There are women who wait for the right time to create change, and then there are women like Teju who take it upon themselves to make time.
I have known Teju since elementary school when we used to ride the bus together; she is the first friend I made moving into this new school and we instantly clicked as we were both girls with big dreams and big hearts. She is one of the few people I have stayed in touch with for this long because her ambition and drive continue to inspire me to this day. Her benevolence, tenacity, and charisma not only make her a remarkable student in the classroom but also a dynamic figure in her community. Teju knows exactly what she’s worth and for as long as I’ve known her she has never sold herself short; she is the kind of leader I aspire to be.
Teju is a second generation Nigerian American woman and a current second year student at the University of Texas pursuing a Psychology B.S. in the Pre-Med track. She interns at the Office of Student Success and is involved in various organizations on campus including Women of Excellence, African Student Organization, Black Health Professions Organization, and MOVE (Medical Opportunity for Volunteering Experience). She also mentors seven lucky freshmen through Foundations Scholars Program and is deeply involved in the Celestial Church of Christ. Teju believes in the importance of surrounding yourself with family and friends, and when she finds some free time she enjoys finding new spots to eat, watching Netflix, and tuning in to ABC’s Shonda Rhimes Lineup TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday).
I spoke with Teju to hear more about her own experience with college, being a woman color, and balancing life while still getting ahead.
What is something that completely took you by surprise your freshman year of college? What was an experience that forced you out of your comfort zone and made you realize “hey, I’m not a little kid anymore!”?
I think the number one thing that definitely took me by surprise my first year was the fact that I actually did not like my school. I did not enjoy my first semester as much as I should have; I honestly thought I was going to grow to like it and really enjoy everything about the school but it was quite the opposite. I developed a mild case of depression the first semester due to a lot of external factors that occurred and while I performed well academically I felt I had only made three friends and like I was doing everything without a purpose. The dorm life didn’t make matters any better. By the end of the semester I wanted to transfer to a school closer to home, but I didn’t because I had to prove to myself I wouldn’t let the school get the best of me. Instead, I would get the best of it. It was a struggle but I realigned my goals for the second semester and had a much better experience.
The thing that pushed me out of my comfort zone was how the financial aspect worked. I ended up owing money to housing at the end of my first semester and I was confused since I never got a refund. I had to speak to financial aid so often my freshman year to get things sorted and apply for more loans to cover housing, but that’s when I learned I had to fend for myself. The urge heightened, though, when I decided to stay and take classes over the summer but was kicked out of my dorm in the middle of the month. Luckily I found someone to sublease from, but the hard part was figuring out how I was going to pay for rent. I applied for multiple jobs and ended up getting one on campus, and I also took on an internship as well which began during finals and I learned accountability so quickly. I learned to balance class, work, and interning Monday through Friday and relaxed on my weekends. It was honestly the worst decision I could have made as a freshman who just finished their first year. I don’t advise anyone to take on all of that while paying for everything yourself. Enjoy the summer in your home town taking classes, getting an internship, working, or even traveling. I plan to do a lot more of that.
Is there any particular woman in your life who has directly impacted your life and inspired you to pursue your current endeavors?
This is honestly the easiest question to answer: my mom. She has and will always be my rock. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother, role model, and woman in my life. She has taught me majority of the things in life I know now. She has struggled for me, since birth and there is nothing I could do to honestly repay her for the life she has given me. My class, elegance, beauty, personality, strength, and motivation have all come form her. I strive everyday to be the best possible version of myself so that at the end of the day she can be happy. My mom puts us first above anything and I just want to be in the position to repay her. I endeavor to speak to her every day on my way to school because there is nothing like the sound of a mother’s voice. I think the most important thing she taught me was preservation of self. My mom set a wonderful example for me of waiting until marriage to have sex and of picking the right person to embark on the journey of life with. No man is worth giving yourself to if they are not prepared to faithfully put a ring on it. This is just my opinion though and I don’t judge anyone for their own personal views. In my experience thus far in life it helps to cut out the b.s. with men. But, really and truly, I am eternally grateful to God for blessing me with an amazing angel whom I am privileged to call my mother.
