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Home Away From Home

My Nigerian Experience

by Nnenna Okore
Associate Professor of Art

Editor's Note: In 2012, Nnenna Okore, associate professor of art and department chair, was named a Fulbright Scholar, and was assigned to teach at a Nigerian university.

Last summer, my family and I flew from Chicago to Lagos, Nigeria, with great excitement and expectation. This was the start of my one-year sabbatical leave and Fulbright assignment at the University of Lagos, and I looked forward to working in a different environment and reuniting with my family members and old friends. On arrival, the dean, staff, and students of the faculty of arts greeted me with keen enthusiasm and a warm reception. I was quickly introduced to upper-level art students who would become part of my first class. My initial encounters with them were nothing but positive and pleasant. I listened carefully as they discussed their lives and educational challenges, and later, they asked questions about my interests and subject area. What became obvious to me was that they strongly desired and were thirsty for knowledge and exposure.

Quite unlike my American students who are conscious of being overly inquisitive, my Nigerian students were outwardly curious about everything, including my life in the United States and how my experiences at their institution were different from that at North Park. To satisfy their interests, I carved out a few minutes of every class period for storytelling—sharing tales about my education in the United States, my journey as an artist, and my teaching experiences and career at North Park. In return, I listened to theirs. This story-sharing component of our class period was indeed the highlight of our time together.

Aside from such delightful moments, teaching at my host institution came with lots of challenges and struggles. First, there was the problem of outdated pedagogical practices that did not accommodate curricular changes and development. I didn’t realize this until I tried to introduce new directions and learning outcomes to the existing art curriculum, and failed severely. But rather than despairing, I shifted my focus from trying to change or influence the system completely, to making sure that I exposed each and every student that I encountered to new knowledge and creative ideas.

Another glaring issue that could not be overlooked was the incredible lack of academic resources and infrastructure in the art department. The problem of small class and studio size to high student-faculty ratio made it practically impossible to have any meaningful class seminars. As a consequence, many students are poorly prepared in their areas of concentration. My temporary solution to this problem was to hold classes outdoors (which only favored me because of the studio nature of my course and the dry climatic conditions). I also had to make concerted efforts to go over fundamental topics in art with my students to ensure that they had the basic knowledge and understanding needed to proceed with my environmental art course.

Overall, this experience has been invaluable. Though difficult at times, working with these students has made me a better teacher and stronger believer. I am able to better appreciate the opportunities I have had in life, and many wonderful things that one can easily take for granted in American universities. I have become more aware of and empathetic toward the needs of students, whose resilience, willpower, and determination to succeed in spite of the staggering inadequacies and obstacles in the Nigerian system is simply inspiring.

When I return to North Park University, I will share my experiences with the community and encourage my colleagues and students to actively participate in collecting, donating, and awarding fairly new or unwanted educational art materials and literature to less privileged foreign students. Provided that funding is available, students, alumni, and faculty members from North Park could benefit from traveling to Nigeria for teaching assignments, residencies, research, or service. Given that life in Nigeria can be extremely tough and expensive, however, an alternative could be to conduct academic activities remotely via the Internet, engaging in online exchanges or other endeavors with Nigerian scholars and artists, for instance. I believe that Nigerian students would benefit greatly from such opportunities.

There is no doubt that this has been an amazing journey. Have I accomplished all I set out to achieve? Probably not. But I am very satisfied with the way things have played out. My experiences in and out of the classroom have taught me many life lessons I will share with my students for a long time to come. I am spiritually uplifted in ways I could never have been had I not traveled to Nigeria. Adding to that, I feel rejuvenated, recharged, and reconnected with my roots. I have been blessed to have good friends around me who have been instrumental in helping me settle down much more quickly than I was able to prior to my sabbatical. And unlike years past, my children have enjoyed unlimited access to grandparents, uncles, and aunts for the first time. Who could ask for more?

Next Steps

Read more from the Summer 2013 North Parker.

Nnenna Okore