Above photo: Living in a variety of cultures taught international graduate student Ebby Ezema the value of authenticity and family. Photo Courtesy of Ebby Ezema
By Whitney Elfstrom
Family, authenticity and impact—three values that mean more to one man than most.
These themes come up again and again in conversation with Ebby Ezema, an international graduate student at USF St. Petersburg studying business administration with a concentration in data analytics.
Ezema made his way to St. Petersburg at the recommendation of several friends who were already a part of the university’s international program. He was attracted to the small class sizes, the downtown area and the challenge presented by the interview process for the MBA program.
Ezema’s story begins 28 years ago in Nsukka, Nigeria where he was born and spent the first five years of his life before moving to Kingston, Jamaica. As one of five siblings—falling second in the lineup—family is incredibly important to Ebby. Growing up, his parents emphasized the importance of looking out for his siblings.
“Our culture is very much a family-centric culture,” Ebby said. “Because we moved to Jamaica so young and we were not familiar with the environment, it forced us to be closer.”
The Ezemas were the only Nigerians Ebby knew of in Kingston, and because of it, he often felt like an outsider. The close-knit bond with his family helped him feel more at home.
The move to Jamaica hit Ebby with a culture shock and a formidable language barrier. For the first five years of his life Ebby spoke Igbo—one of the four official languages of Nigeria—but upon moving to Kingston he had to learn the Jamaican dialect Patois.
Despite only speaking Igbo fluently until he was 5, Ebby has started to practice his first language again by communicating with his mother who lives in the Grand Caymans.
“I want to practice so that when I do go back to Nigeria I can speak it,” Ebby said. “I don’t really like feeling different—in an ‘I don’t really belong’ kind of sense—especially around family.”
The feeling of not belonging stems back to when Ebby first moved to Jamaica and attempted to speak Igbo to people who had never heard Igbo before. He quickly realized that he was separated from them and isolated in the community.
“With that realization I became almost like a recluse. I hid in my corner just to observe,” Ebby said. “Again, it was a new experience. It hit me; I didn’t know where I was and I didn’t really know how long I’d be there. I took the roll of trying to understand where I am so I didn’t speak much, I didn’t do much. I adapted a reserved mentality.”
The only time Ebby felt like he could be himself was on the soccer field. It was there, he said, that he could go back to being his silly, happy-go-lucky self.
“They don’t care if you speak the language if you can kick a ball, right?” Ebby said.
But off the field, he reverted back to seclusion and trying to understand his role in his new society.
When Ebby came to the States in the 10th grade, he continued keeping to himself.
His parents hyped up America as “the land of milk and honey.” They believed that American kids were extra bright and polite. They would remind him that he was going to school with the best of the best.
When he made his way to The MacDuffie School in Granby, Massachusetts, he realized that the kids were no different from himself. It was there that he finally started to break out of his shell.
“They asked me about Jamaican culture and those that really got to know me asked about Nigerian culture,” he said. “I was kind of forced out of the observant roll more into one of a participant.”
He learned to be more open, but the more open he became, the more he embellished certain details. He would tell stories of everyone in Jamaica being at the beach and partaking in island life when in reality, he said, where he grew up was very similar to Massachusetts.
“We actually had a Jamaican girl come to the school. Funny enough we went to the same prep school in Jamaica and then we reconnected when we were 16 in Massachusetts,” Ebby said. “Then she started saying her experience in Jamaica and [fellow students] were like ‘What’s going on here? Some things don’t match up right.’ And I realized well there’s no reason to exaggerate certain things, just say it like it is.”
His change in outlook occurred in college at Nicholls State University, where he received his Bachelor’s of Science in International Business and Marketing. Ebby’s older brother, Ugo, was a student there and had already laid the foundation for the brothers which allowed Ebby to be less of a storyteller and more genuine.
“The best way to not piss off anybody is to just be genuine and be honest with people,” Ebby said. “…I want the interaction to be genuine for the both of us in whatever we’re talking about. If we’re talking about coffee, then we’re talking about coffee. If we’re talking about your life aspirations and goals then let’s talk about that.”
No matter where he is, Ebby makes the most out of the opportunities he is given—a value he’s proud of.
He does his best to make an impact everywhere that he goes, which is why he participates in ten on-campus clubs, including President of International Student Club and Vice President of the Graduate Business Association.
He believes he’s on earth to positively change the world and help others find a greater understanding of one another. He said that a problem in society is how rarely people appreciate the little moments in life. He wants to help people notice these moments and enjoy them for what they are.
“I don’t know if it will happen,” Ebby said. “But ideally I want to be known for changing the way we think of ourselves in relation to one another.