My College Park Experience is a 6-part series (if you missed the previous ones, click here, here, here, 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.
Now that I was rolling in dollars, I become a baller. I went to six flags with some of my classmates, I started to eat more rice and orange chicken at panda express, and smoked turkey graced my meals more frequently. I was also able to include yam in my diet a year after I arrived in the US. Of course, I shopped for clothes a lot and became a baffer. I graduated from a 2-figure synthetic weave to a 3-figure human hair weave. I didn’t spend all my money though, I saved most of it and just indulged a little bit seeing as I was living almost in poverty before I got the GA position.
After living alone for one year, I had to move out of my apartment because the apartment managers found me a roommate. We lived together for a month before I moved out. She was African-American and we didn’t get along at all. I had the room to myself while she slept in the living room. She was quite untidy; she’d mess up the kitchen and would fill up her wastebasket and mine with trash and not empty them. She once had a man sleepover and when I complained, she laughed in my face and said she could do whatever she wanted. My apartment which used to be a haven was now somewhere I avoided, thanks to her. I wish I could say I was the bigger person and I let it all slide but that would be untruthful. I became vengeful and sought to make her as uncomfortable as she made me. I realized she slept early while I slept really late and I would either be talking very loudly on the phone or watching movies on my laptop while she tried to sleep. She’d knock on the adjoining wall between the living room and my room and ask me to keep it down but I would ignore her and continue with my noise. When I was moving out, she had filled up my trash can as usual and emptied hers so I emptied mine in hers. I moved to a 2-bedroom apartment that was farther from school compared to my old apartment and ended up with two African-American roommates. The trouble-some one eventually moved out and we got a Congolese girl, T, whom I got along very well with to take her place.
The bigger career fair with many recruiters from different companies was done in the fall semester while the smaller one was done in the spring semester. Whenever you saw an employer stand with a very long queue, you knew they sponsored work visas for international students. Conversely, an employer stand with almost no one queuing in front of it meant they didn’t sponsor work visas for international students and only hired American citizens and permanent residents. Cisco, the networking giant, hired a lot from my school, especially from my program, and they sponsored international students. They were present during the fall career fair and were hiring software engineers (testers and developers). I had tried learning programming via a tutor and Youtube but it didn’t work out. I took a class where we had to program in Matlab and my partner ended up doing a huge chunk of the project as it was difficult for me to figure out Matlab. These experiences made me conclude that I wasn’t well-suited for a software engineering role.
The fall career fair took place in October 2013 and graduation was in the last week of May 2014. I figured I had a lot of time to get a job that was better suited to my skills and involved little to no programming. Ah! That was an error. Some of my classmates who interned at good companies already had full-time offers. My class wasn’t very large so you knew who had a job and who was still job-hunting. Anyway, I didn’t speak to the Cisco recruiters at the career fair and just did the rounds with other employers of international students just to fulfill all righteousness. Imagine my shock when I found out a few weeks later that some of my friends who spoke to the cisco representatives and had no programming experience were offered full-time jobs after only a 30-minute on-campus interview – they didn’t even do multiple interviews or fly to Cisco’s HQ in California. I was insanely jealous of those classmates who were hired as they would be moving to sunny California, working for one of the tech giants, and earning a 6-figure salary. I was also very angry at myself and beat up myself for the longest time for not attempting to speak to the recruiters.
By this time, I had changed from my CoC fellowship to a graduate student fellowship where many of its members attended a non-denominational church not too far from me. During the semester, they had a church service for students on campus and also had church off-campus for families and older people. I don’t remember how I ended up at the off-campus church but I met an older Nigerian lady, N, who I became friends with and who started to pick me up for church most Sundays and drive me back home.
I got along really well with N, my older Nigerian friend and she was a huge source of wisdom. She was single at the time and in her late thirties but was very much interested in getting married and having children while still holding on to her Christian values. She told me her story of how she became an American citizen in 8 years without arrangee marriage and it was quite the story. She also belonged to several groups that met up on weekends and she was super intentional about meeting people. She took me along with her to a few events organized by her groups including a kayaking event where she and I came last. I also became friends with a classmate of mine, S, and we attended a few graduate students’ events together. But a few weeks into my final semester, I started to get anxious about not having a job that would sponsor a work visa for me. I was convinced it would be very difficult to get a job after graduation therefore I needed to get one before I graduated. By this time, more of my classmates had gotten full-time offers. I stopped hanging out with S whenever she invited me for trips because I wanted to concentrate fully on getting a job and I felt like if God saw me gallivanting upandan and enjoying myself, he’d think I wasn’t serious about getting a job.
I spent most of my time in my GA office applying to any and every job, studying as much as possible, and praying a lot of “God please help me get a job I don’t want to go back to Nigeria just yet” prayers, and berating myself for not speaking to the Cisco recruiters. My final semester, which was supposed to be the most fun semester, turned out to be the saddest one yet because I didn’t have a job while others did. I wasn’t interested in comparing myself with my fellow jobless classmates – I preferred comparing myself with the ones who had jobs. I applied for a $1500 scholarship that was open to students in my class who had a 3.85 and above GPA and got it. However, I was still sad and anxious about not having a full-time job so I didn’t even bother attending the award ceremony.
One day at the beginning of April, N invited me for a Casting Crowns concert and I went because I love Casting Crowns and I’d never attended a concert in the US. I enjoyed the concert and even wrote a post about my experience. They sang a song titled Already There and like magic, the song took away most of my anxiety about not having a job. It’s about God already being in one’s future and knowing how one’s life would end so there’s no need for one to be anxious or fearful.
