Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Determined to make a difference November 22, 2016 story by Evelyn Boswell • Published 11/22/16

It’s easy to read a list of accomplished Montana State University students, admire their achievements and move on. But behind each student is a story.

Chinomso Emmanuel Onuoha’s story is one of religious persecution and overcoming money problems, culture shock and loneliness to become this year’s outstanding engineering student in Montana and last year’s outstanding international undergraduate student at MSU.

When the 24‐year‐old Nigerian graduates with two bachelor’s degrees and two minors in December, he will cross the platform with a dream of using his education to help his homeland. Whenever the occasion presents itself, he said he will spread the word that Montana and the United States are full of good people who helped him succeed.

“America has been great to me,” Onuoha said. “It has really been a blessing to be here.”

Onuoha—whose first name means “God is near me” and second name means “God with us”—grew up in the city of Jos, or “J‐town,” where his father is a church planter and his mother a nurse in a federal hospital. Onuoha talks about a period of civil unrest that began in September 2001, days before America’s 9/11, when barricades were set up on roads to ferret out Christians. He describes the terror he felt when he and his two sisters were home alone and some people were about to burn down their house. Their home was saved after the potential arsonist turned his rage toward a neighbor with a gun.

As he grew up, the second of four children, Onuoha set a goal of studying engineering. He was interested in science, after all, and liked math, biology, chemistry and physics. He was good at problem solving. He had an inquisitive mind.
But instead of studying mechanical engineering in Nigeria like this brother, Onuoha wanted to study chemical
engineering in the United States. It was a dream he had envisioned since middle school.

“I wanted a U.S. education because I knew this country was at the cutting edge of science and technology,” Onuoha explained. “I knew I would be trained by professors regarded as best in their fields, have access to world-class equipment and research facilities that would enhance my learning experience.

“Getting a U.S. education does mean a lot for my family because of the opportunities that come with it,” Onuoha said. “A U.S. degree is well-looked upon in many countries of the world, thus providing almost an assured chance of a good employment opportunity, especially in the field of engineering.”

A Nigerian program that helps place students abroad recommended MSU for Onuoha and helped him enroll. His aunt agreed to pay for his first year of school. His mom sold her Toyota Carina to pay for his flight and process documents. Onuoha said his family had waited about 10 years to buy his mother’s car.

“Before this time, my dad struggled to drop my siblings and I (off) at school, pick up mum from work and also run errands,” Onuoha said. “When he traveled or was not able to drive, we had to get used to using public transportation. Things got a little difficult during dry seasons because the municipal water supply dropped and we had to get water from other parts of town. Without a car, it was quite tough to get enough water to last for weeks.

“When my mum’s car finally arrived, it was more of a relief and a sign of good changes for the family,” Onuoha said. “But since I was to go to school, we all had to sacrifice our comfort and immediate enjoyment in order to give me an opportunity for a better life.

Onuoha said the family returned to using his dad’s worn-out car and public transportation.

“Within me, I was determined to make a difference because of the sacrifices my family had made to enable me to get an opportunity to greatness.”

While the opportunity to attend MSU was glorious, once he got to MSU, Onuoha said he found a world alien to him. He was lonely, encountered eating habits strange to him, and he never had enough money.

“The cost of living in Montana is very high compared to Nigeria. The exchange rate is not the best,” explained Deborah Chiolero, foreign student adviser for MSU’s Office of International Programs.

In addition to that, Onuoha discovered that American students were more likely to stay indoors and wear headphones than mingle outside, as is common in Nigeria. They didn’t eat fish rolls and meat pies, but lasagna, burritos and lots of cheese.
Despite the challenges, Onuoha believed he belonged at MSU. So he stayed, and life gradually improved.

He made friends like Cole Krenik of Billings. The two met the first day of the College of Letters and Science Knowledge and Community Seminar, then ran into each other at the Harrison Dining Hall where Onuoha worked and both ate. About a month after school started, they realized they actually lived across from each other in Langford Hall.

“We became really close friends from our freshman year on,” Krenik said.

“He would spend time in my room, and I would spend time in his.”

It wasn’t long before Onuoha became like family, Krenik said. A former varsity swimmer at Billings West High School, Krenik taught Onuoha how to swim at the MSU Fitness Center and invited him home for holidays and weekends. When Onuoha wore a blanket in their wood‐heated house and stayed up late to study, the family gave him a space heater to keep warm and a room of his own. When Onuoha wondered why he saw so many Black Angus cows, Krenik explained ranching and Montana agriculture. When Krenik picked up his acoustic guitar, he discovered that Onuoha was an awesome musician and invited him to play in the worship band at Hope Church in Billings.

“I call him brother. There’s no other name for it,” Krenik said. “He has just always been a really good friend.”

As time went on, Onuoha expanded his circle. To save money, he left the residence hall and moved into the Christus Collegium, where he joined 17 other students. The Collegium currently houses 10 men and eight women, some Christians and others Muslims. Some came from the United States and others from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, China, Japan and other parts of Africa. Onuoha became a resident adviser for the men. He played the Collegium’s Clavinola and grand piano. He carved pumpkins with his housemates and served meals with them at the Community Café.

