Chinwe Ohajuruka is an award-winning architect, a social entrepreneur and the team leader of Comprehensive Design Services or CDS Housing. She considers herself a citizen of the world as she was born in Nigeria but lived and schooled in England, Nigeria and Scotland. Today we talk about her journey to the USA – it’s a lot more interesting than you can ever imagine .
From Nigeria to the US
Paula: [00:00:00] Welcome to Chatting With The Experts. I have revamped this podcast because I’m trying to reach and empower the often-overlooked population of Nigerian, Ghanian and Caribbean immigrant women. These bold women have taken steps and left their mother and for the great unknown of the Western world.
Most especially the UK and the US. The conversations featured in this new version of Chatting With The Experts we, including myself will talk about contending with cultural shocks and how step-by-step we were able to overcome the obstacles that lay ahead in these foreign lands. Last but not least, I want this podcast to serve as a voice to this worthy population who at times feel voiceless, feel unsupported and we’ll talk about how we were able to use these things to overcome by whatever means.
My guest today is Chinwe Ohajuruka, who is the team leader of Comprehensive Design Services. She is an award winning architect and social entrepreneur with 28 years of experience in architecture, project management and green building. Her passion has always been to serve.
In fact, in college, she was nicknamed the “ architect of the masses” because her projects always had a relevant, yet difficult social dimension to them. She’s accredited as a green building professional in three countries, the United States, South Africa, and the United Kingdom… and in – how could I forget this part – in 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Cartier Women’s Initiative Award.
Welcome Chinwe way to the revamped, Chatting With The Experts. I love, love, love having you here.
Chinwe: [00:02:10] Thank you, Paula. Thank you for having me.
Paula: [00:02:13] So today we’re going to be talking about, as I said, things have been different from my previous versions of Chatting With The Experts.
One question I have for you is –
Can you tell the audience about yourself, where did you live and where did you have your formal education? Well, let’s start with that.
Chinwe: [00:02:34] I was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother. I started school in England, continued to school in Nigeria, finished school in Scotland and now I live in the United States. So I consider myself a citizen of the world.
Paula: [00:02:50] You sure are. I didn’t know all of that. Well, I should explain to the audience, I have known Chinwe for over 30 years and let’s leave it at that. Right?
Chinwe: [00:02:58] Let’s leave it at just that!
Paula: [00:03:01] So what made you decide to migrate to the USA?
Chinwe: [00:03:03] I didn’t even plan to migrate to the USA. I was living in Nigeria, comfortably, happy, working. I had a community, I had a company, I had work. I had a ministry and I came to the U S to visit my sister. And a few days before I left to return to Nigeria, I met a man.
And the, as they say, the rest is history, I went back to Nigeria. He followed me to Nigeria, asked me to marry him. And eight months later I found myself packing up all my worldly belongings across the ocean to the United States. That was 17 years ago. And I’ve been here ever since.
Paula: [00:03:41] Wow. Looking at you, I can see marriage has been good.
Chinwe: [00:03:43] God has been faithful. I’ll say that!
Paula: [00:03:47] So, so tell us about your transition here. Was it difficult? Was it something that you were like, Oh my gosh, what was I thinking? Why am I here?
Chinwe: [00:03:57] I didn’t really want to, or plan to move to the United States. Prior to that, I had sisters living here.
I had two sisters living in the United States and they had tried to convince me to come. And I said, no way, I didn’t want to come. So even though I fell in love and I was excited about moving towards my husband. I had a few reservations because I was leaving so much behind, but over time I was able to get a job in my profession and settle in it.
Wasn’t too traumatic, but I mean, I did, I did need to culturally adjust. There was a lot of adjusting that that’s still going on. You know, vocabulary was different. I spoke Nigerian English, which is different from British English or American English or Jamaican English. So my expressions were different and sometimes I realized I was miscommunicating or misunderstanding what was being said to me.
But over time that got easier and better.
Paula: [00:04:56] Okay. So did you have to do anything special or what did you do to make things better? You said over time it go better. Like?
Chinwe: [00:05:04] I prayed and I prayed and I prayed! That’s very important. I opened my mind to friendships. I tried my very best to ask for advice when I needed it.