R (my ‘Ph.D. friend’ at UMD) introduced me to some Nigerian guy in my 2nd semester who had moved to California the previous September and was working for Apple at the time. He encouraged me to apply to Apple and Google which I did. I got a phone interview with an Apple HR recruiter and a Google tech recruiter. I passed the former but performed terribly at the latter and I never heard from the recruiter again despite all the emails I sent to him.
I was constantly refreshing my school’s job portal for openings and on April 19, 2014, I saw a Software Test Engineering role from Arista Networks. The requirements were a minimum 3.5 GPA, knowledge of networking and networking protocols, and current enrollment in a masters of telecoms program. By this time, the spirit of procrastination had left me and immediately I saw the role, I modified my resume to suit it and submitted it on the job portal. My specialization was actually in wireless but I had taken a 6-month networking course and certification in Nigeria back in 2007 which I loved and could still remember most of what I learned in it. It was on the strength of that training/certification that I applied for the role. By this time, I had a can-do mindset and was ready to do any job whether or not I was qualified for the role so far as they would file for a work visa for me. The following day, I got an email from someone at Arista asking to schedule a phone interview with me and we fixed a date. He called me that same week but I was quite nervous. He would ask me questions and I would answer correctly but he’d twist the questions and I would get tripped and change my answer. I explained away my slip-ups as nerves and asked him not to penalize me for it. He asked if I knew BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) and other networking protocols which I didn’t and I said as much. He recommended I go learn them in preparation for my 2nd phone interview. He also asked me to send my unofficial transcript so he could confirm my GPA which I did.
The following week, I got a follow-up interview from the manager of the role I applied for at Apple. It was a wireless role about a course I had taken and aced just the previous semester. But I was so nervous and anxious, I flunked even the most basic questions. I was still hopeful though that Baba Firecracker would intervene and I’d be flown to HQ for the main interview. I studied the living hell out of the BGP and other protocols the Arista guy mentioned and got my friend, F, who had a lot of networking experience before coming to UMD, to teach me. I was much more confident in my follow-up phone interview but I still slipped up a few times. The following day, I was asked to choose a date for my on-site interview at Arista HQ in silicon valley. I wanted to be sufficiently prepared so I selected a date that was almost 3 weeks from the date I spoke with the recruiter and coincided with the eve of my cousin’s wedding in Wisconsin so I could just fly from California to Madison, Wisconsin. I prayed very hard and studied even harder. Village people were not going to snatch this role which was offered to me on a platter of gold from my hands.
I was asked to choose between two hotels to stay in and again like a rookie, I chose the cheaper one. Anyway, I flew into California on a Thursday evening and attended the interview the following Friday. The first interview was a technical interview with 3 people asking me questions. I answered their questions to the best of my ability and the ones I had no idea of and couldn’t attempt, I honestly told them and didn’t try to bobo my way out of it. After that interview, I had lunch with about 5/6 fresh graduate hires, all Indians, and asked them questions about Arista. They all said it was a fantastic place to work and there was nothing they hated about the company but I did not believe them. After lunch, I had an interview with the manager and it was mostly behavioral not technical. Immediately, I turned on my extroverted, charming, and ‘sister happiness’ personality and was asking him questions confidently. After I was hired and he became my manager, he told me I was the most engaging of all the fresh graduates he interviewed. Desperate times call for desperate measures people! After my interview with him, I met with the director of the software testing team and extroverted Toyeen came up again and was asking him questions after he’d asked me his. I had him laughing in no time. After the interview, he told me everyone who’d interviewed me loved me and he was offering me the job. He said he needed letters of recommendation from my references before making me an offer but he knew they’d write only good things.
People of God, it was like I had died and went to heaven. I couldn’t believe it. That was the first time anyone would offer me a job immediately after an interview. I comported myself, and calmly thanked him for the offer and told him I would send the details of my references. I still couldn’t believe I had been offered a job all through the ride to the airport and Madison. I was just grinning from ear to ear throughout the flight. That day was exactly 2 weeks to my graduation. I got to the Madison airport and was picked up by the pickup services my cousin had arranged. I arrived at the hotel where my parents were also staying and saw them in a corner with my aunty. As I was walking towards them, my aunt saw me, nudged them, and pointed at me. I locked eyes with them and with so much happiness in my voice, I walked up to them and said, “mummy, daddy, omo yin ti ri ise o.” (Your daughter has gotten a job!).
Author’s note: A huge thank you to everyone who went on this journey reliving my graduate school experiences with me. I read all your comments and they warmed my heart. Some had me in stitches, and I would have responded to every one of them but I wasn’t certain you’d see the replies. I truly appreciate them. Arista was a great place to work but I performed very badly there for reasons I haven’t fully unraveled yet. It had nothing to do with the company culture though because my boss and team were phenomenal. I was put on probation almost two years after I resumed due to my poor performance review, and that eventually led me to a 2-year and 10-month long depression and return to Nigeria. However, I became well in December 2018, began writing in January 2019, encountered the holy spirit, and became a believer in August 2019. I shared my testimony here and explained in greater detail what being depressed was like for me and how I believe I got healed from it here. It’s been such a beautiful ride since then and I honestly did not believe my life could ever be as great as it was in Arista but now it’s a million times better. I have found my true calling and I am so grateful I have a gift that people enjoy. The feedback I got from this series and its prequel, my journey to the Amrica, was responsible for me creating my blog, www.firecracker-toyeen.com, and pursuing writing as a career. Thank you once again for reading and I look forward to writing more articles and books for your reading pleasure.