13 May Kansas City’s Cynthia Odu, 18, heads to MIT after an incredible journey
This is the way 18-year-old Nigerian immigrant Cynthia Odu sees her world:
All of us defying a random universe.
When the Kansas City teenager was staring down at one of the essay questions in her application to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she didn’t take the easy bait.
What has been the greatest challenge you had to overcome?
Once you know her family’s story, you know there is so much she could have said.
How her mother and father sacrificed prestigious careers, shoving everything they could fit into four bags and taking their four young daughters — Cynthia, the youngest, just 18 months old — for a shot at America, dreaming of American universities.
How their first foothold came in subsidized housing, her parents juggling jobs, working the fast-food drive-thru window, pressing clothes at a dry cleaner, walking the aisles at Costco.
Knowing now the fresh horror in the Nigeria they left behind, where schoolgirls — no different from Cynthia and her sisters — are kidnapped by extremists, feared sold into slavery or dead, in a terrifying rebellion against the notion that women have the right to education and equality.
What are the odds for any of us?
That’s where her thoughts went, tracing the immeasurable possibilities of time and space, the blind course of evolution, and then the struggling sperm cell among millions, “fighting to get anywhere.”
“The chances of me existing, the chances of anyone existing,” she said, recalling her essay, are as small as one against all of the stars, “if each star is its own universe.”
And, as a true MIT-caliber thinker, she produced a number:
One in 10 to the power of 2.7 million.
Remember that Taco Bell drive-through window?
Cynthia and her mother, Philomena Odu, rolled with laughter at the family’s cramped kitchen table in east Kansas City.
“You hear my accent now,” the mother said. “You can imagine what it was like back then. It seemed like a bad idea.”
They had no furniture in their government-subsidized duplex near the Paseo and Brush Creek in those first days in 1997, and little at all through the first years.
Little more than their clothes and the set of battered iron pots they brought with them over the ocean.
But Cynthia Odu remembers her dad, Paul Odu Sr., blessing the sparseness, saying, “We’re already living the good life.”
This came from a man with degrees in finance and agri-economics who had worked for the Central Bank of Nigeria, with a home and a car and a personal driver. Joined by Philomena, who had been a degree-holding teacher of fine arts.
They wanted their girls to have a chance at the best education they could give them, Paul Odu said. So he worked at Burger King to get a job reference on his housing application. After a brief stint at an Overland Park bank, he took the job at Costco because it was close enough to home to allow him to help get his girls to school.
“I had to get the family settled,” he said.
Now Cynthia Odu’s older sisters are flying through and beyond college. A little brother, born in Kansas City, is heading to Rockhurst High School this fall.
She got in. She’s MIT-bound.
She’s going with scholarships that pay her way, most notably a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation award that will pay up to $30,000 each of four years as needed.
“She was an incredible applicant,” the foundation’s Barbara Schmertz said. “Such a genuine thirst for knowledge … such high-quality writing.”
Strong in public service, leadership and elite academic performance.
She pursued the most rigorous path in school, at Kansas City Public Schools’ Lincoln College Preparatory Academy and then its Early College Academy at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.
“She’s amazing … the way she sees things,” said Paula Schaaf, who coordinates the early college program. “Challenges aren’t negative. She doesn’t see obstacles. They don’t last.”
Though still a high school student, once on a college campus, she assumed college privileges. Posters directed to college-aged students caught her attention.
She was too young, the local American Friends Service Committee told her. She applied anyway and became the service leadership organization’s only high school member.
The University of Kansas was looking for a research intern? She did that, and her work has earned her an invitation to the 2014 Evolution Conference in Raleigh, N.C.
She sees herself going abroad, accumulating global experience, wanting to go everywhere, Cynthia said.
“And I mean everywhere.”
She seeks adventure like a trailblazer with a machete, Schaaf said. “She’s cleared her path here, and she’s ready to take a new path.”
In the calculated odds of Cynthia’s universe, everything becomes possible and impossible.
It is far too easy for the Odus to imagine their own daughters among the 276 or more girls abducted from a northeast Nigerian boarding school April 15, still missing, still living in terror if they are alive at all.
“Each time I think of it,” Philomena Odu said, “chills run down my spine. It is horrible. It is frightening.”
The Islamic militant extremists ranging from northern Nigeria represent a terror far beyond anything that Paul Odu feared for his daughters when he and Philomena planned their American adventure 17 years ago.
The extremists are known by the name Boko Haram, which loosely translates as “Western education is sinful.”
The mainstream malaise of many common Nigerians regarding the education of women had been enough for the Odus to seek out America’s Western education.
Too many fathers, Paul Odu said, don’t value getting their daughters a strong education, thinking it a waste because they will be married off into another man’s charge.
But he stares out at the news of the missing girls and agonizes for their families and laments over “so much opportunity lost,” saying, “one of them, who knows, could be president of Nigeria some day.”
There had been times when she was young, Cynthia Odu said, that she did not fully appreciate the opportunity her parents were trying to open to her.
She was very young — a second-grader — tired and frustrated by what seemed a tedious escapade for the entire family to complete its U.S. citizenship in 2003.
And she found herself a mostly bored student in her early elementary years.
Then came the fourth grade at Three Trails Elementary School and Ms. Burr, the teacher who spurred her from her shell, got her speaking out, playing chess.
And then Mr. Powell, fifth grade at University Academy, who loved to tantalize his class with tastes of academic exercises beyond the fifth-grader’s world. She saw algebra. Startling science.
“I was discovering myself,” she said.
He was a stern teacher, and sometimes when frustrated he’d admonish the class saying, “You’re not going to make it,” she recalled.
But Cynthia had been set loose. “He’d say, ‘You’re not going to make it,’ but I’m thinking, ‘ Yeah, I am.’ ”
Now she has her menu of first-semester classes at MIT. Saying it aloud elicits laughter, some of it nervousness.
Chemistry, physics, biology, calculus and humanities.
“Oh, man,” she said.
The school throws you right in, she said, and this is how she’ll blend her major of computer science and biology, studying bioinformatics, mapping the genome, deciphering disease-causing genes, changing the world.
She’d like to take one of the iron pots with her when she goes, if her mom could let it go.
They still have the pots, just as they can still drive by the subsidized duplex that was their first Kansas City home.
These are things she regards reverently, she said, out of respect for how far they have come as a family. Respect for where they are in the universe.
Respect for the journey.