I didn’t hesitate. I worked at a firm of architects that was very supportive, very open, welcomed me and helped me discover skills I didn’t even have. So I enjoyed working there and I did quite well, and I learned a whole lot. I made friends, I joined the African Christian fellowship. I just, you know, tried to make, create new networks.
Paula: [00:05:40] Right. Well, that’s amazing. And along the way, did you have, you said, well, the main thing was probably like on the cultural shock. What? Is there anything that stands out in the culture that was so different from what you were used to?
Chinwe: [00:05:57] I had visited the United States quite often before I moved.
And I had lived in England for a little while. So living outside Nigeria wasn’t foreign to me. But, um, one of the things that struck me was how political people were. I had to learn to speak correctly because you couldn’t say everything you thought. Whereas, when I came from Nigeria, people said it as, as it was shooting from the hip, there were certain things you couldn’t say over here because it wasn’t politically correct or considered polite.
I’ll give you an example, the word fat. I couldn’t understand what the, what the fuss was about the word, but I learned quickly that you don’t ever call people “fat”, that it’s considered an insult. Whereas in Nigeria it’s considered a description, a noun.
So, I heard a saying once. People said, “Fellow Nigerians, you’ve added weight is not a greeting”. In Nigeria, it’s a greeting. You don’t say that here. Little things like that.
Paula: [00:07:09] Okay. And so now what about work? Did you have to do any special exams? Were there any certifications, you had to get in order to work here in the United States.
Chinwe: [00:07:23] Yes, I did. I had been registered in the United Kingdom and registered in Nigeria and I realized that I needed to get certain certifications, to be able to fully understand the differences between what I’d learned and practiced in those countries. So I did get some certifications, but the main one I focused on was green building because I came into the U S at a time when sustainability had taken off.
So it was a refreshing opportunity to get educated and accredited in a field that I was extremely interested in and I thought it was very relevant. So that helped. I became a green architect fairly quickly. And I worked on projects as the green coordinator or as the green project manager or the green project administrator.
So that helped quite a bit.
Paula: [00:08:17] Okay. And was there, I mean, how difficult was that? I mean, in terms of. Getting the certification. Did you have to go back to school? Was it something you did online? Were there, you know any boundaries and were there any limitations?
Chinwe: [00:08:31] The great thing was that I learned as I went, as I worked, so I didn’t have to go back to school, but I did have to take exams and I did have to study, but my projects were the learning experience. It was very practical. It wasn’t academic.
Paula: [00:08:43] That makes it easier.
Chinwe: [00:08:46] It does certainly does. It certainly does. I was eager to learn. So the process was actually almost enjoyable.
Paula: [00:08:55] You say almost enjoyable.
Chinwe: [00:08:57] Taking exams is never fun, but it was almost enjoyable because I was learning about things I believed in.
Paula: [00:09:03] Right. That makes a world of difference.
So now you talk about taking exams. I know there’s a difference in taking exams in the British system and even in the Nigerian system, how did that translate? I mean, was that like, “ Oh, taking exams in America were much easier than taking them in England or in Nigeria? The reason I asked this is because this is primarily about immigrant women and how we have had to you know, adjust to living in a non Nigerian or living as immigrants, I should say in the U S in this particular case. So the reason for my question is which did you, I mean, how did you find the system in terms of examination processes?
Chinwe: [00:09:49] For a start, the format of exams here is mostly multiple choice questions and because I was coming from a society where we actually wrote essays, as well as did multiple choice questions.
I wondered how I could express what I knew only by multiple-choice questions, but I soon got used to understanding that the questions weren’t so much testing what you knew, but encouraging you to think about it. So there was a transition, but I had gotten used to it. It wasn’t a terrible; it wasn’t a terrible transition because I was coming from a culture that did do multiple-choice questions.
I was just not used to doing only multiple-choice questions. And I found, you know, I found learning was very practical. Very, hands-on not just knowledge based, but application based, which I enjoyed because being an architect, you’re working hands on all the time.
Paula: [00:10:42] That’s true. That’s true.
Paula: [00:10:43] So tell me more. I mean, now, so we’re talking about the United States.
