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Nigerian Educator Runs Popular Engineering Programs for Underrepresented Youth

Our guest in this edition of New American Voices is Dr. Stanley Onye, who escaped civil war in his native Nigeria for an American education, and now administers a math and science enrichment program for inner-city kids in the Washington area.

Stanley Onye's home away from home is the campus of the University of the District of Columbia, where he is director of the Science and Engineering Center. He is not alone. “Every Saturday morning by 9 o'clock the place is overflowing with kids,” he says. Not college kids. These are 5 to 18 year olds. Dr. Onye manages enrichment programs that expose inner-city kids from kindergarten through 12th grade to mathematics, engineering, technology and aerospace sciences.

“Mainly the kids have hands-on activities,” he explains. “We have teachers from UDC come in and teach them, we incorporate many extracurricular activities that they enjoy. We have a full-fledged lab here furnished by NASA. That lab has state-of-the art equipment whereby we can even talk to the astronauts from that lab whenever they're doing their walk in space. So the kids are quite fascinated with that type of activity.”

The programs that Dr. Onye administers are free and open to anyone. They are aimed at groups that are traditionally under-represented in highly technical career fields. Many of the kids who attend are African-Americans from urban schools in deteriorating neighborhoods that don't usually offer enrichment opportunities. The programs are held on Saturdays during the school year and for five weeks during the summer. Stanley Onye says that although the kids could be playing soccer or watching TV or sleeping, attendance is generally enthusiastic.

“They find out that it really helps them in their schoolwork,” he points out. “And parents also have an interest in having their children do well in math and science, so they make it an obligation to come here. And parents are also involved in other activities. While they are waiting for their children, our science and engineering instructors are also teaching the parents in computing, in housekeeping, in so many things. So they come here, they have their own lessons also, so they have an interest in bringing their children and in learning extra things [themselves] as well.

UDC's Science and Engineering Center began its program in 1982. Last year, over 500 schoolchildren participated. Stanley Onye signed on in 2002. His journey to the University of the District of Columbia began in the city of Owerri in eastern Nigeria.

“Most of my growing up period happened during the civil war, the civil war that took two or three years out of every kid's life in Nigeria,” Dr. Onye recalls. “But as that war progressed and ended, some of us started looking for avenues out. There were more kids yearning to go to school in Nigeria than there were schools for them. So my very first thing was to get a full scholarship to go to St. Anselm's College in Manchester, New Hampshire. That was where I started.”

Young Stanley learned about the college halfway around the world from brochures brought by Americans who came to Nigeria at the end of the civil war to help in rebuilding the country. When Mr. Onye arrived in New Hampshire in 1973, he found a community that was racially and ethnically pretty homogeneous, but that nonetheless welcomed the young student from Nigeria.

“What really helped me out was being perceived as somebody that came out from a civil war. So people rather than being hostile to me became very sympathetic.,” he says. “The university, the college accepted us, and was also in the process of recruiting foreigners to the school, because it was really mainly Americans, so they wanted to integrate the school, and they were quite willing and quite happy to have foreigners. So that made life a little easier, and made it possible for us then to concentrate on schooling, on education.”

Although Stanley Onye says he came to the United States with the firm intention of returning to Nigeria after college, he found that a bachelor's degree only whetted his appetite for a higher education. He enrolled in graduate school, received a master's degree and eventually a doctorate in international relations and political science. By this time he had a family and was caught up in his life in America. But Stanley Onye has not severed his connection with Nigeria. He makes sure that his children know their heritage: he and his wife speak Ibo with their three daughters, have Nigerian friends and there is usually West African food on the table. “One of my daughters while she was taking her high school cooking class, came in, she got the recipe for a Nigerian soup, and prepared it in class,” he recalls with pride. “She was very happy to share it with her friends - and came home to write a beautiful essay about it.”

But in addition to instilling in his children pride in their Nigerian heritage, Dr. Onye believes that he and other Nigerians in the United States have a unique opportunity to help their native country as it struggles to become a viable democracy.

“What gives me satisfaction in my life right now is that there is the possibility of some of us contributing to the development of Nigeria,” Stanley Onye says. ”We have been in this system, we have seen how things work. So regardless of the obstacles, we are positioned very well to transport some of the things that we've learned in this country - the good ones - back to Nigeria. Because we have been able to learn a lot from this country.”

After thirty years spent as a student, an educator and an administrator in the United States, Stanley Onye has a clear idea of which aspects of the American way of life he would like to see take root in Nigeria. He focuses on good citizenship. “Respect for the rule of law. Respect. Respect for the system, respect for the government. Being proud to be a citizen of the country. An American is very proud to be an American, regardless of how difficult things are. I also think that Nigerians should be very proud of being Nigerians, regardless of how difficult things are.”

Eventually, Stanley Onye hopes to retire to Nigeria and help his native country by applying the administrative skills he acquired here. In the meantime, he applies those skills in a job he says he finds both challenging and satisfying -- opening up new horizons in math, science and aeronautical engineering to Washington area schoolchildren.