LAWRENCEVILLE - It wasn't easy for Jessica Woghiren to pack her bags, drive to the airport and get on a plane to Nigeria, knowing she would spend the next three years at a boarding school in Africa. At 15, she had spent most of her life living in Atlanta - 6,000 miles away from where her parents emigrated when she was a child.
But eight years later, Woghiren recognizes that her boarding school experience in Nigeria helped her learn her family's language and culture, meet people of different backgrounds and appreciate the life she had taken for granted in the United States.
At 23, the Georgia Perimeter College graduate is the youngest recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award from the college. She got her associate's degree from GPC's Lawrenceville campus in 2003 and her bachelor's degree from Georgia State University in 2004.
The award honored Woghiren for her service to the community and the college. She tutors Gwinnett students after school whose native language is not English. She is also a substitute teacher for English as a Second Language at Gwinnett Technical College and a preschool teacher at the First Baptist Church of Atlanta.
Recently, she started helping Spanish-speaking adults learn English. One of her pupils is a mechanic whose boss told him he could get a promotion only if he picked up the language. In exchange for her teaching him English, he promised he would fix her car if she ever had a problem.
"He's still in the process, but he's doing much better and he's excited," Woghiren said. "He's very good at his job, and it's just not fair he isn't getting that promotion because he doesn't know how to communicate properly."
Her appreciation for different cultures stems in large part from her three years studying at the Nigerian boardinghouse. It was her first time living in Nigeria since she was 7 years old, when her family moved to Atlanta.
She had been reluctant to go, but her mother insisted it was a good way to keep her from losing her family's African roots. The boarding school was completely different and far stricter than the educational experience she had in the United States.
The morning bell woke her up every day at 5 a.m. All of the girls were assigned chores, including cleaning the bathrooms and sweeping the hostels. Hitting disobeying students was the norm. Older students were allowed to punish younger ones, including caning them on the palm. It was their way of teaching students to obey and respect their elders, Woghiren said. At all times, students were expected to follow the strictest of orders.
But there were experiences Woghiren really enjoyed about the school: befriending the other girls, learning to speak the language and cooking delicious Nigerian meals. She wrote about both the positive and the negative aspects in a 2003 piece for GPC's magazine, "Creative License."
"The first time I went to the boardinghouse, I was depressed because I had never experienced a boardinghouse before - not to talk of a school in Nigeria," she wrote. "Gradually, I got used to the way of life there. I made good friends and learned how to do assigned things at the right time. Best of all, I received academic and moral discipline from the school."
When she returned to the United States in 2001, Woghiren continued to be involved in Nigerian and African cultural activities. She was a contestant in the Miss Nigeria Atlanta competition. In college, she was a member of the African Association and the Multicultural Advisement Program. She helped organize Africa Week, which included a fashion show and a cultural pot-luck.
This fall, Woghiren is planning to study law at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Michigan. It is going to be a completely different experience from both Nigeria and Georgia, but she is looking forward to it.
"I wanted something different, something that's out of my comfort zone," she said. "Everything is going to be new to me - new friends, new school, new church, new weather and new wardrobe."
Woghiren will be spending two weeks in China next month as part of a trip sponsored by her church to teach English to Chinese students. Asia will be the fourth continent she has visited.
In the next few years, Woghiren plans to return to Nigeria to see her school friends and her family members, many of whom still live in Benin City. Though it was difficult to leave everything behind and move across the world when she was a teenager, now she appreciates the perspectives she gained at the Nigerian boarding school.
At a Glance
Name: Jessica Woghiren
Education: Bachelor's degree in English from Georgia State University, associate's degree in political science from Georgia Perimeter College
Occupation: Teaches English and mathematics to elementary and middle school Gwinnett County students; substitute teacher for English as a Second Language at Gwinnett Technical College; preschool teacher at First Baptist Church of Atlanta