2018 Winner

Keisha Barrera

Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

“Your request for a visa has been granted, it will be ready for pickup in 3 days”. These were the words I remember hearing from the embassy attendant before my mind began to race. “Is this what I really want? Am I ready for change?”

Moving to the United States from Nigeria was one of the most challenging decisions I have ever had to make. It was one that spurred great fear, but more importantly personal awareness. I was sitting on a couch with my aunt in Rancho Palos Verdes, California and I began to realize how truly different my new home was. She asked why I would turn the water on and off repeatedly during showers. Embarrassed, I said that it was to conserve water. I explained that my home in Nigeria didn’t have hot water. My cousins and I would have to get up at sunrise each morning, collect water from a well, and boil it in a large pot using firewood and kerosene. This system of getting warm water at the turn of a knob was new to me. This led to a deeper conversation about my life in Nigeria.

I grew up in Kaduna, where polygamy is tradition, and electricity is intermittent. Life was simple but death was always near. I could not walk on the streets for fear of being kidnapped. It felt like I could not go to dinner with my family without concern of walking through a bomb. But growing up this way has given me a valuable perspective on life. I am wholeheartedly grateful for things that most take for granted, such as  warm water, the ability to safely walk around my neighborhood, and the opportunity to try new things.

Even while living in Nigeria, I have always been painfully shy and far from independent. I would never go to the store on my own, for fear of conversation.  I would not order in restaurants. Once, a teacher asked me if I was mute. I was a girl who would cower and cry before telling a story in Hausa. Most days I locked myself in my room to avoid conversations. Would I ever be independent?

When I moved to California, it was hard to make friends, and just as in Nigeria, I felt hopeless about ever becoming independent.

  It was my aunt who encouraged me to face my fears which convinced  me to join the school choir and basketball team. To challenge myself further, I joined the international club and debate team. Yes! the debate team, the same person who was called a mute was standing in front of her peers not only speaking but arguing with them.  I started asking for solos in choir.  Before I knew it I made friends and talking to visitors seemed a little easier. I took the New York subway, and toured schools on my own. I am now volunteering at the local church, tutoring, and babysitting which has allowed  me to connect with people on a personal level.  This change would have never occurred without taking a risk, seeking adventure, and stepping out of my comfort zone. 

This new life certainly forced me to try new things and become more independent. I am half Nigerian and half Colombian; I am proud of my roots, and I can relate to people of different backgrounds and cultures.  Living in the United States taught me a lot about the person I am striving to become.  I am eager to begin my college career as a transformed, strong, independent young woman. Now, when faced with challenges my mind still races but I know the answer: “This IS what I want”, “I AM ready for change.”

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