Young international student takes college in stride (w/video)

Gabriella Canales By Gabriella Canales

Jan. 19, 2018 at 9:48 p.m.

International student coordinator Yvonne Garcia quizzes Samuel Joe-Ibekewe about international holiday traditions during a Christmas party at the dorms.

International student coordinator Yvonne Garcia quizzes Samuel Joe-Ibekewe about international holiday traditions during a Christmas party at the dorms.   Angela Piazza for The Victoria Advocate

After nine hours on a plane from Germany and two hours on a Greyhound bus from Houston, 14-year-old Samuel Joe-Ibekewe spent his first two weeks in the United States in a dorm room at the University of Houston.

"I've experienced nothing like Hurricane Harvey," Samuel said, arriving in Victoria on the eve of a Category 4 hurricane. "It was pretty ironic."

The University of Houston-Victoria evacuated him and other arriving dorm students to the UH campus, where massive flooding surrounded them.

More than 6,800 miles from his home in Nigeria without even a token to keep in his pocket or keepsake to hang in his dorm room, Samuel is an international student and freshman at the University of Houston-Victoria.

"I feel it's going to change my life forever," Samuel said about his journey.

He is the youngest student the university's International Programs Office has worked with, said Yvonne Garcia, international student coordinator.

Harry Potter and Alex Rider, characters who have been on their own adventures, kept him company as he settled into his dorm in August after his mother, who made the trip with him, said goodbye.

"Eat good food, keep good company and tidy your room," Samuel recalled his mother advised him. "I'm not sure when I will see her next."

Samuel's journey has been advanced: Middle school at 7. High school at 10. College at 14.

Samuel's advice: "Have the learning mentality, the mentality you should know everything, the mentality you always question the universe."

Samuel traveled from the small city of Abuja to Victoria, a place that is even smaller, he said.

Traffic, banks, food, school policy, class times and technology feel different, he said. Although he does not have a favorite Nigerian dish, Samuel knows the least favorite food he's eaten in Victoria: pickles served by themselves.

"It's exposing me to the U.S. culture," he said about UHV life. "I get to see a totally different culture, get used to the culture."

He is the second to the oldest among five children in his family. Samuel is no stranger to travel after cross-country trips with his mother when she worked for one of the largest Nigerian banks.

In elementary school, he advanced multiple grade levels and took the middle school entrance exam at 7.

"I would stay for a term in a class and move to another class trying to cope with new faces, make new friends, the curriculum," Samuel said. "You eventually learn how to cope."

Samuel's close relationship with his father, who is a gynecologist, was his motivation to follow the medical path in college.

Age is one aspect of his life he leaves out of conversations, Samuel said.

"I don't look at myself differently than them. We are all human," he said of his classmates. "I tend to associate with adults to blend in with society."

When Samuel sat next to fellow freshman Jacob Garcia in algebra during their first semester, the two became friends.

"He's more mature than most students and the upperclassmen," Garcia, 18, said.

For fun and familiarity with home, Samuel plays soccer with friends behind the university's dormitory.

"When I play soccer, it makes me feel at home," he said. "I like playing soccer with people I know, and even people I don't know - I've made friends playing soccer."

To keep life in balance, he calls his family for a little peace.

"I try to speak to them every day," he said.

It does not scare him to think about the cost and length of medical school.

"According to Google, they say the entire program will be 11 to 15 years," he said. "I'll probably be 24 to 28. I feel it's going to be normal."

After his recent January birthday, Samuel entered his second semester at 15.

Career opportunities will determine whether Samuel stays in the United States after he graduates.

"If you can do it and believe in yourself, you should know what you want at an early age," he said. "You have to be determined; you have to be focused. Everyone can learn."


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