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Firecracker Toyeen: My College Park Experience (3)

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My College Park Experience is a 6-part series (if you missed the previous ones, click here and 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 failed one of the entrance exams, which meant I had to take the class associated with it. My program offered specialization in wireless, networking, or security/software. My specialization was wireless yet it was the wireless prerequisite exam I failed. I enrolled in three courses – two wireless courses and one business course. My class was about 65% Indians, 30% Chinese, and 5% the rest of the world – that included me. For the first time in my life, I was a minority.

In one of my wireless classes, we had to do a group project and my lecturer asked us to form groups of four. Since I didn’t know anybody in my class, I asked the girl sitting behind me if her group needed an additional person – wrong move. She said they did and I could join her group. On the first day we met up, my three other group members who were Indians continued speaking Hindi during the meeting while I was there. When I asked them to stop and speak English as I didn’t understand what they were saying and thought it was rude, they assured me they weren’t saying anything serious and continued. After a while, I picked up my bag and walked out.

The following day, my teammates asked me why I walked out of the group meeting and I was surprised they were asking. I told them I couldn’t participate in the conversation since it wasn’t in English and saw no need to keep sitting there while they talked over my head. Throughout the semester, they would go on to speak mostly Hindi during group meetings. I only became friends with one of them, S, and the whole objective of participating in group projects, which was to learn teamwork, was defeated. I learned to use the software myself and did the project on my own (it wasn’t an intense project) while we submitted a group report. 

There’s a large power distance in Africa as well as Asia and that’s why respect is a big deal in these continents. I remember when our professors told us we could call them by name and their first names rolled off my tongue easily like I had been calling older people by name all my life. Although I am Yoruba and I love my tribe, I have never been a fan of the respect brouhaha so blending into American culture was very easy for me. I remember when one of my Indian teammates sent a report about our project to the professor and in the email addressed him as “Respected Sir.” I had a very long and good laugh when I read the email. Anyway, I had learned my lesson and except the one time our professor assigned us to groups, I always formed my own group preferably with people of different nationalities. Once bitten, forever shy.

The only money I took with me was the remaining savings from my first job, the proceeds from the sale of my car back to my parents, and the cash my relatives and family friends gave me. This was enough to pay for about 75% of my tuition, 2-3 months rent with a little left to live on meaning there was no room for lau lau. I wasn’t getting an allowance from my parents and didn’t have a steady income coming in. Until I started earning an income, my heart beat with fear every single time I opened my mailbox as I was always afraid of receiving bills I couldn’t afford to pay. Utilities were split among all the apartments in the complex based on apartment size and, thankfully, mine never exceeded $20. I always did my laundry at R’s apartment as I couldn’t afford to pay for laundry in my apartment complex. I cooked my meals with the foodstuff I brought from Nigeria and only ate out once in my first semester – it was after my final exam and at McDonald’s, but would you believe that I felt so guilty about wasting money?

In the last 2 weeks of my first semester, I ate only garri and beans, and even when it seemed like the cooked beans was close to spoiling, I ate it like that. I would always tell myself that things wouldn’t always be that way and, thankfully, they weren’t. 

I tried getting a job on campus but was unable to and it was illegal to work off-campus. I met a Ghanian girl, J, who was in her 2nd year in my program and we clicked! When I complained about not getting a job, she said all the jobs had been taken by the Indians who resumed about a month to the first day of class, meanwhile, sister firecracker resumed only two days before classes began. She said the only remaining jobs were waitressing jobs and bus drivers. I had been seriously humbled since arriving in the US and I desperately needed money but I didn’t have it in me to wait on tables or drive buses. I remember speaking to my brother about driving the school bus and he said, “Toyeen, how can you be driving bus?” That immediately put an end to the thought of being a bus driver and I believed I would find another job on campus.

Remember the word I said I got from God? Let me share with you two occasions when I reminded him about it and he came through for me. I had paid 75% of my tuition and the deadline to pay the balance was fast approaching. Failure to pay meant not being registered for classes and consequently falling out of student status. My dad rarely gives one money without you arguing and defending your need for the money except for the mandatory school fees and books. Since I had turned down his offer of paying my tuition at the expense of my sister’s education, I couldn’t ask him for money. Besides, both parents were also paying for my sister’s tuition. Anyway, as the deadline for payment of my fees drew near, I was getting anxious and would just pray and remind God of his word. One day, my mum called me and said I sounded funny and asked what was wrong. I told her the balance of my tuition was due. She asked for the amount and I said anything she could afford was fine. She called me the next day and said she spoke to my dad and when he asked how much I needed, she asked him to help with whatever he could afford. I had a GTB dollar visa card at the time which I used to pay all expenses in the US and receive money from home. The following day, my mum called to tell me that my dad just gave her the money without any questions – that had never happened before. And when I saw the amount that was sent, it was just enough to pay my tuition balance. As expected, that grew my faith. 

The second incident happened when my aunty in New York connected me with one of her relatives who also lived in Maryland. He came to pick me on a public holiday, gave me food which I ate (as I never say no to free food), we talked and watched Yoruba movies together. He dropped me off at school and after I got down from his car he gave me an envelope containing money. I was so happy thinking I had received about $100. I almost collapsed when I opened the envelope and counted $500 – that was more than enough to pay my rent which was due in a few days. Sadly, I never got to see him again or reciprocate that kind gesture as he died a few months after I met him. 

I am very debt-averse and do not like to be tied down to any service provider or employer, so I ended up paying for a prepaid service from T-mobile instead of getting a contract line. This cost me $50/month for unlimited talk, text, and data. The service was really bad on campus and at my apartment which meant I was paying so much yet getting little utilization. I had to live as frugally as possible since I did not have a steady income and this led me to switch to a $10 for 100-minutes plan.

My thinking was that I had unlimited wifi at home and on campus so I didn’t need data, and I could call people with google voice, therefore, I didn’t need to pay to make calls. I only needed the $10 to ensure my phone was active, however, I received a call a few days after paying for the $10 plan and after the call, I saw that my minutes had reduced. I called the customer care line to complain about the reduction in minutes when I did not make any calls and they told me they’d look into it. The following day, someone else called me and I noticed my minutes had reduced after the call. I complained to customer care again about not using my phone yet having my minutes reduced. The representative asked if I had made any calls on the phone and I said no. He asked if I had received calls on the phone and I said yes. He then said the minutes were deducted when I made a call or received a call. You say?! I just started shouting, “you pay to receive calls? You pay to receive calls? How can you pay to receive calls?”

My brothers and sisters, that is how I found yet another shocking revelation – you pay to receive calls in America, the ‘land of the free’!

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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