he suffered a mild stroke a week before I traveled), I still felt terribly bad about it.

As others on the flight enjoyed their meals interspersed with music and movie, I wallowed in self-pity and longed for my children. Certainly, I do share the belief that mothers should not leave their children. Never! We grow up learning that women should sacrifice everything for the sake of their children. But there I was on that flight heading to another continent!

From that moment to this day, I have been feeling the emptiness of being without my children, the girls. I probably have the most bizarre situation that is very rare – sacrificing my children’s happiness on the altar of patriotism – in pursuit of higher education to strengthen institutional capacity of agricultural research back home. Be as it may, patriotism is a noble endeavor and rightly so, but also my academic engagement in Agricultural Entomology and Invertebrate Biology increases my chances of providing a more fulfilling life for my daughters in the foreseeable future. Ultimately, we are all winners. That added to the reasons why I finally decided to embark on this academic journey.

*****

Prior to this trip I have lived all my life in Liberia. I have attended professional conferences in Senegal and Benin and have benefited from graduate studies in Ghana. But now, a new opportunity avails itself: an intercontinental experience which would enhance my global knowledge and present opportunities for cultural enrichment. Like the 1988 romantic comedy film, “Coming to America,” I just could not let this opportunity slip by.  Thus, I canceled all the plans I had made in Liberia and decided it was time to see the country that I had dreamed of for some years and not let anything get in the way. All the friends I have in America, all the information one gets from Facebook or other networks could not have prepared me for such a wonderful and adventurous journey as I landed in what we call “the land of all possibilities.”

As the aircraft landed at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, it was obvious that I was in an entirely different world. I marveled at the scenery: the different sights of gigantic structures, beautiful buildings along the clean street welcomed with the feelings of excitement about my new surroundings. No one needed to remind me of the self-evident truth that I was no longer in Liberia.

This was my first time in America, so I was turning my head in all directions. And when I looked around, I held my breath and observed the beauty. I could see that the United States is the only country in the world with a rich and stimulating environment. It was a moment of truth for me because “Coming to America” has opened my eyes to critically see my own country from different perspective, and has enabled me to objectively identify what Liberia can learn from America. It was a sigh of relief because “after all, the choice of studies over my children was not bad at all as I’m doing this for my country.”

I boarded another flight for Cleveland but unfortunately the weather was stormy so we had to spend a few minutes in Pittsburgh. When I finally arrived in Cleveland I saw my name written on a placard with a gentleman holding it who later turned out to be Carlos, sent by my advisor Luis Canas. He helped me carried my luggage to the car that was sent by my department. We drove straight to the apartment in Wooster, Ohio, that was secured for me.

My understanding of my new environment was aided tremendously by my ability to speak English and was subsequently the edge I had over other students from other non-English speaking countries.  I soon came to enjoy my new work environment, where everyone is treated like a responsible and mature individual, worthy of trust and consideration until proven otherwise. I learned that certain issues in communication are not restricted to my own country and my own culture, but can be tackled differently and – why not? – better, with hearty laughter and witty jokes to remove the tension of the atmosphere.

I have also found a wonderful family—my advisor and his wife, Nuris – and my colleagues in my department. I joined the Entomology Graduate Student Association (EGSA and realized that I was not alone, that I have so many chances and that I can reach all my goals.

After one month in Wooster, I learned to organize and make decisions about everything I want to do; I learned about who I am and who I can be. I have stayed far from everything I knew and everyone I was familiar with, only to find myself scared at first and then to simply find myself for real.

I can now say for sure that I am all the more richer because I have made some amazing friends, and I have had some wonderful examples in my life and I finally know what I was supposed to learn: in America, people know that if they work for what they want, they will obtain it, but only if they work hard enough for it.

I finally know who I am and who I want to be, I know what I want to work for, both spiritually on myself and materially on the outside. I will live and enjoy life and I will treasure my American experience as long as I live. My journey here has been and still continues to be every day, a journey of initiation and of self-knowing.

I am so excited yet I am even more thrilled to have been given this opportunity by BHEARD to advance my professional career in teaching, research, and innovation, with particular interest in agricultural entomology and invertebrate biology; also to continuously develop affordable, readily available, easily accessible and environmentally benign control strategies to help revolutionize the agricultural sector thereby promoting food security.

A life of worries and “what ifs” is not lived to the fullest. Discovering who I truly want to be will allow me to appreciate the beauty around me instead of focusing on the worries and anxiety that come with daily motherhood.

Irene Sepeya Kargbo is a first-year doctoral candidate studying entomology at Ohio State University.