Photo of Chiamaka Obinna, a mentor and student leader at UW-Stevens Point.

Chiamaka Obinna is a mentor and student leader at UW-Stevens Point.

For years, Chiamaka Daniella Obinna just wanted to fit in. Then, she discovered what she really wanted: to be taken seriously.

The journey between these two goals took center stage while Obinna was at UW-Stevens Point. Now the senior majoring in sociology is president of the Black Student Union, co-president of the UWSP chapter of Leaders Igniting Change, Diversity and College Access peer success coach and inclusivity director for the Student Government Association.

The road to these leadership roles was not smooth.

Obinna was born in Nigeria. She was a toddler when she and her mom emigrated to the United States, where her father was continuing his education at Milwaukee Area Technical College. She went to good, private schools in Milwaukee, but didn’t feel she belonged. She was teased because her parents spoke with a strong accent.

She didn’t learn about race and ethnicity until she was in high school, at Rufus King. She became a junior adviser with Milwaukee Public Schools, working on student security issues, and participated in the pre-college program Upward Bound.  Those experiences led her to want to advocate for people.

She aspired to attend college outside of Wisconsin, but her mother insisted she stay in the state. A family friend attended UW-Stevens Point and spoke well of it. That was enough for her mom to choose it for her oldest daughter, who enrolled in fall 2017.

Less structure and plenty of opportunity to socialize in college snagged Obinna. “I made choices other people wanted me to make, rather than what was best for me.”

With poor grades, gaps in her financial aid paperwork that precluded her from getting needed aid and the death of two grandparents, Obinna left UW-Stevens Point in February 2020. “I tried to figure out life without education,” she said.

Working as a check-out clerk, she felt she was being seen as the very stereotype she hoped to shatter. “I knew I could do more and be more.”

Obinna returned to UW-Stevens Point in fall 2021. It was even scarier than starting her first year. She didn’t want to be influenced negatively or be judged by past mistakes. She wanted another chance.

“Coming back, I had to teach myself forgiveness and jurisdiction. The only person I’m competing with is myself,” she said. “It was my faith that did it. I had to pray for myself to maneuver through.”

Obinna focused on her coursework above all else. Her grade point average quickly improved. She was honored to be selected as a Noel Compass Scholar, a program that provides financial and other support to promising underrepresented minority students.

“I’m proud of the growth I’ve had. I caught up so fast,” she said. “It’s OK to be yourself. It’s OK to see yourself in a better light. It’s OK to take yourself seriously.”

Obinna is active and engaged in class, said M. David Chunyu, associate professor of sociology. “Chiamaka is one of the hardest-working students I have ever taught or advised. She has displayed extraordinary motivation, perseverance and resilience in many aspects of her academic, professional and personal life.”

By the spring semester she became vice president of the Black Student Union. Now as president, she planned the inaugural Ebony Ball held Feb. 18 at UW-Stevens Point. “I wanted to create a fun, engaging event to celebrate who we are,” she said. “The ball was so beautiful. It gave everyone a reason to not only be dressed to impress but to be able to sit together, eat together and dance together again.”

As a peer mentor with LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment and Discovery), she is thrilled to mentor other students “so they don’t follow my path.” She tells her 10 students the importance of dedication to their education, what it means to be a Pointer and what she wished she had known when she started. “We’re told, ‘reach out if you need help,’ but what if you don’t know how to reach out?’”

The LEAD program provides a supportive community to new students to promote academic success and social engagement. Setting boundaries is vital, Obinna notes.

“I want to be seen as someone who is taken seriously, I want to seen as a leader. It feels good.”

Her career goal is to be an immigration attorney. Knowing people’s beliefs and culture is an important part of advocating for them, she said.

“Respect is really important to me, and I think I’ve earned it. I want my siblings to know it’s OK to make mistakes as long as you correct them,” she said. “I want to thank UW-Stevens Point for the test it gave me, because without the test, I wouldn’t have my testimony.”

Written by UW-Stevens Point

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