It was the first day of classes, and Sochima Ifedikwa was lost.
Rephrase that: Ifedikwa knew he was pursuing a computer science associate degree at San Jacinto College. He just couldn't find the room for his first class.
As if deciphering a code, he narrowed his eyes at the numbers on the sheet in his hands, looked up at the South Campus building in front of him, then back down at the paper. As fate would have it, he bumped into Ralph Penn, computer information technology professor.
"Excuse me, sir," Ifedikwa said, showing Penn his schedule. "I'm looking for this building."
Penn showed him the building and walked him to the classroom. That day marked the beginning not only of a mentoring relationship but of Ifedikwa's journey to stand on his own.
The dream begins
Ifedikwa grew up in Nigeria. With hearing and financial challenges, his mother couldn't fund his education, but that didn't stop her son from dreaming of pursuing a degree and a successful career.
"I wanted to stand on my own as a man," he said.
Ifedikwa also wanted to help his mother and three younger brothers live a better life. The best education in the world, he felt, would be in the U.S., but where would he go?
Two cousins answered that question. One whose own child had attended San Jac agreed to sponsor his tuition, while another in Pearland offered him a room and transportation to the South Campus.
Just like that, in late 2018, Ifedikwa was boarding a plane for Texas.
Mentor and mentee meet
That next January, the lost Ifedikwa met Penn for the first time. Later, they bonded over a connection to Africa.
Ifedikwa asked many questions. How had Penn gotten interested in computers? What had excited and concerned him as an undergraduate? How could someone excel in the computer field?
Penn enjoyed engaging with such an eager learner. He also offered to mentor him through San Jac's Diverse Student Populations mentoring program.
"I truly appreciated that Sochima was very focused and determined to be successful in all that he involved himself in," Penn said. "I saw elements of myself in him when I was a young undergraduate."
Community college differed from Ifedikwa's expectations. After all, he hadn't expected professors to walk him to classrooms or match instruction to industry trends.
"Having a professor at San Jac who goes out of their way to see what the market is looking for [meant a lot to me]," Ifedikwa said.
Mentoring others and self
Ifedikwa threw himself into his education and became a Diverse Student Populations peer mentor. While learning how to see and cultivate others' potential, he grew as a leader himself.
"I mentored other students like myself and not like me," he said. "It's not about you being in the mentee's position. It's helping them build leadership skills that will help them be successful."
Thanks to his active involvement, the mentoring program connected Ifedikwa to GlobalMindED, a similar national organization that focuses on diversity and equity. Ifedikwa served on several panels, describing to other first-generation college students how he navigated and succeeded in college.
As a student ambassador, he surveyed peers about their experience in 2020 — from virtual learning environments to personal challenges during a pandemic. This report went to college leaders, CEOs, and policymakers.
Like those he surveyed, Ifedikwa faced uncertainty in the beginning. Despite pursuing a computer science degree, he wasn't used to distance learning when the pandemic started.
"In Nigeria, we don't usually learn with computers in the classroom," he said.
But he also forced himself to ask questions when he felt like staying quiet — even if the questions seemed irrelevant.
"Lack of communication is equal to ignorance." he said. "If you don't communicate, you're going to be ignorant because you won't know what to do, how to go about your problems."
Goal in sight
This spring, Ifedikwa started his bachelor's degree program at Texas Tech University and is eyeing an accelerated master's degree program in software engineering.
After he earns his degrees, standing on his own will mean getting a work visa and working full time as a software engineer and developer. He hopes his brothers will follow in his footsteps.
For now, he is glad his journey started at San Jac, with professors who gave him direction — literally and figuratively.
"They try to know their students on a different level," he said. "You don't see this at the university. I was close to the professors [at San Jac]. They remembered my name after I finished their classes."