ESCAPE VELOCITY

Journey Of  Hope

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What are the chances of growing up in a poor Nigerian village and obtaining a degree from a U.S. College? What are the chances of that same girl flying a plane? What are the chances that she would become an aerospace engineer and becoming CEO of an aerospace company she founded?

Escape Velocity – Journey of hope is the incredible true story of that young woman–Onyema Ajuogu and her inspirational journey of overcoming overwhelming obstacle to make her dreams come true. As a child, Onyema saw an enchanting picture of beautiful flowers on a cover magazine that said “Sweet Home Alabama.” Little could she, or anyone else have imagined that she would attend school in that very same State. Driven by incredible faith and an unstoppable spirit, full of courage and a will to survive. Onyema who has no role model nor support but with the help of information from browsing the internet helped her found her way to United States of America.

When Onyema was about eight years old she saw a plane for the first time in her life, flying over her village and her dreams took flight. She believed that one day she would fly a plane and with tremendous resilience, courage, persistence and unbreakable determination Onyema found a way to go even further than just becoming a pilot.

Onyema’s journey takes her from the villages of Nigeria, to some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States. Her path is teeming with characters, many of whom generously helped her in times of need, and at critical moments stepped up to support her. Others tried to exploit her, even trying to enslave her. However, Onyema never gave up, she faced her challenges head-on and overcame them one by one and made it to the top of founding an aerospace company. She did what was as needed to succeed, even if that meant working four jobs to support herself while taking university courses.

In aerospace terminology, Escape Velocity is the speed needed to pull clear of earth’s gravity. Onyema’s story is about escape velocity of a different kind – Life Escape Velocity. It is the force needed to escape destitution, hardships, gender, socioeconomic and national gravitational pulls that hinders you to achieve a dream, to overcome your circumstances. Onyema’s story is a message of hope for anyone who has a dream, especially one that seems not just unlikely but unreachable. In her life-story she shows what determination and persistence can do. She faced many challenges in her young life and still she believed in her dream and at the end made it because she choose to do so.

Having achieved the seemingly impossible, Onyema is now an inspirational role model for young people everywhere and has founded a nonprofit organization called “Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation” to inspire others, particularly women from less developed countries.

Onyema who’ve seen poverty and known struggle; who have pulled herself up from the shackles of heartache and strife, exhaustion and drain, Onyema rose a heart as open and unwaveringly wide as the ocean itself and still wants to give back to society, still and wants to better the world for other young women and girls around the world. Helping them know their ability in making waves, in shifting patterns with tides and in creating a change.

She brings a message of hope for anyone who has a dream, especially one that seems not just unlikely but unreachable. She want other to follow in her footsteps, to emulate her remarkable achievements.

What are the odds of a poor girl, growing up without a mother or a father in the house; having to hawk snacks to be able to attend school, to buy her text books and to support her family; to pull clear of her life’s gravity? She pulled free from being a house maid in order to go to secondary school; pulled free from circumstances no young child should be faced with. She constantly kept her head high and faced her challenges, facing the difficulty of researching on internet to find a way of being accepted by a U.S. university.

How is it possible that a poor girl, arriving in the USA, with absolutely no money, stranded at the airport and knowing no one, would still realize her dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer?

For people like Onyema, the odds just don’t matter. For some people, faith is more important than probability, resilience and persistence more important than chance, belief more than constraints.

For Onyema Ajuogu and those she is helping, it is more than possible. It is happening!

 

Letter to Onyema

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Who I Am

IMG_8763I grew up in the 1980s with the Igbo tribe in the village of Umudihe in Orlu, Imo, in Nigeria. I am certain I would be nothing more than a local market woman by now if I had not been able to escape from Umudihe.

The City of Orlu has a population of about 420,000 and is well known to humanitarian relief agencies because of its status as headquarters for relief agencies during the Nigerian War.

Umudihe is a very small village of about three hundred people. There is no way to compare it to even the poorest ghetto in America. There are no luxuries. Water had to be carried from about ten miles down hill for some families. Electricity required a substantial outlay of money just to get a power line to one’s house and some families didn’t have electricity in their homes. However, people were content and happy. Perhaps they just didn’t know any better.