I noticed that you are accredited and not just the United States, but South Africa and the United Kingdom as a green building professional. Now, how has that worked in terms of, I mean, all three countries and not Nigeria. So how has that been for you? Because even in South Africa and the United Kingdom, you’d be going as a non-citizen when you worked there, when you worked in projects or were these kind of like online things?
Chinwe: [00:11:17] No. I actually went to both countries. It’s an interesting question because the reason I went to the UK and took the exam, studied for them and took the exams and went to South Africa and studied and took the exams was because I wanted to find out how the green building systems in those countries were tailored to the country’s needs because I was invited to join the green building council in Nigeria and set it up.
So all of that was to give me a much more global perspective to green building to equip me to be on the board of directors and set up a Nigerian green building council. So I took all that knowledge back to Nigeria for a year and worked on the board to set up the green building council.
Paula: [00:12:02] Neat. That’s nice. So now we talk about Nigeria and you working for a year there- where you’re able to take some of them things or the knowledge acquired in the United States the UK and South Africa and put that to play there?
Chinwe: [00:12:18] Absolutely. Absolutely. It was a case of appropriate transfer of technology because I wasn’t taking what I’ve learned here and taking it to Nigeria, but I was taking what I learned about what was relevant in Nigeria, in the US and in the UK and in South Africa to discover what was relevant in Nigeria.
Yes, it was, it was a very good learning experience for me because I actually went to Nigeria and I found out that on the board that I was sitting on, I was the most knowledgeable. So I became a teacher and a learner at the same time.
Paula: [00:12:55] Yes. So you’re able to translate the skills you learned, from the USA, from the UK and South Africa.
Chinwe: [00:13:03] Yes. And I’m all about appropriate technology, not just adopting, but finding out what’s appropriate and relevant for a region.
Paula: [00:13:11] Wow. I like that.
Paula: [00:13:12] I’m like that. So you’re immigrating here has been very beneficial, not just to you, but it’s been beneficial to many countries and most, especially, I’d say your home country of Nigeria, because you know, from what you acquired from your certifications here while, I mean, we don’t take away your undergraduate degree in architecture from Nigeria, but from your acquired knowledge that you gained from the United States plus having worked in South Africa and the UK, you’re able to enhance and develop and educate the….
Chinwe: [00:13:49] professionals. Yes. The building professionals. Yes. It was very beneficial. What I worked on green buildings and the focus being on climate change, adapting to and becoming resilient to the effects of climate change. My heart was always in Nigeria because Nigeria has experienced quite devastating effects of climate change.
So I was interested in transferring some of the knowledge as to how to combat these effectively and in a practical way with buildings. What was more beneficial? Was that in the course of doing this, I found an opportunity to enter a competition to actually build green buildings in Nigeria. So it wasn’t just the knowledge I was transferring.
I was actually doing something concrete as an example of how we should be building to mitigate the effects of climate change. So yes, it was beneficial when Nigeria.
Paula: [00:14:44] Great. So, you just talked about that through that you were given an award, is it the Cartier Women’s award that you received in 2015?
Chinwe: [00:14:56] The Cartier Women’s award was actually the third award I received.
The first award I received was the African Diaspora marketplace in 2012 and that was a competition organized by USAID and Western Union and it was about Africans in diaspora in the United States taking technology as opposed to aids taking technology back to Africa. So I was one of the 495 applications.
I was one of 17 winners and my entry was affordable, affordable, sorry, Renewable Energy through the Vehicle of Affordable Housing because there was a need for affordable housing and there was a need for renewable energy. So I just combined that and we were able to build a little village in Nigeria.
So as a result of that little Eco village, we built, I then won an award with the National Geographic and then the Cartier Women’s Initiative awards.
Paula: [00:15:56] Wow. I love it. I love it. I love it.
Chinwe: [00:16:01] And the reason I was able to discover that there was a need was because I had gone back the year before to work on the Green Building Council of Nigeria.
So I had all the information at my fingertips.
Paula: [00:16:12] Makes sense. I like that. I love that. I do. So now tell me now what in your journey? Cause I listened to this, I mean, this is heartwarming…talking to other immigrants. How do you think your journey can inspire other immigrants who are coming to the United States?
