Before college, I lived to make my parents happy. I allowed them to draw the outline of my professional future and it was my job to color it in. And when the picture drawn didn’t align with who I am as a person, speaking up against it felt terrifying.
Telling my Nigerian mother that I wanted to study Media, Culture, and Communication instead of following in the rest of my family’s footsteps into the medical field served as my first step toward claiming my individuality. However, declaring my career path in a field foreign to my parents’ domain of knowledge meant putting their pride in me on the line.
As the oldest daughter in a Nigerian-American household, my parents set the bar for success pretty high. Although they weren’t strict, my parents instilled in me that my education needed to come first in order for success to follow. They never failed to remind me that I needed to set a good example for my siblings. To make them happy and to be a good role model, I told myself I had to be great no matter what. I worked tirelessly to do well in all my classes, make good connections with my teachers to ensure a great report and attend national leadership conferences. I was the poster child who took pride in her accomplishments, but I found it hard to take pride in myself.
My extracurriculars gave me room to express myself; I took pride in my passions: dancing and writing. I made magic with my moves on a stage; the crowd cheering my name as I put my all into a routine completed me. And with a pen in my hand, my thoughts and ideas came to life on a piece of paper. Through these outlets, I was able to genuinely put myself into something without receiving judgment or ridicule. Constructive criticism was always essential, but I never felt out of place in these environments.
Upon arriving at NYU, I suppressed my passions and focused on becoming a doctor. I sat through pre-health seminars, allotted time in my schedule to practice subjects I struggled with and surrounded myself with other pre-health students to help myself feel motivated. My plan was to fake it until I made it.
Slowly, I felt myself deteriorating as I rapidly lost interest in all my classes, which made it difficult for me to keep up with the workload. I dedicated hours of time to work that I couldn’t understand, and didn’t want to. My mind sunk into a dark hole that I couldn’t pull myself out of.
A phone call with my mother served as a stepping stone out, because it allowed me to repave my career path based solely on my interests. My parents raised me to believe that pursuing medicine was the smartest choice to make, with support from my aunts, uncles and grandparents. My view of potential professions was narrowed and I dismissed any dream job I wanted that didn’t fall in line with practicality. But I realize now that practicality won’t lead me to success — passion will.
I scared my parents with my new career path because, in their minds, I had entered unchartered territory. They knew nothing about the world of media and their hesitation to accept what I want to do with my life stemmed from not knowing if it would lead to success. Instead of having doubt and fear, I have used this as fuel to help maintain my passion. Since my first year, I have worked on my professional path and made it align with my talents and passions. I have chosen courses that allow me to contribute my own insight. I have joined organizations for women of color in media to expand my network and to increase my chances of gaining internships. Most importantly, I have put my all into my coursework.
Switching majors strengthened my bond with my parents and I now feel comfortable expressing my individuality to them. Despite their lack of familiarity with the media industry, my parents saw my accomplishments in and outside of NYU and that gave them the security they needed to be sure I had made the right decision. They show their support through helping me expand my network and telling me each day how proud they are of me; to hear my father tell his friends that he sees me landing an important job not only warms my heart but reminds me of his and my mother’s belief in me.
When I visit home and hear my parents preparing my brother for his pre-college summer music program at Berklee and making plans to take my sisters to a dance camp in Italy, I recognize my parents’ growth. I take credit for them opening their minds to different careers for my siblings and me based on the talents they’ve seen us develop. They remind us to put our best foot forward on whatever road we decide to embark on and stop at nothing to help us reach our goal.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 11, 2019 print edition. Email Chinenye Onyeike at [email protected]