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Firecracker Toyeen: My College Park Experience (2)

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My College Park Experience is a 6-part series (if you missed the first one, click here). Here, I’ll be writing about the many things I experienced in my 2-year stay in graduate school. I went from broke-ass Toyeen to Toyeen rolling dollars. I was once verbally abused and kicked out of a carpool, I forged a meaningful friendship, got rejected for a dream job, and experienced the shock of finding out you pay to receive phone calls in the US.

Now that I have got your attention, let’s begin the ride.

I did not know anyone who attended my school or lived in Maryland before getting my visa. After I got the visa and was certain I would be going to school, I started asking around my circle if anyone was connected to someone who either lived in Maryland or schooled at the University of Maryland. A friend linked me up with a Ph.D. candidate at UMD called R, and from the first time we chatted on WhatsApp, we clicked. That’s definitely one of the most valuable friendships I forged in America. My mum’s business partner also had a friend who lived in a city that was about 1 hour away from my school and he was gracious enough to let me stay at his place until I found accommodation. I was picked up from the bus station by one of his wards, L, and taken to the pharmacy where he worked. 

I stayed there until COB and while I was there, I saw a lot of addicts come into the pharmacy to ask for medication and when the pharmacist insisted drugs couldn’t be dispensed to them because they weren’t due for a refill, they’d scream and curse and threaten the pharmacist. I was so afraid to go out for fear of being kidnapped and ransomed for medications. The following day, L drove me to school where I had to take two exams to determine if I could wave the courses associated with them. When I got to the hall where the exams were to take place, I saw my classmates standing in front of the hall and I rushed into the bathroom saying to myself “ye, ye, I am the only black person in my class.” I had to give myself an aspire to perspire talk before I was calm enough to leave the bathroom. I would later find out there was another Nigerian boy in my class but, surprisingly, we did not click. 

I met up with my Ph.D. friend, R, later in the evening after school and she took me to McDonald’s. She bought me the largest cup of soda along with fries, a burger, and chicken nuggets which I thought were wings for the longest time, and tried to find them in every McDonald’s outlet to no avail! That was my first taste of American food and it was so good I must confess. L picked me up after work and took me to his guardian’s house. I had to return to school the next day to take my medical exam and pick up my ID. I just assumed L would drive me like he’d done the previous 2 days.

Now, here’s a little back story on which this assumption was formed. Although I had a car while I worked in Nigeria, I mostly went to work with an older friend/mentor of mine because I am allergic to driving in traffic. There were several times when he’d call me to say he was in front of my house and I would jump off the bed, fly into the bathroom to brush my teeth, shower, and dress up while he and the other passengers waited for me. He usually closed late and I did not mind waiting at work as there was free and fast internet. There was a day he was going to close very late and around say 10 PM, he asked me and the other guy who commuted with him to drive his car home while he hitched a ride when he was done with work. I can never forget that selfless act ever. Anyway, it was with this entitlement mentality that I asked L to drive me to school and he said he couldn’t drive me unless I paid for gas. I was quite shocked, to be honest, and thought he was being mean but I understood after I started earning an income that bills in America left you with little or nothing to do charity with. 

He asked me to pay $20 for gas and I quickly converted it to Naira in my head like I continued to do until I started earning in dollars. I sadly agreed to pay the amount since I had no other means of getting to school, but also decided I was not going to return to the house, this meant I had to find an apartment that very day as I couldn’t afford to keep paying $20 for a trip to school and back home.

R graciously left the key to her apartment for me so I could drop my luggage at her house, go do my medical exams and find an apartment using my school’s housing portal. After the medical exam, I asked 2 girls I met on the road for directions to where I can’t remember now and found out they were both graduate students from an African country. They suggested I checked the apartment complex they lived in for an apartment as it was nice, affordable, not too far from school and one of the school buses stopped in front of it. I checked out the apartment complex and they had a 1-bedroom apartment for rent going for $450/month for 2 people or $890/month for 1 person which was quite nice. It had a newly-remodeled bathroom, wall-to-wall, plush carpeting, AC and heater, free wifi, a new burner and fridge, a dishwasher (which I never used except to store plates because, ara-oko), and a new microwave. I couldn’t afford to pay the full rent of $890/month and the apartment manager agreed to let me pay $450/month and stay alone in the apartment provided they didn’t find me a roommate. I wasn’t too comfortable with that arrangement and decided to go check other apartments. 

