In her first months on campus, freshman Omolayo Ojo prepared to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
When a former high school classmate returned home to southern Maryland last year, raving to anyone who would listen about her college experiences, Leonardtown High School senior Omolayo Ojo took note of the university name: Elon.
Study abroad destinations? Plentiful. A strong School of Communications? You bet. Research opportunities for exploring how art can serve as a powerful cross-cultural communication tool? Ditto.
The tipping point for Ojo, a woman quick to laugh whose smile stretches from ear to ear, was when the university offered her the Kenan Scholarship, Elon’s top award for incoming students that covers full tuition for four years. However, to make it easier to study abroad, to secure a job in the Foreign Service, to participate in the most important of civic activities – voting – Ojo lacked one thing: citizenship.
“If I really wanted to take advantage of what my education would offer me, I knew I’d need to be a citizen,” Ojo said.
Born in Nigeria, Ojo moved to the United States at the age of 7. Her parents are both educators and encouraged their four children to get ahead through schooling. They also taught their children to celebrate and value Nigerian customs. In the 12 years since leaving Africa, Ojo has balanced the preservation of those customs with the opportunities and practices of American culture.
Embarking on the citizenship application, however, tugged at her sense of self. Would becoming an American citizen somehow deny her origins?
“My Nigerian heritage has always been important to me,” she explained. “It’s a unique part of who I am, living in the U.S. I like my heritage and traditions.”
Nonetheless, Ojo knew how important her citizenship would be in the years ahead, and starting last spring she forged ahead. Anxiety hit only once. During a September meeting in Baltimore with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an officer noticed that the full name from her birth certificate – Christine Omolayo Anulika Ojo – didn’t match the name on her driver’s license. After clearing up the confusion, Ojo, now jittery about the discrepancy, regained her focus a short time later while acing civic and history questions asked of people applying to be citizens.
Passing the quiz didn’t make her a citizen. She’d still need to travel again to Maryland for an oath ceremony in October. But upon her return to campus from the interview, in her first practice back with the color guard of Elon University’s “Fire of the Carolinas” marching band, Ojo’s friends surprised her by baking a cake decorated like an American flag, its blue and white icing with strawberries bringing Ojo to tears.
“It was more than the reaction I was hoping to get. I didn’t expect her to cry!” said senior Emily Wappes, the color guard captain from outside Philadelphia who organized the treat. “I was hoping she was going to be happy about it, and I was hoping she’d be surprised. And she was!
“Elon is lucky to have her. She’s definitely someone who will benefit by being here, both through academics and by being the person who always cheers others up with that smile on her face.”
Following months of study and the September interview that kept her away from campus for three days, on the Monday of Fall Break, inside a federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Md., Ojo took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
Included in a package that all new citizens receive was a passport application form, a congratulatory letter from the president, a voter’s guide and more. As for her self-identity, Ojo has discovered that, in fact, citizenship isn’t an obstacle to celebrating her Nigerian heritage.
“I didn’t feel any different after my citizenship was earned,” she said in a recent interview in the Irazu coffee shop in Moseley Center. “I still felt like Omolayo, who was born in Nigeria and has made the United States home for a long time.”
Ojo said she plans to double major in communications and international studies. Fluent in English and Yuroba, she’s currently enrolled in an elementary French course, and she hopes to study abroad her junior year in Ghana. Ojo has also taken note of the Periclean Scholars program.
“Omolayo began her life at Elon at full speed and she hasn’t seemed to slow her pace one bit,” said Professor Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, director of the Honors Program and Ojo’s Elon 101 instructor. “I’m particularly pleased that Omolayo wants to be involved in significant and meaningful activities not only with our program but with many others on campus. … Given her many interests, my only concern is that she finds time to sleep!”
Friends from the International Pavilion where Ojo lives celebrated her achievement this past weekend as well. In the middle of a trip to the North Carolina mountains, Ojo walked into the kitchen where the students were staying to find her classmates gathered around a lit cake of their own.
“They had me blow out the candles and make a patriotic wish and asked if I had anything to say,” Ojo said. “So of course I thanked them for all their support and help throughout this process and how it really meant a lot to me!”