Grief, identity, racism: My rollercoaster from Nigeria to Ryerson

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By Teniola Valerie Jegede

My name is Oluwateniola Valerie Ijeoma Jegede, some people call me Teniola. It’s a combination of names from two different tribes in Nigeria. 

I work at Ryerson’s student recruitment and campus tours office as a student ambassador, giving tours of campus and answering questions from prospective students and their parents and guardians. 

Prospective students often ask me how my personal experience at Ryerson has been, and if I found it easy to settle into the community.

While I tried to become familiar with Canada, people constantly reminded  me that I wasn’t. 

When I started at Rye, I introduced myself with my English name, “Valerie”, because my native name, “Oluwateniola” was considered too hard to pronounce. People would call me “Valerie” and I wouldn’t realize it. To me my name registered as “Teniola”.

At times, I had to diminish my Nigerian accent to talk to people who were from other backgrounds because to them my accent was hard to understand. During a conversation with a friend also from Nigeria, someone asked me, “Was that English you just spoke?”

The start of my time in Canada was not easy. Barely a week after my high school graduation in July 2015, I boarded a plane and headed to Canada for the first time.

The process of emigrating your education to a foreign country is not a common practice for most people,  but this is a normal occurrence in Nigeria. Middle- and upper-class families who can afford it send their children abroad to gain a higher education; this was my case. 

In Nigeria, the careers of doctors, engineers and lawyers are treated as the most reputable ones. I chose to pursue public health and safety because of a natural affinity for helping people. Engineering was a no-go—I couldn’t even build a Lego toy properly. 

But just when I figured out my career path, my transition that was meant to be easy became a rollercoaster. A month before my graduation from my pre-university program at Columbia International College, I learned that my father passed away due to unexpected complications after a surgery that had been deemed successful. 

After shortly returning home to be with family, I was back in Canada to start at Ryerson in fall 2016. Beginning university immediately after my father’s passing was difficult. First year was terribly lonely—granted I was mourning and far from home. Family being a phone call away doesn’t mean much when they are in a different time zone.

Without my family, I was alone, facing an issue 16-year-old me was not prepared for: Racism in its many forms. These include long weird stares, rude and unnecessary comments and other hostile actions. People disliking me and treating me badly based on the colour of my skin was something I couldn’t grasp. 

In my second year, a middle-aged man poured a cup of coffee on me at the corner of Yonge and Dundas streets as I was walking home. The coffee was not hot, but it was all over my clothes and books. From the way the man spilled the coffee, it was obviously intentional. 

A couple of passersby laughed, despite there not being anything funny about having coffee poured on you by a racist on a cold winter afternoon after a three-hour-long lecture. Tears streamed down my face as I was walking home. 

On other occasions, I’ve been shouted at to, “go back to where I came from” by people on the streets of downtown Toronto. 

Rather than letting strangers’ hate make me feel isolated in my new home, I became active in campus life. 

I joined the Friends of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) student group. First as a volunteer then later as a campus relations officer in my third year.

I also became a member of the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society of Canada at Ryerson to honor my dad who suffered for a long time from sickle cell disease. Eventually, I became vice-president of outreach, a position I still currently hold. 

University is where you learn to be yourself in a place that’s not always accepting or comfortable. All university students are trying to adapt, it just happens to be that some are doing so thousands of miles from home. 

While I mentor students on settling in, my story is turbulent. It’s difficult to answer how my experience at Ryerson has been in one sentence. But to put it another way, it has been a rollercoaster worth the ride.

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