Togo-born student works beyond language barriers

Tyler McNeil

Managing Editor

Two years ago, less than two months after traveling more than 5,000 miles from his home in Togo, Shina Okunoye began studying at Hudson Valley while still struggling to understand his fourth language to date, English.

“When I first came to this country. I went through hell, man,” he said.

Okunoye didn’t receive a warm welcome to campus when he started in fall 2013. Often, he wouldn’t understand what professors were saying during lecture, so after work, he had to figure out what the lecture was about on his own.

“I can’t really express my feelings or say what I want. It’s step-by-step [and] day after day,” said Okunoye. The 23-year-old student biology student, who is also fluent in French, Yoruba and Ewe, still struggles with English, which creates obstacles in day-to-day activity. To avoid becoming angry from barriers in communication, he avoids places like fast-food restaurants, where employees have a difficult time understanding his orders.

While juggling school and work at the Hannaford in Lansingburgh, Okunoye is sometimes left with less than four hours of sleep at night. He often uses his breaks at work to catch up on rest and sleep. “I tell them, ‘If I don’t show up in 31 or 32 minutes, just get me from the break room.’ They know that I’m crazy about that stuff,” he said.

Although his schedule has made it difficult to continue rituals from back home, such as morning worship, Okunoye pushes to keep faith a priority every Sunday. “Even if they need someone to cover [a shift], if they call me on Sunday, I’m not going to be around,” said Okunoye.

Every Sunday, along with praying, Okunoye is playing the guitar at church. His passion to play the guitar was first produced by hormones. In his mid-teens, he learned to play the guitar to impress the guitar-slinging brother of a girl he was interested in. “[Her family] would think I would just come over to play the guitar, but, oh no,” he said.

He often associates with other immigrants from the African diaspora, mostly from the First Redeemer Church in Albany, but rarely interacts with his American friends outside of work. Growing up in a Baptist community around much of his family, Okunoye said his Christian upbringing molded his values. “If you missed church, you were in trouble. Your parents don’t joke with God,” he said.

While his parents still take a large role in guiding Okunoye’s path, they also promote financial dependence and work ethic. Okunoye pays for himself, living under the biblical aphorism, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

He said that credit cards are not present in his downtown Troy household because his parents “don’t like owing people money.”  

“They teach me to be hard-working, but I’m young and I have to get what I want to build my life here,” he said. This semester, Okunoye hopes to be the first in his immediate family to own a credit card.

Much of his tuition is covered by financial aid and a scholarship from RPI, where his father works as a gardener. When Okunoye arrived in America with his mother, his father had already been in the country for about a decade, living in places ranging from Texas to New York City, trying to get a work visa.

Okunoye’s older sister, back home in Togo, often contacts him, but he rarely has time to get ahold of her on his own. “She already made her life, so I have to make mine too. So I always concentrate on what I’m doing, but I’m always thinking about her,” he said.

During last year’s ebola outbreak in West Africa, although there was never a confirmed case of the the virus in Togo, Okunoye’s mind was over 5,000 miles away, fearing for family members living in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.

“I was afraid. People were dying all around my family,” said Okunoye. He added that no one was victim to the virus in his family.

He hopes to travel back to Togo next year. Along with travelling across borders, he hopes to eventually travel across the world, working for Doctors Without Borders or the United Nations after attending UAlbany if he doesn’t settle down with a family in this country.

“I will do what I have to do, work and go to school. Then, I will see what God has reserved for me in the future,” said Okunoye.

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