Umudihe is a Christian village; Nigeria is evenly split between Christians and Muslims, and most of the Christians are Catholic. The church is a cathedral with a bishop in residence and serves as the center of Catholicism for the district. The church means a lot to me. It has a huge influence on the development of my character and integrity. There is an African proverb that says, “When you follow in the path of your elders, you learn to walk like them.”

I was born in the lowest of houses in the poorest village contained in a deprived district of one of the poorest countries on earth. We had no electricity and no running water in our home. It was a mud house, and that can cause problems when it rained. Our little family barely had enough money for food.

They say anything is good when you don’t know any better. But I knew in my heart and soul that there must be better things for me and my family. Although I didn’t even knew then what my wish would be, I knew I had it in me to reach for whatever I dreamt about, and if I put my mind to it. I can make it! I will persevere!

I was born out of wedlock, at a time when there was a huge cultural stigma attached to illegitimacy. When a woman had a child outside of wedlock in my culture, the child was raised by the mother and the father had no legal responsibilities towards the child. Mother faced the daunting task of raising my sister and me without any support.

Never having had a father only contributed to my independence and resilience. In a way, this disadvantage may have pushed me forward and upward. I was determined not to live this way for all my life.

A DREAM IGNITED

Elementary school was difficult for me socially. Because of my situation and having no role model, I was afraid to speak up, for fear of something I didn’t know about. In fact, I used to be the quietest student in the class. I wanted to learn, but I spent more time trying to solve family problems, my family were always near my heart.

School was primitive (everyone even had to bring their own school seat) and because there were so many problems at home, I missed a lot of classes. I missed some, or I was late, neither of which was acceptable.

Most of my teachers liked me because of my quietness. They think my English name (Benigna) is unique and they always like to call my name. Even when they had to kick me out of class due to not being able to pay the school fees, they were very nice to me. I think they saw that I was ambitious and I wanted to learn.

One day, I heard an airplane rumbling through the sky over my house. I looked up, and in that moment my life changed. Such flights were a rare occurrence in the airspace over Orlu. I had lived almost a decade without ever seeing a single airplane fly over my village. My heart jumped at the sight of tons of metal flying high overhead.

There is an old little children’s song that was popular among the children in my village. One line in it went, “Airplane, airplane, bring money to me.” It was probably something all of the surrounding villages sang years ago when the military tried to keep food away from our village during the war.

I waved frantically at the tiny dot in the sky, dancing and singing the song with sheer delight.

The airplane was a revelation to me. Just watching it, sparked my young mind to dream that one day I would fly an airplane myself. I was brimming over with an uncontrollable excitement. My heart was pounding. I began imagining the pilot in his cockpit, guiding the plane among the clouds. I wondered how the wings held it up and how its engine drove it forward through the air. As I sang the song over and over, I dreamed about being up in that plane, flying away into the blue sky. I believed that I could do anything.

The more outrageous the concept – the more likely I am to try it.   If it is a new advancement in science or math, or life and the universe, if it holds some possibility of a new discovery – I want to do it—I wanted desperately to know how that airplane could fly, and I dreamed about being a pilot.

Because I came from a poor family in which not a single family member had ever gotten a degree or certificate beyond primary school, I knew that I would have to go to extraordinary efforts to achieve my dream. But I was ready to make whatever sacrifice was necessary.

The same year I saw the airplane, I stumbled upon a colourful magazine that caught my imagination. My mother brought the magazine home from the hospital where she used to work. I used to flip through pages of the magazine, mesmerized by the beautiful pictures inside.

On the front cover of the magazine was a photo of a field of beautiful flowers with the words Sweet Home Alabama written on the cover above the picture. I thought the flowers were so beautiful that I decided in that moment that I would go to Alabama, thinking that was the place to really see such beautiful flowers up close. There were certainly flowers in our compound, but these looked as if they were from heaven.

THE FIRST FLIGHT

Declaring my independence!!! I boarded my flight to United States of America on the first of October 2004. I don’t believe in coincidences, but it’s the same day as Nigeria’s Independence Day.   On 1 October 1960, Nigeria became a self-governing country, free of British control. A parliamentary form of government was established, it only lasted for six years before the first military coup overthrew the civilian government.

