Colorful Beginnings


Enrolling at Northwestern this fall as a 15-year-old, Nnenna Nwaelugo seeks to return to her homeland of Nigeria after she has become a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Young Nnenna Nwaelugo considered the rainbow. Why is it there? How is it there? Her father answered patiently, explaining that water and light had come together and formed the pretty colors.

The girl wondered aloud: Why would water and light do that? Her father simplified the concept of the refraction of light, and still, it was not enough.

So he sat her down, found a piece of paper, and diagrammed and spoke as if to someone much older. (A doctor himself, he appreciated a curious, inquisitive mind.) And after some years had passed, he and his wife, a regional desk officer for the African Union Peace and Security Department, handed the young woman college applications with the hope that a place would be found to satisfy her ravenous intellect.

This past August, at the age of 15, Nwaelugo left Africa to begin her college career in America’s Midwest. She and her mother traveled to Northwestern from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where their family of seven has lived since 2007. Nwaelugo was born in Nigeria but grew up in Gambia; traveling to Iowa marked her first journey out of Africa.

The women left in the middle of the night for the first of four flights and a seemingly endless 17 hours in the air. Three-year-old Favour recently had insisted she sleep in her older sister’s room, and when she woke the next morning without Nwaelugo there, she cried. Even their mother, who had seen an older daughter off to school the previous year, was doleful, thinking she’d have more time with her second born; but excellent grades and early SAT success ensured Nwaelugo would pursue a biology-health professions major sooner than anyone expected.


In this new world, people were different. Back home, one would curtsy to an elder and greet him with “Good morning”; here, adults waved hello to Nwaelugo and asked to be called by their given names. This renouncement of formality gave way to a friendliness that both surprised and delighted her.

“People always look so happy here,” Nwaelugo says. “Strangers talk to you, tell you about their lives. This was a shock to me: At home, you might get a friendly smile or nod, but not a whole life story. This is even more present in Orange City. It made me feel more comfortable.”

Her roommates taught her how to use a washing machine—she grew up having a maid hand wash their clothes, a somewhat common luxury—and she worked hard at navigating the different software programs required for course work. Her secondary school’s classical education style had emphasized thinking over doing, and Northwestern’s hands-on way of learning science, with three-hour labs, felt new.

New, but necessary, for Nwaelugo wants to be a surgeon. A cardiothoracic surgeon, specifically, to redeem a wrong that took her grandfather’s life.

“My grandfather died when a surgeon refused to treat him because his payment was late,” she says. “Any other surgeon, my grandfather might still be alive. If I become a surgeon, I could do exactly what he didn’t do.”

The stories her mother told made Nwaelugo wish she had met her grandfather.

“He was very educated. He loved to talk about philosophy,” she says. “My mother said he would have loved me. I would have asked him questions, and he would have been extremely happy to answer them all. Every time I see a rainbow, I think of him.”

Nwaelugo plans to attend medical school next and then return to Nigeria qualified to make a difference. She hesitates to use those words, wondering aloud if one person really can change what’s wrong with the world. But it’s clear she wants to try.

Until then, she takes walks down Orange City streets, knowing now that speaking to strangers is allowed and welcomed. She enjoys the company of classmates and of her host family, who helped celebrate Nwaelugo’s 16th birthday this fall American-style.

Rain poured down the first two days of the semester, and students on her floor had had enough. When the sun finally came out, no rainbow appeared; but this diverse group celebrating together (“We missed you!” they told the sun) formed beautiful colors that Nwaelugo is finally beginning to understand.

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