And when I say other immigrants, I mean female, professional females in particular. Do you have any resources? Is there anything they can look for? Is there anything that they should avoid? And I say that because as I mentioned, this is primarily about immigrant women. Nigerian, in your case. Immigrant women who migrated to the United States.
Chinwe: [00:16:53] Well, the first thing I would say is don’t worry too much about being an immigrant. Don’t worry too much about being a woman go after what it is you’re looking for. If I was, if I experienced racism, I didn’t notice because I was busy. I had a goal I wanted to learn. I wanted to catch up. I asked for advice.
I opened up myself to friendships. Respect is very important. I didn’t see barriers if they were there. I didn’t see them. They were probably there, but I didn’t see them because I had a quest. If I was going to uproot myself at this stage of my life for my country, it had better be good over here. So I was going to make the most of every opportunity I asked for opportunities and I was given, I didn’t really take no for an answer.
I was willing to learn. I was willing to do the work. I was willing to spend more time to catch up. And, I was eventually rewarded. Nobody I went to ever said no. Nobody turned me down.
Chinwe: [00:17:58]” I got help when I needed it. I got resources. I took the necessary exams. Try and get accredited in whatever it is you want to do.
I found out that to take the professional architectural exams would take me a few more years and I had already done architectural exams in Nigeria and in the UK and I wasn’t really prepared to go the whole leg. So I found other areas. I found green building and I found project management, which are all connected.
In fact, they gave me an advantage. So there are many roads that lead to Rome, there isn’t only one way. Open your eyes, look for the path of least resistance and take it on. There’s always a way. If the door is shut go in through the window, but don’t be a burglar, you know?
Paula: [00:18:51] Yeah, that’s a good point.
Chinwe: [00:18:55] I had to say that quickly otherwise people would say, “ She told me to come into your house through the window.” I didn’t do that.
Paula: [00:19:01] You talked about being in the US where you need to be politically correct.
Chinwe: [00:19:03] Politically correct.
Paula: [00:19:06] Do the right thing. As we are wrapping this up – one last question. Would you consider yourself a success?
Chinwe: [00:19:16] Ooh, what is a success? That’s a question? How do you measure success?
I’ll put that back to you. How do you measure success? What would I need to have done to, to be a success?
Paula: [00:19:28] Looking at it specifically from the angle of a professional woman who immigrated to the United States, I would call success, in your case something that you just touched on. …looking at what you have, looking at what’s out there and seeing how you can work around it.
Being successful at analyzing or recognizing opportunities and going for them in the best possible way that can make you be but being a success of what you are. Being the best you. And without having to do anything that is probably illegal or anything that you would not be happy about at some point in your life.
So I’m not sure if I summed that up correctly.
Chinwe: [00:20:22] You did, you did. For me, the goal was to be a blessing. A blessing in the United States, my new adopted country and a blessing to Nigeria where I came from and the blessing to Jamaica, which is part of my heritage. So when I look back, it’s been a journey. I am still connected with all three areas.
I’m reasonably relevant in all of them. I’m able to give back to Nigeria and I’m able to contribute to development. So I would say that I’m not content. I haven’t reached where I’m going, but I’m not distressed either.
Paula: [00:21:01] I love it. I love it. Not content with being where you are, because you’re not distressed, but at the same time you still have goals.
Chinwe: [00:21:11] That’s correct. That’s correct.
Paula: [00:21:13] Well, thank you Chinwe for coming on to the revamped, the new, and the immigrant portion of my Chatting With the Experts. I intend to continue doing this with other women like you. And for those of you listening, if you would love to be part of this show, please just go to my website, www.chattingwiththeexperts.com and through the contact form there you can send in your application and I’d be happy to talk with you.
And for Chinwe, what’s the best way for anyone to reach out to you who has heard what you’ve said and wants to learn a little bit more about what you do,
Chinwe: [00:22:01] Look, look me up. Chinwe green architect, Nigeria, lots of resources will pop up.
My website will pop up CDS Housing. You can contact me through the website. There’s a link. You can reach me on LinkedIn also. You can reach me on LinkedIn. I’m fairly, what’s the word now? My name is out there quite a bit. I’m not hiding. Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure and an honor.
I wish you well,
Paula: [00:22:37] Thank you Chinwe. Thank you.