Dreamers Resource Center hosts panel highlighting the Black immigrant experience

Bella Nieto, Managing Editor

As part of UTSA’s Black History Month festivities, the Dreamers Resource Center hosted a panel discussion titled “A Conversation on Amplifying the Black Immigrant Voices.” The panel discussion focused on the Black immigrant experience and being a part of a Black immigrant family.

Panelists included Elisa Cuellar and Samuel Ayoade, who are both UTSA alumni as well as Priscilla Okolie, a senior at UTSA and president of the Black Student Union and Maren Kitogo, a junior at UTSA who works at the Multicultural Student Center for Equity and Justice. 

All panelists indicated that education was stressed to them growing up and it has shaped the way they view the importance of education today. 

Okolie, whose parents immigrated from Nigeria, said both her parents were highly educated when they came to the U.S. Okolie’s mother had a Ph.D. and her father was an attorney. She shared insight her mother gave her about education growing up. 

“My family has always stressed work ethic and education,” Okolie said. “They specifically wanted my sisters and I to come to this country to get an education to utilize it and to give it back to other people, as well as building on their legacy. My mom always told me that education is the one thing nobody can take away from you, so once you have it, it’s yours and once you have it, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Cuellar, whose parents are from Liberia, mentioned why education was so important to her and her family. 

“Education is a core to many West African parents because it’s not something that’s free in that part of the world. If you are going to school, it is a huge sacrifice,” Cuellar said. “We live in a country where the education system isn’t always equitable, but it is free. That’s something that inspired me, just the idea that I have the ability to be a lifelong learner.”

In addition, Kitogo, who is from Tanzania and immigrated in 2007, said her parents emphasized the importance of loving what she learned because it would set her up for future success.

The immigrant experience can be seen as a difficult one, and the panelists shared the challenging experiences they had when they transitioned to college. 

Ayoade mentioned that he had the privilege of having an older sibling, so when his brother went off to college, he got a better understanding of the protection his parents gave him. 

“In high school, the only thing my parents let me do was sports. Outside of that, they were very guarded like I couldn’t have a car until I was 17, I couldn’t go out to parties, etc.,” Ayoade said.  

“When you transition to college, you really couldn’t connect with individuals who had done all these things in high school, especially when you’re a freshman in college, because that’s all you really have to talk about,” Ayoade said. “You find out to a certain degree how much protection your parents put on you because they didn’t know any better, that’s how they survived, so I think one of the hardest things is breaking out of those things that are second nature that your parents molded into you and go to your first college event.”

Kitogo explained the way her parents protected her and how that translated into a new understanding between them when she moved to college. 

“I remember when we first got here [the U.S.] There was so much going on they didn’t know how to assimilate, so they just decided the bubble was best because they could control what was in the bubble,” Kitogo said. “I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was a junior, I didn’t get my first car until senior year of high school, and that one I had to beg for. It seemed like everyone else was comfortable with everything, but over time I learned my parents wanted to keep me safe and make sure that I have a plan.” 

Kitogo shared how her mom began to ease up on her as she got closer to college. 

“Slowly over time, my mom kind of started easing up and she sat me down before I went to college and told me, ‘I know that I kept you here, but when you go to college try and get to know yourself and what you are and what you want out of your college life,’” Kitogo said. 

To conclude, Kitogo shared advice that she had for immigrant students about how to make the most of their college experience. 

“Just do what you love because … you want to wake up in the morning and say ‘I want to go to work.’ One thing that drives me to be a physical therapist is being excited to see a patient or a coworker,” Kitogo said.

“Secondly, be you. A lot of the things I was blessed with at UTSA, I got from being me,” Kitogo said. “I got this job here at the multicultural center for being me, I got a lot of the positions in organizations for being me. Love what you do, just be yourself and bring your friends along with you.”