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  • Writer's pictureTemi Thomas-Ailara

Two Cultures, One Story

I’m Temi Thomas-Ailara, and I am a junior outside hitter on the women’s volleyball team here at Northwestern. My parents were born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria and came to Chicago about twenty-five years ago. My brother and I were born a couple years after they immigrated, but my parents continued their culture, ensuring that my brother and I could experience it.

(Photo provided by Temi Thomas-Ailara)

Our family is Nigerian American – from the food we eat to the church that we attend, our family embodies a typical Nigerian American household. I've had the opportunity to interact with many Nigerian Americans who had similar upbringings, many of whom are now close friends of mine. My parents would have Nigerian clothes tailored for us to wear at weddings and parties. It was always so fun wearing something that was so different from the American clothes I usually wore.

Another aspect of Nigerian culture that is of paramount importance is respecting your elders. One thing that I always have to do when greeting an elder is Ikunle, or kneel. Also, everyone, even if they are not related to you, is called “Auntie” or “Uncle” as just saying their first name is seen as disrespectful. On the other hand, one of the biggest ways my parents adapted their lifestyle to incorporate more of the American culture into my life is by celebrating Thanksgiving and other American holidays.

(Photo provided by Temi Thomas-Ailara)

I never really thought about it growing up, but I now realize they did this so my brother and I could still have an American experience within our home.

Growing up, my parents enrolled me in many different sports including volleyball, soccer, track and field and basketball. Although I liked all of the sports I played, I fell in love with volleyball. I started playing club volleyball when I was 10, and I never looked back. Whether it was going across the country to play a game or driving me to practice three days a week, my parents were always there and never missed a beat. They continually supported me, day in and day out, and pushed me to become a better player and teammate. As I continued to grow and get better, I began getting recruited by colleges. It was a hard process, but my parents supported my decisions and helped guide me in the right direction. Getting to Northwestern and playing Big Ten volleyball at a top 10 college was something I never imagined doing when I was younger, but now I can’t see myself doing anything else. I don’t think I can put into words what it feels like, but I can say that I am happy that I can make my parents proud by being here.

Temi Thomas-Ailara jumps for an attack from the back row.
(photo by Ryan Kuttler)

College has definitely been a different experience for me; it has been the longest time that I have been separated from the culture I grew up in. It is also the first time I have ever been fully immersed in American culture – which I love – but sometimes I just miss my home. I think the biggest difference for me is the food. Growing up I ate a lot of Nigerian foods like rice, stews, pounded yam and many other things. Although it’s only a small part of the Nigerian culture, these meals make me feel at home.

My parents came here because they wanted my brother and I to live out the “American Dream,” and that is something that I will never forget.

It pushes me to work harder and reminds me that every opportunity I have has come because of their dedication and resilience. They continue to push me to be the best version of myself.

Being here in America gives me so many more opportunities than I would have had in Nigeria, and knowing that makes me strive to be better myself.

What I want other first-generation Americans to know is this: our parents all came here for a reason. When they had us, they wanted us to be great just as all parents do. Knowing that I have the chance to achieve something here gives me all of the strength to push through any hardships that may come my way.

Now that I am older, I can look back at life up until today and see all of the ways my parents changed their lifestyle so that my brother and I could experience both the Nigerian culture they grew up in and the American culture that we live in now. I am so thankful to them for all of the changes they made in their lives and my own to give me the opportunities I have now.

Thomas-Ailara blocks an attack from a DePaul player.
(photo by Ryan Kuttler)


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