Born and raised in Ogun state Nigeria, Olaseni Adeniji is a Computer Science and Mathematics major at the University of the District of Columbia.
He is a Facebook Above and Beyond CS Software Engineering Fellow, a Jopwell Ambassador and a Tapia’19 Linkedin Scholar.
He is also the President of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) at the University of the District of Columbia, a position he took on to inspire and put members in positions to excel.
As we round up Black History Month 2019, I had a special conversation with Seni where we discussed extensively his work as NSBE and his life as a Nigerian living in 21st century America.
What are some of the challenges that black engineers face and how do societies like NSBE help to solve them?
NSBE’s mission is to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.
Using myself and my immediate circle as reference, some of the challenges we face are lack of exposure and mentorship; both peer mentorship and from people in higher positions with more experience.
It is a very terrible thing to feel like you don’t have direction and somebody steering you towards your goals. Within NSBE, we have a sub-community called NSBE Junior where collegiate chapters help their high school counterparts to navigate choosing a career in engineering. Having someone to direct you can really make a difference in your life, and it is not just about older people. It could also be peer-to-peer mentorship. It is really effective that way because it is more relatable.
One crucial thing we are doing is creating a community where members are able to see and hear perspectives from other people. This is one way to cure the lack of exposure.
A lot of people come up to me saying,
“I see you go for a lot of events and conferences, how do you pay for these?”
They do not know virtually all of these engagements are fully funded. This stops them from applying and going for these opportunities. A community like NSBE; where you can relate with more advanced and seasoned people, helps to navigate these grey areas.
Another part is the representation.
When you are in a place and you don’t see people that talk, look or do anything the way you do, it becomes really hard for anybody to relate to you, or the place you come from.
NSBE is an organization that is tailored specifically for situations like this.
The third major problem is impatience. Based off the generation we are growing up in, we are expected to have everything lined up and planned out. Things do not necessarily work the way they are planned. A lot of people get impatient when this happens, and they get dejected and uninspired. It is important to have a circle that can help you understand how life works.
Life is a journey, and it is not going to be the same for every two people. NSBE is just about making sense of that journey, creating a community for bonding, and helping people go through everything they might face on their path.
What NSBE gives people is a support system to help them understand their journey and the different challenges they might face alongside their story.
What is your vision for the society as President, and beyond college?
In my life, one thing that I have noticed is it is very easy to complain and just place the blame on other people.
During my first and second year of college, I kept complaining about what I lacked, failing to realize what was in front of me. All it took was for me to change that mentality that I had, and I was amazed by the difference it made. That is one of the reasons I chose to run for president.
I have a vision that I want to trickle down the whole organization and reflect on every student. There are so many issues that we face as black engineers and really just as college students which I want to tackle.
First, is not recognizing the opportunities that are present. During my first summer at college, all I did was play football. This is not a bad thing, but I did it because I had no idea I could do other things. I had no idea people interned in their freshman year. I didn’t know even what an internship was at that time. There are freshmen who have already interned at major companies because they know these opportunities exist. I have been in that position, and I don’t want other people to experience it.
For freshmen coming into NSBE, my job is to inspire them and show them the opportunities in front of them. A lot of companies have opportunities tailored specifically to freshmen. One way we help is by sending out weekly emails to our members to notify them about opportunities that they can take advantage of at every level.
I also want to create an organization where people can find representation and be inspired. I find it very inspiring when I meet a Yoruba person in a position of power, because I feel if he can do it, so can I. I want members to have a similar experience when they see people that look like them interning, going for events and getting scholarships.
I also want to create a support system within the organization. One thing that has really helped me in my college journey so far is my circle. I am surrounded by so many amazing go-getters with exceptional work ethic. It really pushes me to be better.
People say where there are 9 millionaires, the 10th person is a millionaire by association. Surrounding yourself with people that know what they want and how to get it pushes you to want more. By bringing all these engineers together, people who feel like they can not achieve something will be motivated to put themselves in a better position to succeed.
Finally, I want to inspire other people. I am originally from Nigeria. I moved to America in 2016 when I started college. The number of opportunities I have been granted things I never imagined myself doing in a million years. I want to help people see they can achieve whatever they want to if they put their minds to it. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
Patience is also very important. Know that failure is a part of the journey, so you have to be patient. You could apply to an internship and get rejected 5 times in a row. It is part of the journey. You need to keep a positive mindset and understand that the little things make all the difference.
What kind of support do you receive from the industry in your work?
Quite a lot of companies support NSBE as a whole. A lot of alumni have joined the industry so they help to push the culture forward. School chapters get grants and other forms of support to push the mission.
There is also the annual NSBE National Convention, held in March in a different city each year. Several companies are usually present and they are always willing to support black professionals in the industry. More private sector actors are starting to understand the importance of diversity and representation in their organizations. It is a conscious effort they are making.
When they come to the convention, they offer a lot of internship, co-op and scholarship opportunities to ensure more black people get in the spaces they deserve to be.
I was at a conference recently to share my involvement and mission with NSBE. I was approached by a company, and they offered to host an online technical workshop for our members.
The major challenge is finding a point of contact within an organization when we try to reach out to specific companies for support.
What is it like working and living as a Nigerian in the diaspora?
It is a very interesting and exciting learning experience. The major problem I have seen is the issue of not belonging. Being brought up in Nigeria and coming to America for school, you are not technically an American. When you spend a bit of time here, people back home start to comment about how American you sound and how American you act, so it is almost like you do not belong there either. One way I try to shut that off is to reaffirm my Nigerian roots. I was born and brought up in Nigeria and that will not change regardless of how long I stay in the US.
Another thing I do is appreciate American culture. I am not from here but since I am here now, I immerse myself in the experience and learn to live the best of both worlds.
Coming to another culture, you have to be really open-minded. Things really might not be remotely close to what you are used to, especially in the United States. It is a big country with a lot of people who have different beliefs. It is an opportunity to work with different people and get what you want out of the country.
It has also been a very big opportunity to get exposed to so many things. I have met people from all parts of the world, even remote places like Mongolia. It is really a melting pot and a great privilege.
One thing that will help you to succeed is to never forget where you came from. One of the mistakes I made when I first got to America was wanting to sound and act like I was American. I thought that would make life easier. The solution is really understanding where you come from and seeing it as an advantage to have a different perspective.
How do you reconnect with home (in this case Nigeria)?
I was born and raised in Nigeria. I attended secondary and primary school in Nigeria. I was born and raised in the culture. I spoke Yoruba, and I ate native food.
I live with my brother right now and we still do all of these things. I have family back home and I communicate with them regularly.
I live in the DMV ( DC, Maryland, and Virginia) and there is a very high population of Nigerians here. There are a lot of people who understand the issues back home as well as pleasures. Being Nigerian is equally frustrating and equally exciting. I can communicate and relate with the people around me and this helps me stay in touch.
Although I have left Nigeria, I want to go back home and make some changes. At the end of the day, there is really no place like home even though we feel places like America are better. I am a citizen of Nigeria. I try to stay as embedded in the culture as I can.
The ultimate plan is to go back someday. There is a lot of potentials that have not been maximized in Nigeria. Hopefully, I can play my part in taking the country to the next level.
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