Aziegbemi “Okis” Okisamen – From Nigeria to the United States

Aziegbemi “Okis” Okisamen is currently a graduate student studying applied mathematics at IUP. Coming from the South of Nigeria, he shared with me some interesting aspects of American educational culture that I had not thought about before, as well as his perspective regarding the work ethic at Pennsylvania’s company, Sheetz. 

Meeting with Okis while socially distanced in Indiana, PA

Growing up in the Edo State of Nigeria, Okis explained to me that in Nigeria, “we all speak English, or broken English because we were colonized by the British.” However, in addition to English, “Nigeria has over five hundred languages. And over two hundred and fifty ethnic groups. So, it is possible for my community not to entirely understand a neighboring community when we speak our native languages.” 

Okis’ childhood is full of playing soccer with his friends, and excelling through the education systems at an early age. Now studying abroad in the United States, he told me that “I am the first person from my family to go overseas. Oh my god it’s a big responsibility.”

In September 2019, he arrived in Indiana Pennsylvania to start his degree in Applied Mathematics. He laughed when I was amazed by his area of study, saying “why do people always say ‘wow?’” When I explained to him that in the United States, people studying math are always considered to be super super smart, he laughed again saying that he “was wow’d by that.” He told me about one of his own experiences with this “American awe of mathematics”, saying that “when I was coming to the airport, the guy that was at the border security asked what I was studying. I told him, and he was like ‘wow, oh my god, that’s six figures. People don’t have the same reaction in Nigeria. In Nigeria if you are not studying law, accounting, or “professional” sciences like nursing , then they don’t understand what you are doing in school.” He proceeded to say that “in Nigeria, math teachers are very scarce,” so people generally believe every math student, regardless of your concentration (Industrial, Applied, or Pure Math) is a prospective math teacher.

What most interested me about my conversation with Okis was when he described the other differences between American and Nigerian education systems. Okis’ first shock involving the American education system came during a statistics class. First, he was amazed by how kind his professor was, and secondly how “my professor is begging us to please study and come to office hours. And I’m like, who does that? I’ve never experienced that.” In Nigeria, the relationship between professors and students is more separated. “I was in the class and someone addressed the teacher as “Christopher,” and I was like, “you just called a professor by his first name?!”

During another class when a teacher was explaining a concept to him, his professor “kneeled down to get a good posture to examine my work and then explain. A professor kneeling down? That rarely happens in Nigeria (perhaps Africa), I believe because of our cultural values. You rarely even see them sitting down to have a non-academic conversation with you. For them to do that implies the student must be of very high morals and intelligence.”

He continued to explain this difference by talking to me about the proper salutations in Nigeria. When meeting his professors during office hours, “I greeted my professor with a little bow. Your head should go down a little when you say ‘good afternoon sir.’ We don’t stand and look into your eyes. If I’m looking in your eyes when you are older than me, it is disrespectful, unless you have asked me to.” However, in the United States, eye contact is considered polite. Okis then said, “I realize that in America if you don’t look someone in the eyes, it means you are not communicating. It is rude. In Nigeria it is the other way around.” After his first week in the American classroom, “I sat and I adjusted and thought, ‘I have a lot to learn here.’”

In addition to his studies at IUP, Okis has also been interning with SHEETZ throughout the summer. Coming from a country of hard workers, Okis was amazed from his research on Sheetz and its competitors, that “retail store workers don’t just value their work enough to be consistent at it.” When  Okis asked his supervisor about this, she said “it is an American thing.” For Okis, “the really painful part for me is that these companies train you to work for them, right? Then after the training, the money they spent on training you, and everything, they give you the job. And after I don’t know, a very short period of time, say a month or two, you’re gone? Why?” This common tendency in America was something I hadn’t thought about before. Okis elaborated that “the way it works in Nigeria is that usually if you want to do a sales job, they don’t spend money on training you. And people are still there up to four years unless you have something really better. When you get a job, you hold it and grow your skills in the job.”

When he asked his supervisor why people leave their jobs, she shrugged and said that “this is a free country.” However, Okis jokingly expressed that “We are free in Nigeria too, Lol!” His words helped to highlight how in the United States, we often take jobs for granted. Additionally, I had never thought about this phenomena from a company’s perspective either. Okis worded the difficulty perfectly, saying “Companies are training people, training people, and they’re leaving. And I don’t think that’s fair.”

Unlike many people, Okis has not left working at Sheetz. In fact, due to his dedication and work ethic, Okis recently won the Sheetz Internz 2020 Greatest of All Team (GOAT) Internz Award. You can read more about his award here.

Speaking with Okis made me more aware of some American educational customs and greetings that I had not thought about previously. As an American college student, I expect to get additional help at office hours and always make eye contact with my professors. I never thought about how these customs were not universal, and was grateful that Okis helped to share some Nigerian customs with me. Not only is Okis an intense and articulate student, but he is also kind, insightful, and full of smiles. I wish him the best in his future endeavors, and as an American, I am still wow’d that he is pursuing a career in applied mathematics.

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