Subomi Aregbesola’s past is pretty remarkable. But it’s his future that may be the real story.
The Illinois State University senior was born in Nigeria but moved to the U.S. in 2001 at age 10 after his family won the coveted visa lottery. Aregbesola won his U.S. citizenship just this semester and is now weeks away from graduating, eager to pursue a career in pharmaceuticals research and development.
“I want to discover something that’s revolutionary,” said Aregbesola, a biochemistry major with a minor in chemistry and biology. “I truly feel like I’m destined to do something great.”
That passion for science traces back to Aregbesola’s childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. His father moved to the U.S. in 1997, laying roots outside Chicago for the rest of the family. Back in Nigeria, Aregbesola’s mother was making him and his older siblings speak English at home to get ready for the move themselves.
That day finally came four years later, in 2001. Preparing to leave at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, Aregbesola saw a white person for first time—one of many “firsts” he would encounter in the years to come.
Aregbesola and his two siblings arrived in the middle of the night in August 2001 at O’Hare International Airport. He was surprised to see so much traffic on the roads and, even more shocking, all the lights on.
“I looked around and said, ‘Do they always have their power on?’” he recalled. In Nigeria, power outages were a part of everyday life. “The first time I came to America was a shocking experience.”
Aregbesola then began his American life in his family’s Schaumburg apartment—a big change from his childhood home on a farm with lots of land. He started sixth grade, but despite honing his English with help from movies like Rush Hour and The Matrix, he was moved to an English as a Second Language (ESL) school.
But by the next year, Aregbesola was settling in, making friends, even feeling American. He graduated high school early, at age 16, and enrolled at Illinois State in 2011 after attending community college.
Passion for science
Specific moments from his childhood inspired his interest in science. In Nigeria they’d play soccer after church, and he’d marvel at how Mother Nature could make it sunny on the field, but raining just 100 feet away. And during those power outages, he’d look up at the bright stars with big questions.
“I was seeing all these things happen, but I didn’t know how or why they were happening,” Aregbesola told STATEside. “I wanted to learn how.”
For the past year the biochemistry major has worked as an undergraduate assistant doing solid-state chemistry with Eirin Sullivan, an assistant professor of inorganic chemistry at Illinois State. He loves working in a lab and hopes to find a job with a pharmaceutical company after graduating in May.
“I love the campus. I love everything I’ve been blessed to be able to do at ISU,” he said.
Aregbesola has left quite an impression on Ally Cherveny, his academic advisor in the Department of Chemistry. He’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, Cherveny says, and the way he tells stories about life in Nigeria—capturing the beauty in simple joys and small moments—is remarkable.
“Subomi maintains the same calm I’ve only otherwise seen in my grandparents—the calm that comes with awareness of what matters and what doesn’t, a treasure at any age,” Cherveny said. “At the same time, he’s incredibly passionate, striving for high ideals and seeking opportunities to be better.”
Aregbesola’s parents still live in Schaumburg; his father now owns a shipping company and continues to serve as a minister, and his mother is a social worker. His older siblings have already graduated college. His parents still return to Nigeria once a year, and Aregbesola’s new U.S. citizenship will make it easier for him to travel there himself. He plans to make a trek sometime in 2015.
Staying connected to his Nigerian culture is important to Aregbesola. He was taken aback when, during his recent U.S. citizenship ceremony, he had to read an oath to “renounce … entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any … state or sovereignty of whom or which the applicant was before a subject or citizen.”
“My cultural background … it’s something I don’t want to forget,” he said.
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.