“I felt like an actress without a script”

“I felt like an actress without a script”

The first in their families to go to university

29-09-2021 · Interview
  • Akudo McGee, age 29
  • PhD candidate at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
  • Went to Pittsburgh in 2010 to study German language and culture
  • Born and raised in Philadelphia, USA, with her mother and brother

Akudo McGee’s story begins with a crime. In the 1980s, her mother was taken to the United States under false pretences. Having grown up in southern Nigeria after a civil war, she hoped to start a new life in the US. But once she got there, she was held captive as a nanny by a Nigerian family in Philadelphia. 

“She escaped and met my father, who worked in security”, says McGee, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “They divorced a few years later, and my mother found work as a cleaner. I barely knew my father. My older brother and I grew up in Philadelphia. We were poor, didn’t always have enough money for food or bills, so sometimes we’d have to make do without electricity, water or gas.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – their poor living conditions, McGee’s mother always encouraged her children to learn. “There was no money for toys, but there was money for books”, says McGee. “I had a thirst for knowledge. She bought me Shakespeare for Kids and other literary classics. We’d be at home all summer. I would read one book after another.”

Her brother Daniel sometimes made fun of her. “He was the cool guy. He called me a nerd, but always with a smile. He was very protective and proud of me. Just like my mother, who paraded me around like a trophy to relatives, co-workers and neighbours. I found it embarrassing as a child, but hey, I was accomplishing the things that my mother had longed for all her life. She later learnt English and, partly because of that, now works as a technician in a cancer centre.”

Out of place

After completing secondary school with top grades, McGee went to university. She applied to the University of Pittsburgh, a five-hour drive away, to study German language and culture. “I had to figure everything out myself – applying for a scholarship, registering as a student, you name it. It was very frustrating. Once on campus, I felt like an actress without a script. Everyone seemed to find their way easily. A lot of my fellow students had university-educated parents, but I felt completely lost. How do you get an access pass to the campus café? How do you manage your money? How do you study for an exam? I knew nothing.”

Looking back, she feels both proud and sad. “I was a lonely student, isolated and out of place. I was ashamed of growing up poor. I was terrified that the other students would find out about it. The fact that Black students were in the minority at Upitt didn’t help either. Sometimes I could feel racial tensions on campus, but it didn’t really affect me personally.”

A fighter

She received her bachelor’s degree in 2017, after which she ended up in Amsterdam. “I was looking for a master’s degree in migration. One of my lecturers recommended European Studies at UvA. He said it was the best programme in the field in Europe. I still love Amsterdam. It’s a city that made me feel very welcome.”

Since last year she has held a PhD position at UM, doing research on norm contestation in the EU with Poland as a case study. By now, she feels a lot more comfortable at university. “Especially in the Netherlands, where hierarchy is much less important than in the US and where you don’t get punished for making mistakes. But still, even now I occasionally feel like an imposter, like I could be exposed at any moment as someone who doesn’t belong at university.”

She is a lot less ashamed of the poverty she grew up in. “It shaped me in a positive way. I’m a fighter; I don’t give up. I’m hungry, eager to learn. It has also benefited me as a researcher. I’m observant, a good listener, and I recognise recurring patterns quickly.”

The fact that she has overcome her shame is perhaps most evident from her openness during this interview, isn’t it? She nods, and smiles.

This is a weekly series of interviews with students or academics who were the first in their families to go to university

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: first generation,instagram



That is go to show that stronger people can never be defeated
Go Akuwainy

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