“He has a great sense of humor, a big smile,” said Tim Spring, Lutheran campus pastor.

Onuoha also made friends as he washed dishes, mopped floors and served food in cafeterias around campus. He tutored students in math, physics, chemistry and engineering. He gathered leaf samples for the MSU Plant Growth Center. He worked in Joan Broderick’s lab in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Paul Gannon’s lab in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“I wanted to work in laboratories because they provided the best opportunity for me to acquire and explore analytical thinking, problem solving, time management and, very importantly, knowledge and its application through engineering,” Onuoha said.

Life in the labs

Broderick said Onuoha came to her after taking freshman chemistry from her husband, Will Broderick. Recognizing Onuoha’s exceptional ability and potential and hearing about his interest in research, Will suggested that Broderick consider bringing Onuoha into her lab.

“Undergrads learn many techniques and the fundamentals of protein and enzyme biochemistry and inorganic chemistry working in my lab,” Broderick said. “More importantly, though, they gain experience in the process of scientific research and hopefully begin to understand the intellectual effort that goes into designing experiments and research projects. In some cases, students co‐author publications, as well.

“Emmanuel is a very bright and motivated student, and it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with him,” Broderick said.

Gannon said Onuoha is self‐motivated and tenacious and came to Gannon after writing a successful proposal to conduct research on the next-generation turbine engine hardware. That had the undergraduate working with extremely hot ovens and expensive equipment, Gannon said. “Many of these students become professional engineers who design, construct and/or operate multi‐billion‐dollar industrial facilities.”

In recommending Onuoha for the prestigious Gold Medal Award from the Montana Society of Engineers, Gannon wrote that, “I am confident Emmanuel will make an excellent engineer and (will be) a great reflection on the Montana Society of Engineers.”

Money remained a challenge

Even though Onuoha told most of his friends that life was fine, he said he hid the fact that there was a real chance he would have to drop out of MSU and return home without a degree because he did not have money for tuition. One cold, snowy day, ready to admit the truth to someone who might be able to help, he walked to the Quads to discuss his options with Ilse‐Mari Lee, dean of the Honors College. As he waited in line, she smiled at him.

In talking together, Onuoha learned that Lee also grew up in Africa and knew what it was like being an international student. The South African native asked Onuoha about his life and goals, saw his high grades, then handed Onuoha an application to join the Honors College.

“I thought, ‘If they are not going to give me a scholarship, I’m just going to take tough classes to add to my problems,’” Onuoha said. “I thought it would be even more trouble for me. But out of respect, I said I would take it home and fill it out.”
And soon everything changed.

Lee called to tell Onuoha that he was not only admitted into the Honors College, but he had been awarded a scholarship that covered the rest of his four years at MSU, provided that he remained in good standing in the Honors College.

“It was a day of joy,” Onuoha said. “I was so glad, so glad.”

Other scholarships followed from various offices around campus. Onuoha was accepted for summer internships at a research institute in the Czech Republic and J.R. Simplot in Pocatello, Idaho. While Onuoha was looking for a car to drive to Idaho, the father of Elise Estus, a friend he also tutored, gave him a Toyota Celica, filled it with gas and paid the insurance for six months. “My goodness. I need to pay,” Onuoha told him. “He said, ‘No, you have been a blessing to my family.’”

Even though he no longer has to worry about paying for school, Onouha continues to work so he can send money to family and friends, Lee said. He maintained a “stellar” GPA while majoring in chemical engineering, biological engineering and minoring in mathematics and statistics. He was an “extraordinary and inspirational” student fellow in the honors course, “Texts and Critics: Knowledge and Imagination.” He became president of the MSU student chapter of the Electrochemical Society.

Chiolero said Onuoha received the 2015 Norman J. Peterson Outstanding International Undergraduate Student Award because of his campus involvement, GPA and role modeling. Onuoha is one of 11 Nigerian students and close to 800 international students currently on campus. His GPA generally sits around 3.93.

“He is an amazing person. There are no words to describe how wonderful he is,” Chiolero said. “He is very focused. He sets high goals, and he accomplishes his goals.”

Onuoha is also a big advocate for MSU and always willing to “go beyond that extra mile,” Chiolero said. “He is a brilliant student, a very gifted student.”

After graduating from MSU, Onuoha wants to experience working for an American company while earning graduate degrees, which he thinks will further his ultimate goal of using his education to serve his country.

Onuoha—who averaged 21 credits most semesters, sleeps three to five hours a night and eats one to two meals a day—said Nigeria has a lot of oil, but it sends most of it out of the country to be refined. One thing he is considering is starting a refinery in Nigeria. Another possibility, since Nigeria has problems with food storage and production, is starting a business to improve farming practices and mass-produce food.

One plan he knows he will carry out is to become an unofficial ambassador for Montana and the United States. Whenever he hears someone put down America, he said he will say, “America has been great to me.” When he speaks of Montana, he will talk about the friends he met, the education he received and the generosity of its people.

“The people of Montana have been really, really gracious to me throughout my stay here,” he said.