I'm Counting Every Penny; Many of His Classmates Are Rich. He's Not. A Berkeley Student from Nigeria Explains How He Handles the Financial Challenges of American Education

By Nwankwo, Chima | Newsweek, August 20, 2007 | Go to article overview

I'm Counting Every Penny; Many of His Classmates Are Rich. He's Not. A Berkeley Student from Nigeria Explains How He Handles the Financial Challenges of American Education


Nwankwo, Chima, Newsweek


Byline: Chima Nwankwo (Nwankwo is entering his senior year at the University of California, Berkeley.)

During my sophomore year at Berkeley, three friends and I moved into an off-campus duplex together. Our first weekend there, we went grocery shopping and split the bill. One of my roommates grabbed a giant container of superpremium orange juice without even looking at the price. I glanced nervously: $11.99. It was another reminder of the vast economic gap between us--and it was the last time we ever split a shopping bill.

At most colleges, there's a lot of focus on diversity. As a native of Nigeria, I'm obviously different from my classmates. But the biggest difference hasn't been nationality--it's been money. Dormmates have teased me about being the only person alive without a flat-panel LCD computer monitor. While classmates watch football games from the student section, I work as a parking attendant. I worry about my grades just as much as they do--but I also worry about unexpected dental bills or finding $200 for the medical-school admissions test. Slightly more than half of Berkeley's students come from households with annual incomes above $60,000, and I've come to believe that a family's income can affect how well a student performs in college.

In a way, it's amazing I'm attending Berkeley. I was born in Lagos. To give my three siblings and me access to a better life, my mother took us to San Francisco when I was 12, while my father stayed in Nigeria to work. My mother is college-educated, but as an immigrant she earned just minimum wage as a preschool teaching assistant. We lived in a housing project. Initially, I had a hard time in school; my thick accent made me afraid to ask questions. But with support from my parents, my overworked teachers and my guidance counselor, I was able to maintain good grades. My chemistry teacher suggested I apply to the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, a summer experience that made me want to become a doctor. That program strengthened my application to Berkeley, where I won a full scholarship. …

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I'm Counting Every Penny; Many of His Classmates Are Rich. He's Not. A Berkeley Student from Nigeria Explains How He Handles the Financial Challenges of American Education
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