I saw a lot more but 2 of them are worth talking about here. The first, a 2-bedroom condo, was a bit far from school, but very beautiful. It had plush, wall-to-wall carpeting, exquisite and expensive-looking furniture, large rooms and kitchen, and onsite laundry. The best part was the rent was only $600/month. I was already fantasizing about living in such a beautiful place when the tenant who put up the advertisement said he was sorry but he wanted a male roommate. I was quite disappointed sha because a male roommate wouldn’t have been my first choice either but I was willing to live with a monkey if it meant living in that beautiful apartment. I can still picture the apartment in my head as I am typing this. The second apartment was a 2-bedroom apartment occupied by an Asian girl and she was asking for $650 for the second room. It wasn’t very nice and was quite messy. She said the room had an air conditioner which she hardly turned on as it was a little loud and wasn’t really necessary since the room was airy. R asked her to put it on and people of God, the noise reminded me of grinding machine for pepper. 

I didn’t have a place to sleep that night and was going to take it but R, God forever bless her heart, told me I could stay with her for as long as I liked until I found my own place. I slept over at hers, she cooked for me and we gisted like long lost friends. She followed me to go see the nice 1-bedroom apartment the following day and suggested I took it and just pray they never found me a roommate. I lived alone in that apartment throughout my first year, paying only $450 because, thankfully, a roommate was never found for me. R had a friend in my apartment complex who was leaving school and she gave me her mattress and bed frame, a pillow, a chair, and a table. R gave me sheets and a duvet, cups, plates, cutlery, and so on. I saw, on Facebook, that a girl I went to secondary school with was attending one of UMD’s campuses at the time. I buzzed her while I was still in Nigeria and she tried to get me a room with her friend but that didn’t work out. She mentioned that she had just gotten married and had a lot of new cookware sets that she would give me and I didn’t have to buy any. That’s how I was able to furnish my house without buying anything. Somebody say favor! 

My birthday was only a few weeks after I resumed and when I told R it was my birthday, she took me to dinner at olive garden and we had appetizers, a main course, and dessert. We had a good time talking and laughing. The waiters also sang for me and gave me a piece of cake with a lighted candle on it. It ranks high on my list of favorite birthdays. I was so thankful to her as she was a fellow student like me, living on graduate assistantships yet spending on me who she’d only known for a few weeks. She dropped me off in front of my apartment and as I got out of the car, she asked me to wait and handed me a paper bag containing a gift. I was shocked as I wasn’t expecting it. I opened it and it turned out to be the $65 UMD hoodie I told her I admired a few weeks prior but thought it was too expensive and didn’t buy it. That is one of the most thoughtful things anyone has ever done for me. 

To be continued…

Oluwatoyin Alawode is a believer - it’s the essence of who she is. She writes insightful, thought-provoking, educative, and entertaining pieces under the moniker Firecracker Toyeen. she runs a blog and she is also a freelance writer at She has a bachelor’s degree in Electrical/Electronics from UNILAG and a master’s degree in Telecommunications Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has gone through a lot of career transitions from a Transmission Engineer to an Information security consultant, a Software Test Engineer, back to an Information security consultant and she now writes full-time. She is a technology lover and she's working on a project that merges her love for writing and technology. She's an advocate of mental health having recovered from a 2-year depression, and a health and fitness enthusiast on a journey to a 62 kg weight goal. She writes about everything she loves, values, and enjoys including; her faith, story-telling, mental health, health and fitness, her loved ones, technology, fashion, worship music, etc. She can be reached at [email protected]


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