There were many republics and military interventions before General Abdulsalami Abubukar became head of the new military administration in 1998. Nigeria was crumbling, but Abubakar succeeded in restoring the country’s credibility and status.

It was very symbolic to me. I was claiming my own independence from a life of poverty, qualor and from going nowhere. It was one small step to get on the plane and one huge leap toward achieving my dreams.

Many Nigerians are still not truly free, they are trapped in lives of grinding poverty.

Why am I so fortunate? I am Onyema Benigna Ajuogu, a child raised under extraordinarily impoverished conditions. A girl who (like so many before her in the village of Umudihe) would be destined for a life of oppression and despair, living day to day, never veering from the routine. I was a girl with a dream, but more than that, I chased my dream and with persistence made it come true. I was getting my freedom. I Onyema Benigna Ajuogu will no longer be trapped by circumstances.

As I sat on the plane, flying for the first time in my life, I felt certain that my personal Independence Day was coming, too. I had a powerful sense of freedom and a hope like nothing I had ever felt before.

Numbers are significant to me – I always see numbers as a connection in nature. My leaving Nigeria on October 1, it being Nigeria’s Independence Day, this was more than a coincidence. It was on this morning that I realized that this Nigerian Independence Day, was actually the day of MY departure for freedom!

I remember looking out of the window of the plane at the vast Atlantic Ocean. It seemed endless as we passed above it: forty-one million square miles of water covering 20 percent of Earth’s surface. It was amazing to see from thirty thousand feet above its surface—so free and flowing, just as I envisioned the rest of my life to become.

I smiled, knowing that in the United States of America I would have freedom to dream and freedom from limitations that held me back before. Freedom to achieve my dream of flying, freedom to go beyond planet Earth.

I arrived in America at the Atlanta airport on October the 2nd, 2004. What a feeling when I disembarked! It was more than another country. It was a whole new and different and exciting world. I can’t tell you how wonderful I felt getting off the plane and looking around at what seemed like millions of people and planes taking off and landing every ten minutes.

I gathered up my bags and went through customs. My joy and cheerfulness suddenly turned to a harsh reality. As I stepped out into the airport and onto American soil, I realized I have a problem. But I also did not want it to alter my excitement.

“It’s not a problem,” I said silently. “All right, it is a problem, but it can be fixed.”

“How?” I asked my inner self.

“Not sure. Let me think,” I kept saying to myself.

The problem was, there I was, stepping out of customs totally alone and with no plan or means of going any further. No one was meeting me at the airport. I had no money for a bus or cab fare, and my university was in another state, hundreds of miles away. I was stranded at the Atlanta airport! I know it’s really brave for a young girl my age to travel for the first time to a country she only heard of, and without any money, contacts or support. I faced reality and although the picture didn’t look to great I knew I came this far and I would make it.

Perhaps I should have been afraid to be alone and far from my family, but in my mind I had conquered the biggest obstacle—reaching America. In contrast to Nigeria, the opportunities in America appeared so much greater. My excitement was almost overwhelming in spite of the mess I was in.

The fact is that my excitement about coming to United States of America meant that I needed to minimize the predicament I was in now, and my fervent belief that God would help me deal with whatever circumstances I faced. I was so excited just to be going to a place where I could discover so many things, I hadn’t even thought about leaving Atlanta for Tuscaloosa. Some more solemn reflection might have made me avoid the plight I was now facing. But in some ways this is a metaphor for my life: my faith and passion comes first and overrides practical considerations. Sure there is a downside to that, like arriving in United States of America and having no money. The upside was that I reached United States of America, I have to live my life to the fullest, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. A few difficult hours at an airport were nothing compares to living out my dreams.

I also have to admit that there is a part of me that enjoys stepping into the unknown. It is one of the reasons I love the concept of spaceflight. The way I see it, arriving in Atlanta with no money is nothing compared to landing on Mars, or any planet for that matter.

I had no idea how much trouble I was in. I kept rolling ideas over in my mind, trying to develop some scientific equation that would get me from here to where I needed to be.

Huh.. Scientific equation? please be sure to grab your copy of “Escape Velocity- Journey of hope”. We all share the same hopes and dreams and I respect that.