What is some advice or wisdom that you wish you would have known as a 14 year old girl? And what is something you have just learned that you wish you will remember in your 40’s?
Don’t be in a rush to grow up. We always are but when you get to this point you find yourself wanting to slow down time so you can just enjoy it before it’s time to get back to the reality of school or work. As a 14 year old girl you are either in your 8th grade year of middle school or in high school as a 9th grader. There is so much to learn from those two years alone. My personal experience in middle school consisted of me being so bold, blunt, and confident about everything. Looking back on it that was probably the best part of my experience in life at that age. I understood who I was, my family understood who I was, and so did my friends. I was blossoming into an unstoppable young lady. This was apparent on the outside, but on the inside, I was also learning a whole other set of skills. I was learning to be submissive, to repress my feelings, and learning to not speak up about what I want, watching life around changing with things I could not control. I had a best friend at that time who thought everything was about them. I thought he was a good friend but I realized when things didn’t go his way he would demonize you and turn you into the enemy. After 2 years of being best friends with him I realized I wasn’t going to let a person control me or make me feel bad about things I have no control over. I knew how to admit when I was wrong, but he didn’t. I made that change my freshman year of high school by realizing what a real friend was. So, know what you deserve out of your friendships and don’t settle for anything less. Change really is within the palm of your hands, you just have to want it.
To top that, don’t be in a rush for relationships. Wow. There is honestly nothing real that will come out of relationship at the age of 14 years old. Boys don’t even know how to deal with arguments, or love properly. While relationships feel good you seriously have your whole life ahead of you to date and experience what will actually be the real deal. It honestly is more important to focus on yourself and making sure you are the best you you can possibly be. And if it happens, let it come naturally. Don’t chase after guys or throw yourself at them. A woman should never chase after any man, nor depend on them solely for one’s happiness. If they are worthy of you and your time, they will come to you. You are so young, enjoy life. Enjoy being able to hang out with your friends every day at school. Enjoy the minimal amount of homework you are really getting. Enjoy being around your parents as often as you can because at some point it all changes.
The latter portion of the question is a little harder to answer, but things I hope to still remember when I’m 40 that I’ve learned now is that- as a lady- you should never allow yourself to be in a situation where you or your reputation could be easily compromised. For me this applies to men as well. When talking with a guy for the first time I only allow surface level questions to be asked. It has happened before where they try and jump straight into the personal/sexual questions and I cut them off there and tell them: You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Don’t disrespect me by asking me something like that. A response like that usually straightens them out pretty quickly. Anyone truly interested in knowing you will wait for an appropriate amount of time before trying to ask deeper level questions. This rule also applies to work, school, and any other aspect of life. Who you are matters, and who you will grow to be, matters even more. You need every step in your favor. Furthermore, another thing is still the idea of enjoying every moment of life as it comes. I have reached a mark in life where now is the time to explore things, go where you want, do what you want and not feel sorry about any of it. Each semester I constantly remind myself to try something new and enjoy what’s right in front of me. This is an idea I’m trying to use to live a better life. At 40 I still want to know that I’m seizing the day and not taking opportunities for granted.
You are obviously involved in so many amazing and different organizations and are very involved in your community, but how do you find time to reflect and relax? What is your favorite way to treat yourself for all your hard work? And how do you find a balance?
With such a busy schedule I try and work hard enough during the week that when Friday comes I have the weekend to myself. That’s how I balance. My number one favorite way to relax is by sleeping because I like to strengthen my body to take on another day, followed by an endless amount of Netflix. I love being able to watch random movies and just engage with them; it keeps me thinking about what I want out of life. My favorite way to treat myself is to sleep or simply stay in bed and watch Netflix or catch up on my shows. When privileged, retail therapy helps as well. Knowing that you are shopping for yourself and to make yourself feel good is an amazing feeling. Hanging out with friends and getting dolled up for parties every once in a while is good too. Lastly, trying a new food place really comforts me. I’m always open to try new things with great people.
