Ticking Clock of an Immigrant

Felix Ekwueme
Oct 9 · 7 min read

Immigrant Journey from F1 Student to U.S Citizen

I want to write about my life, maybe because it has had its ups and downs in my 27 years on earth. However, I will focus on the last 7 years, which account for the most challenging and successful years of my life, primarily as an immigrant in United States. I have no problem writing about these experiences if sharing my experience as an immigrant helps someone else.

Countdown timer by Felix

In 2012, I made the decision to relocate to United States for academic studies in computer science at Wiley College. Unaware of what the future holds in United States, I feared that every minute of my day in the country had to be used to its capacity because time was against me as an immigrant who had to return home upon completion of my education.

Day after day, I worked, studied, and competed in every hackathon that I could discover. Working a $7.25 per hour job, so as to afford a flight ticket to a hackathon in another state, so I could improve my expertise in software development. Did this pay off? Yes it did. I was discovered by companies that includes Microsoft and IBM at these hackathons, and offered job opportunities that changed the outcome of my time in United States, and an income that has allowed me to pay it forward by investing in other immigrants and Americans alike who are building the best companies.

Image by Felix

All I remember every day in college was the fear that once my clock was over, the only legacy I would have would be the things I had done within those 4 years in college, so I tried to do so much at the same time. This resulted in a tough college experience, considering that I really didn’t enjoy college as much as many other students. To be clear, I do not regret this. Infact, I believe that if I had enjoyed college any more than I did, I would be further behind. The journey was clear: Graduate from college, gain significant work experience, and prepare to return home once it was time.

There was nothing more to fit into this picture of an American dream, but the experiences which came alongside those goals as an immigrant.

Joining the Army

As a child, I have always been curious about life in the military. After I moved to the U.S, I discovered that the average American respects the service member. They will stop at nothing to say “Thank you for your service”, even when you feel undeserving of it. I remember dining in college, writing a research paper on how I thought I could reduce the suicide rate in the military using my knowledge of software development. As I was writing, a recruiter walked over and said hello. Strangely, he wasn’t trying to recruit me, rather he was curious about what I was writing, and why I cared about this topic enough to do this independent research. Week after week, he would stop by to ask me about my research, and I would share the limited hypothesis I had. The more I read about suicide in the military and the physical traumas soldiers face from combat, the more interested I was in joining the military. In 2014, I decided to move along with the process, and enlist under a military program for individuals with skills vital to the U.S National Interest. However, two days before I was to enlist, the U.S government shut down this program. It was an end to that dream, but atleast I had built a great relationship with SGT Barron, my recruiter at the time.

The Journey Continues:

Two years later, I was watching a report on TV about suicides in the military, bothered by this problem, and equipped with all the research knowledge I had gathered along the way, I picked up the phone and called a local recruiting station in Houston Texas, and told them I wanted to enlist in the Army. I stopped by, started the process again with some of the best recruiters, while I hoped that the U.S government will reopen the program that allowed foreigners with certain skills to enlist. As fate would have it, the program was reopened, and I officially enlisted as a Combat Medic in the U.S Army Reserve. Shortly after, the program was closed permanently, but this time, I had made it, so all was good, or so I thought.

Ups and Downs of an immigrant

I picked up my research once again, and my military leadership team wrote a letter to the MIT Media Lab advising them to support my research to find a computational solution to suicides in the military. This letter came at a pivotal time when we had just lost a soldier in my unit to suicide. I also received letters from science advisors to the Army supporting this research, and a grant to explore this research at another prestigious institution’s PhD program (college redacted to protect its identity), however, something interesting happened. Because I was still an immigrant, the grant was withdrawn after they discovered that I had to be a U.S Citizen to receive the research funding, despite qualifying for it, and spending countless hours validating the importance of this work. In a letter from the program chair who is also regarded as the #1 professor in this field, prior to the discovery that I needed to be a U.S Citizen, he said

“ You are one of very few. You are exceptional and you must think of yourself in that light. We just received $35 million to start a fellowship program for you and other outstanding young people like you. I can’t wait to work with you. I suggest the earliest possible visit to get you moving.”

However, despite the university receiving this fellowship based on the merits of my work and that of other researchers, I was not allowed to receive this funding, primarily because I was an immigrant. Well, that was a big blow.

The second experience was when I had to stop working at this 6 figure paying salary, just because my work permit was about to expire. Lesson: You could have the best job, and not be able to work, because you are an immigrant! This was another tough one to swallow because in this case, it was as a result of an administrative error on the part of the very organization tasked with issuing work permits. An incredible lawyer, Sarah Buffett, stepped up and took on my case, completely for free, and fought her way through with USCIS until they corrected this error and granted my work permit.

Why do I write this?

I came to United States in August 2012, and barely 7 years later, I am now a citizen of United States of America. I skipped the regular process many follow, which includes getting an H1B and/or a green card before getting to this point, or doing anything illegal to secure my place in this country. I had made a promise to myself when I arrived at the houston airport in 2012. I knelt down in front of the airport, laid my hand on the ground and said a few words of commitment “America you will respond to me”. You don’t have to be religious to understand the power in speaking your future into existence, this secret, I knew very early on after reading a book my dad had bought, titled The Secret. Reading was second nature early on, including reading the dictionary. A task my parents would make us do. They often awarded cash prizes if we could define words they threw at us.

Gratitude

Along the way to this point, there were many legal battles with the Department of Defense, and the U.S government at large, after some officials made many attempts to change our agreements. Some incredible attorneys fought and won cases to ensure that immigrant soldiers received the benefits which were due under the law, including the lawyers at the Fried Frank law firm, Margaret Stock, Neil O’Donnell, Elizabeth Ricci, Bruce Coane, Richard Green, and many more attorneys who stepped up to support immigrants in the military.

Not to forget the senior DOD officials who stood along side me throughout this journey and made it their additional duty to support my military career, even when they were deployed in combat.

Life as a Citizen

Today, I continue my civilian career at IBM, while also pursuing a Masters Degree at Harvard. This has given me resources to continue my research to find computational solutions outside of the popularly adopted use of psychology as the sole solution. I strongly believe that we must find other supplemental solutions, because suicide victims do not always seek help from medical practitioners. Any work done to save one more life, is a work worth doing.

Holding my redacted naturalization certificate

My next step in my military career is to commission as a Healthcare Officer. A process which I have begun. As a citizen, I also intend to engage in the political process by voting in upcoming elections, which is why the first thing I did after becoming a citizen, was to register to vote. In the future, I will be running for public office.

How do you survive the immigrant experience?

A growing body of evidence in my journey suggests that the most fundamental need to survive in United States as an immigrant, may be something intangible. It is hope!

To get further, we must dig deep within our greatest desires, find hope, and help others discover the same. As an American, this is one commitment I will keep forever!

Felix Ekwueme

Written by

Delivering solutions @IBM, VC at @entrancevc.

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