Obinna Ilochonwu ’22
Growing up in Nnewi in the south of Nigeria, Obinna Ilochonwu ’22 says his life was relatively normal. His mother, father and three brothers didn’t have much money, but their life was simple, and they were happy.
Things changed, however, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. The family spent more money than it had
on her treatments, sacrificing the money needed to pay for the boarding school Ilochonwu attended. He remembers calling relatives and asking for help paying for school, medical bills and other necessities.
When his mother passed away, Ilochonwu knew his way of life had changed forever. “The day she died, I knew I had to take care of the boys,” he said. “I felt like I had to be there for them the whole time so that if my mom could see us, she would know they turned out fine.”
Transitioning to college life was stressful for Ilochonwu, but not for the same reasons it might be for other students. He attended a boarding high school in Nigeria for six years, from the age of 10. “At that age,” he said, “I already knew how to be on my own and make food, live alone, make friends outside of school and only go home on breaks.”
For Ilochonwu, it was the loneliness that caused his stress, and subsequently some physical ailments. “When you get really stressed, it’s not just your immune system that goes down, your mental defenses go down,” he explained. “If there is any unresolved emotion that you haven’t dealt with, it tends to come at you.”
In addition, Ilochonwu felt pressure to become a physician. Family and friends told him he had to become a doctor or an engineer if he wanted to live a good life and provide for his family. Ilochonwu knew he wanted to enter the medical profession, but being on his own away from the input of family and friends, he had the opportunity to explore other areas in healthcare. But with more options came even more anxiety.
He ultimately chose to take pre-nursing classes. Yet, the stress continued, and Ilochonwu finally sought help through counseling. It wasn’t effective at first, but only because he was looking for a quick solution.
“I think I had different expectations of how therapy ‘fixes’ people,” he said. “When I wasn’t ‘fixed,’ I thought therapy didn’t work.”
His sophomore year, classes became more difficult, the pressure of choosing a major continued and memories of his mom’s passing took a toll. Then he received an email from Berea College therapist Tricia Isenstein for a workshop about adverse childhood experiences. The workshop was so helpful that he made an appointment with Isenstein. This time, he didn’t expect to find all the answers. This session was about having somebody to talk to and being open to whatever she had to say.
In addition to on-campus resources, Ilochonwu says spending time with family members who live in Georgia is a form of therapy of its own. In fact, it was a cousin who helped him realize he was making his situation more complicated than it needed to be. She encouraged him to let nursing be enough for now, and if he wanted to become a doctor later, he could still choose that path. He recalls her words: “Just stay in the present and be happy now instead of making yourself unhappy with what you should be in the future.”
Ilochonwu plans to become a nurse anesthetist, in part because of the tough battle he saw his mom face with cancer. He remembers her crying from the pain, saying it was as if the pain was worse than the cancer itself. That is something he hopes to alleviate for others.
“As a nurse anesthetist, I am going to literally be able to take away people’s pains as much as I can,” he said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted his ability to see his Georgia family, Ilochonwu says he manages stress by riding his bike and admiring the beautiful views around campus.
“I think one of the mental things that helps me is knowing that it’s not going to last forever,” he said.