What has been one of the biggest life lessons you have learned through failure? To be more exact, what is a mistake you have made recently that allowed you to see things more clearly or realize that some change needs to be done?
I am nowhere near perfect and indeed I do experience failure often. What I can say is simply that if it’s something you are extremely passionate about, never give up. Show people, show the world that they missed out on you. Assess yourself and the reason you did not succeed. Never be afraid to ask those in charge why. They are never expecting anyone to do that, so when you take that step further and make it clear to them that you are interested in making yourself a better candidate all around for future endeavors they will have no other choice but to give you some advice on how to improve. Also, sometimes we have to accept our losses and wait to see what next life has to offer us. If you are religious, you may have a similar mindset that “everything happens for a reason”. It may not be the right time and God may be working on giving you something better. For those who aren’t religious something else I do is watch YouTube videos about everything. This may sound silly but whenever I need more conversation starters I look up videos on different techniques and skills that I can incorporate naturally into my daily life. I honestly look up YouTube videos for everything and it works. I like hearing other people’s experience with things I want to pursue as well and it helps to guide me through a more meaningful experience.
Honestly the biggest mistake I have made academically has been trying to rush my experience. Although I am finishing a year early I finally made the conscious decision to take my time and enjoy my courses for what they are and not just try and speed through them for the sake of having to take them. I didn’t do as well as I’d like to in a few courses and that’s when I had to realize I cant keep going at the rate I am. School is hard enough without me making it harder on myself. I have been working the utmost to balance studying effectively and efficiently while getting through my busy schedule of working and interning and being involved with organizations.
UT is a very big school with a student population comparable to that of NYU; how do you find a way to stand out from the crowd? Do you think it’s better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond and why?
Firstly I think it’s important to acknowledge whether an individual wants to stand out or just take life on campus for what it is. I am only a sophomore, but truth be told I am still figuring that question out for myself. I have done a lot of wonderful things and met a lot of wonderful people though by choosing to stand out. It first starts with answering that question for yourself. Once you know your answer, then you have to look at your personality. When you go out, do you smile a lot or show excitement on your face? Do you try and make an impact on the people you see on a day to day basis? That’s what I do. I don’t want to know everyone or know everything, but I do want to make sure when I meet someone, I compliment them, ask their name, tell them my name, and be genuine around them. I have more associates than friends, but every time I am given the opportunity to showcase myself, I take it. You want people to like you for you.
The second part of this question is tough. In high school I was a big fish in a small pond, and now in college I am a small fish in a big pond. For the purposes of achieving the goals you set out for, I think it is better to be a big fish in a small pond. It keeps you on your toes. You know what is appropriate for every scene and people get to know you through your work that you do. Even if you’ve never spoken to a person before, they may already have heard about something you did or participated in and it allows you to connect to people a lot better. At a school with over 50,000 students, it can be hard to make a lasting impression on people when there are so many other people around as well. What has worked for me is staying true to myself and showing that to people. Either way, you’ll make it to everywhere you are supposed to be.
As a black woman have you ever been a victim of discrimination or microaggressions? How do you channel your frustrations into something positive?
The answer to this is a little non-traditional but it’s the truth. When I was in kindergarten, I first faced discrimination due to my ethnic background of being African. It was a Black American girl in the 2nd or 3rd grade that rode my bus who thought it was okay to call me an “African Booty-Scratcher”, whatever that meant. I learned very early in life how to stand up for myself. Ever since our first encounter she made it her point of duty to bully me for the rest of the school year. I wasn’t going to stand for it so I fought back every chance I got and I remember one day I even tripped her on the bus. I counted down the days for the school year to end. She was relentless, but so was I. What annoyed me most was the bus driver never saw fit to do something about the recurring situation. After kindergarten though I don’t remember any other discriminatory or microagressive situations occurring since my community was extremely diverse.
