My Name is Rachel Okotete, I moved from Nigeria 7 years ago to the United States after completing my Medical studies in China at the age of 20. I came to the United States to accomplish my dream of becoming a doctor but after two years in the process I realized this path wasn’t my purpose and I was living my parents dream not mine. At age 22, I explored several paths and found my purpose in technology and entrepreneurship, after being exposed to several entrepreneurial opportunities. I was intrigued by how technology was changing the world and how I could be a part of that change. At 25 I enrolled myself into the information technology program at George Washington University to learn more about the intricacies of technology. This was a dream come true for me because I was now on a path I chose and more towards my purpose. Going this route was not easy. I had a lot of detours and financial roadblocks that made completing my education difficult. Evenmore so, my parents had decided to cut off my funding because I was no longer in the medical field and going with their dreams.
I was at a crossroad; I had no family to turn to and no friends or community to rely on. I recall, on my way to class one evening, I ran out of gas with no money to purchase more. I begged the cashier at the gas station to allow me $5 worth of gas for the rest of my trip to class. Things were tough and I was mentally and physically pushed to extremes. With much effort, I found a way to create income and managed to build a community of friends that were extremely supportive. Three years into school, and scrambling to make ends meet each semester, in 2018 I finally got a job as a babysitter. This provided me with financial stability and the funds to pay my tuition consistently. Progress was slow but certain, as I landed my first office job in 2020 for a cybersecurity firm even with visa limitations. With this new opportunity, I was able to transfer from my community college at the time to George Washington University (GWU) to complete my degree in Information Technology. This was a huge accomplishment for me to get into GWU due to the program difficulty and the GPA requirement but with this achievement came more financial stress. Although I had been able to handle the tuition for my community college, the financial requirement for GWU was cumbersome. I navigated this hurdle with several payment plans and worked extra jobs as a bartender, fitness instructor, babysitting, and cleaning homes. Everything was going well until my final semester when I had accumulated some tuition payments I was not able to fund on time. This led to me being kicked out of classes threatening my graduation deadline in May 2022. Furthermore, as an international student, I could not be out of my classes for more than 60 days or I would be violating my visa conditions, which would have consequently led to deportation.
This was another pivotal point in my life as I was faced with being unable to pay down this debt and giving up on my dream. It all flashed before me; everything I had worked for and having to pack up and leave a country I called home for 7 years. The reality of leaving my degree unfinished and the United States was unfathomable. I could not give up, being only 120 days from graduating and actualizing my dream. I made calls-lots of calls. I created a gofund me page, emailed connections and acquaintances, researched for funding any and everywhere. I even tried getting a loan but this was impossible with my visa status and with no family to co-sign for me. I wasn’t qualified for any grants or financial aid because of my visa status. The only options I had were personal loans or a magical wand that could produce $14,000, which is what I needed to get back into classes. Fifty days into my grace period I was able to get some pledges for a sum of 4k but this was not close to enough and I was on the verge of giving up. I started reaching out to friends to say goodbye because I did not see a way out. My heart was constantly racing daily waiting and calling more people hoping I would get more pledges.
With 10 days left on my grace period, I was emotionally exhausted. I had exhausted all my options and I was running on an empty tank. My roommate and close friend at this point was incredibly supportive. She told me “Hey Rachel there is no way you are leaving this country without your degree in hand- keep fighting”. Her words got me through the next few days. Thankfully through a lot more push, connections and communicating with friends for help I was able to get connected through a long time friend to the Mahnaz Aslami, one of the founders of F.R.E.E foundation. This was a miracle because I had only 7 days left to meet my tuition deadline or leave the country. I was able to meet Mahnaz and told her my story. She was incredibly empathetic and willing to take a chance on me even after meeting me briefly. We worked on a loan through the organization that would allow me to complete my final semester and I would pay this back by assisting with services that would help other immigrants and refugees in the organization. This was an honor and the best deal I could ask for because not only do I get to fulfill my dream, I get to share and help other immigrants in similar financial difficulties. I used to think it was crazy when people said every obstacle is a blessing in disguise. My journey toward fulfilling my dreams and the obstacles I have faced along the way, have shown this statement to be true. I am blessed to have gone through many detours and difficulties, expanding my vision to impact and contribute to individuals in similar circumstances. In May 2022, I graduated with my degree in Information Technology in hand and now launching my career in cybersecurity while assisting other immigrants and refugees through the F.R.E.E organization.