African Immigrants Find an Open Door at a Bronx College


Victoria McEwen, center, grew up in Sierra Leone, watching her mother help people survive during the civil war there. Now she is among a burgeoning group of African students at Bronx Community College. Credit David Gonzalez/The New York Times
Victoria McEwen, center, grew up in Sierra Leone, watching her mother help people survive during the civil war there. Now she is among a burgeoning group of African students at Bronx Community College. Credit David Gonzalez/The New York Times

If African students at Bronx Community College need encouragement, they need only look so far as the president.

No, not the current occupant of the White House, who has denigrated the African continent, pursued an immigration ban that targets several predominantly Muslim countries and suggested that community colleges become vocational schools. The leader these students look up to is the president of the college, Dr. Thomas A. Isekenegbe, who was born in Nigeria and maintains an easy rapport with them.

Just as the Bronx has seen an explosion in its African population, Bronx Community College has seen its enrollment of African students climb to nearly 1,000 from 200 a decade ago. They go to the Bronx, which has one of the country’s largest concentration of Africans, for the same reasons previous immigrants did: to give their children a better life while toiling hard to support their extended families.

Administrators at the college say that the African students tend to earn better grades, in less time, than their classmates. And they do so in the face of everything from being demonized and dismissed by immigration hard-liners to being called hut-dwellers by the ignorant. Yet they are believers in the American dream, even if some Americans don’t believe in them.

“They come here like sponges and want to soak up the knowledge,” said Dr. Isekenegbe, who was appointed president of Bronx Community College three years ago. “I have a lot of responsibility to them to be a role model. If you work hard and do the things you are supposed to, while there is no utopia in this world, this place is the closest to one. Despite all this talk, this is a country that if you have a good education, you will have the opportunity, someone will open the door. It’s important they see it is possible to ascend in American society.”

This is not hype, but an acknowledgment of a community that has been growing in plain sight in neighborhoods like Morrisania and Highbridge. Some have escaped upheaval, like Paulin Dongomale, an engineering student who was forced to flee the Central African Republic. Others come right out of high school, joining fathers who arrived years before to work as cabdrivers or deliverymen to support their families back home. The experience can be life-changing, as Godwin Boaful discovered, when the young Ghanaian went from the Bronx to Brown University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry before entering Brown’s medical school.

What they share is a college where they have been made to feel not just welcome, but an important part of campus life. The college has been setting up programs to help them adjust culturally, if not academically, while also offering them chances to develop outside the classroom.


Bright Igbinigun followed his brother’s example, moving to New York from Nigeria to attend Bronx Community College. Already a poet and a pastor, he is studying political science with an eye on law school, saying he wants to apply his knowledge in ways that could help his homeland. Credit David Gonzalez/The New York Times

“If you engage with the campus community, doors will open for you,” Dr. Isekenegbe said. “If all you do is take the 4 train, run to class and run back, you’re not going to be successful. You have to become engaged, know your professors and join clubs. It expands your network and develops leadership.”

Many of the African students — like other immigrants — have focused on science and technology, as well as programs in nursing that provide skills that are in demand, especially in the Bronx, where the health care industry is the largest employer. But in more recent years there has been an uptick in those studying political science or human services, giving them skills that are applicable in their home countries.

Bright Igbinigun, who in addition to his studies and work as a Pentecostal pastor, recently published a book of poems titled “I Must Return Home.” He said his experience at Bronx Community helped him realize the importance of civic engagement. Originally from Nigeria, Mr. Igbinigun, 24, is studying political science with an eye on law school.

“I have a great passion for the situation in my country, Nigeria,” he said. “There is a lot going on there politically and economically, and I would like to go home and help reshape the situation. This is not something just for Nigerians, but to encourage everyone in the diaspora, whether they are Pakistani or Dominican, to realize the importance of service.”

Victoria McEwen learned those lessons even before she moved to the Bronx in 2010 to join her husband. She was born in Sierra Leone, where civil war upended the family’s life. Now at Bronx Community, which her husband also attended, she is studying human services.

“I got my lessons from my parents during the war,” Ms. McEwen, 44, said. “My mother helped others, and our house became a refugee center. People would come over and we’d share our food. Before I came here, I wanted to study accounting. But the desire has grown in me to help people. Looking at the homeless in this country, or just at what people have to go through, my passion to help has increased.”

What has also grown is her determination not to be distracted or discouraged by off-the-cuff remarks from President Trump. Besides, she’s too busy studying.

“That’s his opinion,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. I know why I am here. If he checked what he was saying, he would know why America is what it is. Why it is full of diversity. What I say to other Africans here is just be focused. Know who you are. Stand up for what you believe.”