Since I’ve gotten to college the only time I vividly experienced this was in the summer time with the internship I took on. It was extremely apparent in the way they would speak to me and discuss things. I did my best every day I went and when I refused to take it anymore I quit for a new position elsewhere. Don’t go where you are tolerated, go where you are celebrated. Everyday I left the office, I left all things related to my internship at the door and focused on everything else that was going on in my life. I was not going to let the little things get to me, but I also wasn’t going to let them use me how they wanted. An important thing to remember for all stages of life is when you feel as if you have gotten everything you need out of an opportunity, job, internship, etc… then, it’s time to move on to bigger and better things. I am so glad I did. When it’s someone who is a classmate or of a similar age group, I take it as a chance to educate them. Don’t let them get away with things like that because they will do it again and again until they are corrected. When facing those encounters, breathe. Address it in a calm manner so you don’t feed into whatever stereotype is already in place about your cultural background. Always smile and educate them on your life and how wrong they are for adhering to microagression and continue to prove them wrong everyday you carry on. It’s all you honestly can do.
Going off on the last question, what do you want to tell other women of color about being unfearful and unapologetic? How would you advise others to embrace their identity and face the world with confidence?
This starts with figuring out what makes you happy. Whatever it is don’t let go of it because it will be the thing you need to turn to when you are tired of always being strong because you have to. Learn about yourself. It’s honestly easy to be YOU in public but when faced with all of these social norms and standards we often learn to fake it until we make it. Within each of us though is a certain confidence and sass that we shouldn’t be afraid to show. For me it’s my sarcasm. It rolls off like the back of my tongue. I’ve learned myself well enough though to know what I can and cannot say or be sarcastic about in all situations.
Take it one day at a time and demand the respect you deserve. For me, I am right about EVERYTHING, even if I’m wrong. I say everything with conviction, but if someone catches it I definitely always admit to my being wrong and I find a joke to make out of it. Honestly though, if you don’t make it a point of duty to be the real you then you will regret it later. I face that every once in while and I wonder why I held back. Constantly evaluate yourself and strengthen your self-esteem. Never let anything stop you from reaching your full potential. Once more, it takes confidence and courage to go after what you want.You can’t be afraid of the competition or of the judges. All you need to do is be genuine, smile, and share yourself with people. It wins them over every time.
Most importantly, the world need diversity. Take it upon yourself to wear your cultural clothes, eat your food, speak the language, listen to your music, wear your hair how you want to whether it be straight, curly, wavy, natural, permed, highlights/lowlights, protected, bought, etc… Whatever makes you happy, do that. Take care of yourself as well. Know that you are beautiful the way you look but if you feel like you need to gain some weight, lose some weight, eat healthier/cleaner, take better care of your skin, workout, get your nails and hair done, DO IT. Whatever will get you to the next second, minute, hour, day, week, month or year, do it. Constantly assess yourself and know what you can do to be better, look better, and feel better all for yourself. It really works in keeping you a happy, healthy, woman. Remember to enjoy every second of it.
Are there times when you feel discouraged or lack confidence because you are unable or afraid to do something? What causes these feelings of inadequacy and how do you tackle them?
Very often I am faced with those feelings. Whenever I think about some of the things I want out of life or even out of my college experience, the feeling pops up. When I don’t know how to obtain them or even the first steps, it sucks to let it resort back to just a mere idea or thought of someday or maybe. Another thing is when I see my peers doing things, going places, or having new experiences that I cant afford to do, it pops up as well. I tackle it by remembering a few things: everyone’s course in life is different, and when the time is right everything will work out according to your plan. I look at quotes that remind me that I am the author of my own story. So, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” If I want something, I need to figure out how to muster up the courage to go get it. I do my research and figure out the best game plan to achieve it and go after it. I set myself constant reminders to make sure I stay on track and always look for new opportunities to advance myself.
What is one quote you think every Wavy Girl should live by?