Shedding Stereotypes

Dec. 1, 2010, 3:02 a.m.

For Ije Ude, 13 years means a lifetime of experience

If you’re like the majority of Stanford students, you’re probably planning on graduating four years after you first set foot on campus as a bright-eyed freshman. This was how Ije Ude ’10, now the director of the Service Internship Program at the Haas Center for Public Service, planned her college career too. But, in her words, “life kind of got in the way.” After spending 13 years in New York City putting her human biology major to use in the real world, she returned to Stanford last January to finish her last two quarters.

As an international student from Nigeria, Ude initially experienced significant culture shock coming to Stanford. She spent her first three years of college coming to terms with both her preconceived notions about the United States–California in particular–and the United States’ assumptions about her.

“Nigeria…used to be a British colony, so it still has the feeling of the British,” Ude said. “It’s more class-based. Class is the prominent status that people talk about or issue that people feel more comfortable focusing on. I feel like America is very much race-based, in terms of how things are run and just that kind of undercurrent.”

Ude found that she surprised her classmates with her normality, particularly her lack of an accent.

“People had their idea of what they thought an African person was like, or should act like, or should sound like,” she said. “So I didn’t really fit that and people had a hard time placing me.”

Despite this nagging sense of not quite fitting in, she loved her studies, especially the interdisciplinary nature of the human biology major, which she said allowed her to “pull together” her interests.

When she started feeling financial pressures during her senior year and was unable to continue to pay for school, she took these interests to New York City, where she began working in a teen health clinic.

“What I loved about Hum Bio was that it looks at the social context for certain health problems,” Ude said. “I was really interested in public health at that time.”

She stayed at the clinic for about two years, working as an HIV counselor and sexual health educator, both one-on-one and in classrooms.

“Over and over again, [I had] both young women and young men disclosing to me these histories of violence and sexual abuse,” Ude said. “And so that kind of steered me in the direction of doing violence prevention, violence intervention work.”

At first she worked for nonprofits doing educational youth empowerment or community empowerment that dealt with violence issues. But she soon became drawn to social-justice organizations that were trying to get to the roots of violence–looking at the conditions that children are raised in that allow violent acts to happen.

After about five or six years, Ude shifted her focus again. This time, she was doing a two-year fellowship in which she got to develop her own project. She ended up working in an international high school in Brooklyn, where many of the students were refugees from poor countries.

“I did a year-long project with them involving art, using digital storytelling, to have them share their stories of violence and survival and then use it as a community organizing tool to talk about violence in communities,” she said.

This experience sparked Ude’s interest in therapy. She decided that she wanted to go to graduate school, and this was one of the motivating forces that led her back to Stanford to finish her undergraduate degree last year. But she never thought of her 13-year hiatus as a break from her education.

“The work that I was doing was very much connected to the stuff I had learned as an undergrad, so I felt like it was really a continuation of my education anyway,” Ude said. ”It was a long time apart, but it really helped me clarify [what I wanted to do].”

Back in classes, she had a new perspective–not only through her work in New York, but also through her new role as a parent. But sometimes she felt it was wisest not to impose her experiences on her fellow classmates.

“I felt like a couple of times I had to hold my tongue, because we’d be in class and people would be sharing their vision of the work they wanted to do, and it was really idealistic,” she said.

This was something she had gone through herself–particularly when it came to her previously idealized perception of what working for nonprofits would be like as opposed to the corporate world–but resisted the temptation to preach about what she had learned, knowing that her classmates would learn best through their own experiences.

“I had to balance just letting people have their ideas, knowing that they were going to figure it out, and I didn’t need to burst their bubble,” Ude said. “I could share what I had to share but let it be.”

Ude is now working at the Haas Center, partnering with urban studies students to help them through the internship process. Her goal is not just to get internships for these students, but also to help the students reflect on their experiences afterward. She wants them to have experiences that were as meaningful as her experience in New York so that they can “come back to campus with a renewed focus and apply that to the rest of their academic career.”

In the future, Ude hopes to use her counseling experience to increase the effectiveness of community work because she believes the well-being of the people engaging in public service is just as important as the wellbeing of those that they are helping.

“I feel like that’s one of the missing pieces,” she said. “There’s not enough support for staff or for activists or for people who are doing work on the ground…and that impacts the quality or the sustainability of the work they’re actually doing.”

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