Giovanna Z. Rinaldo
Graduating this year with a master’s degree in health care administration and a 4.0 GPA from the University of La Verne was not even Ooceeh Afame’s first stunning achievement.
From the day he was abandoned as a 2-day old newborn in Maiduguri, Nigeria, to the day he received his second academic degree in the United States after escaping slavery in Africa, Afame has been defying odds and overcoming obstacles.
At 15, after years of surviving as a domestic slave, Afame ran away from the northern part of Nigeria to the south.
“Homeless, helpless and hopeless,” he said he worked in construction for 16 cents an hour by day, camping at the construction sites at night. He worked 66 hours a week and ate one meal a day, he said, but his soul was hungry for more. Without electricity, he used a kerosene lamp and school books to teach himself how to read and write, one grade at a time.
He spent 10 years preparing for a next step, applying and being accepted to several Nigerian universities. However, he did not have money to cover tuition.
Afame learned about the Catholic Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from missionaries who came to Nigeria. He was accepted, then flew to the U.S. with no savings and knowing no one. He did not even speak English.
At Oral Roberts, Afame doubled as head resident assistant and resident assistance to the most difficult dorm floor, which then became the exemplary floor due to his transformations.
In his junior year, he also became the first foreign student to become president of student government with a 70 percent voting turnout, the highest participation ever.
After graduating with a bachelor of science in psychology and premed in 2014, Afame taught chemistry labs at La Sierra University in Riverside.
He started attending ULV in 2015, in pursuit of his master’s in healthcare administration, to help him prepare to work in underserved communities.
“I wanted to know the business side of health care … because I’m going to need that as a doctor to do the kind of work that I want to do in the communities,” Afame said.
“When I came to La Verne … I saw people who looked like me,” Afame said. “I was very impressed by the diversity … For someone who studied psychology, I began to think if we have all these people from different places in one place and they’re together, not fighting each other, it means that the people who are in charge of that environment have created an inclusive environment that allows each of these different people to thrive.”
His determination was clear to Anita Chico, Afame’s academic adviser, who said he always challenges himself.
“I knew immediately when I met him he was going places,” Chico said. “He’s just one of those students you’re just paying attention to. He’s a smart person, I think he always knew he was going to do great things.”
Afame will graduate in the top 1 percent of all graduate students in the nation, earning him an Alpha National Honor Society membership.
“He deserves all of these accolades,” Chico said. “It’s a story that when you hear it you just put everything else in perspective.”
Kathy Duncan, interim program director of ULV’s master of health administration program, said she was impressed even before meeting Afame.
“Just reading his statement of purpose to apply to the program impressed me,” Duncan said. “He is just wonderful. He’s personable, he’s enthusiastic, he’s warm.”
She added that Afame matches the University’s values in community service, engagement and diversity, and that it benefits from his presence.
“We gain an understanding of other cultures, of other countries and the experiences people have,” Duncan said. “I also think that we gain such passion and commitment from one of our students that I know he’s going to do amazing things.”
Giovanna Z. Rinaldo can be reached at email@example.com.