A student travels 8,000 miles to study at LPC as one stop on her journey
Securely strapped into the window seat of a United Airlines flight, Fatimah Mohammad wiped the remnants of tears left on her cheeks. It wasn’t her first flight to the States. But it was much different from all her other visits. This time, in October of 2021, she’d make this journey across the Atlantic Ocean alone.
An hour earlier, emotions overwhelmed Fatimah as she hugged her mother at the gate of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport and said goodbye to the life she had known for 18 years. But these weren’t just tears of sorrow.
“I cried in the airport with my mom,” she said. “But that was it, like, missing my family. That was it. I was OK. I was ready to let go.”
Excitement blended with sadness as she flew 36,000 feet in the air, headed toward a new life but not quite a new home. Fatimah gazed out the window and was comforted by the sea of clouds in her view. They were soft and fluffy, as they would be in a dream.
But she wasn’t dreaming. She was doing this. Changing her stars. Off to forge the life she imagined.
Like most young adults, Fatimah carries the weight of her parent’s expectations. But unlike so many her age, she isn’t governed by them. Instead, her steps are dictated by the intentions she has for herself and how she wants her own story to unfold. Completing her bachelor’s degree online. Not even bothering to earn a master’s degree. Becoming a flight attendant.
The vision for her life may not be what was “planned” for her future. But Fatimah is carving out a signature path, diverging from the blueprint so excellently followed by her older siblings. In distance and in social clout, Las Positas College is far from the United Kingdom, where her brother attended the University of Cambridge and her sister studies for her master’s at the University of Nottingham. Still, for Fatimah, this scholarly citadel on the hill in Livermore is nothing short of an accomplishment. It represents her independence, her audacity to be different and her determination to build the life she wants.
Leaving home was always expected of Fatimah. In Nigeria, such is the norm. In what is known as a brain drain, successful children maximize their potential in colleges outside their home nation, most commonly in Europe or America. Fatimah took her talents to the East Bay.
This is only a stop on her journey. Not home. That’s clear inside her apartment, nestled in Livermore. Barely furnished. Unpersonalized. Solitary. Her laugh echoes off the walls and bounces around the living room when she’s on the phone with her family abroad. It’s just about the only time her place even has noise. There are no trips with friends. No dinners made by mom. She goes to school, she works, she eats, she sleeps. Rinse and repeat. In that sense, Las Positas is perfect for Fatimah. This commuter college isn’t bustling with raging parties or sorority cliques producing enticing gossip. This place is set up nicely for her to exist in isolation, free from pressure and judgment. Here, Fatimah is free to be who she wants to be, and that’s focused, secluded and independent.
On the surface, Fatimah may not seem to have much in common with the students here. This Naija girl with mocha skin, wide eyes and short curly hair doesn’t fit neatly into this template of suburbia. But what’s inside of her, driving her, is much similar to many students. The pressure of parental approval. The yearning for autonomy. The ambition to take risks.
She traveled 8,000 miles from the comforts of home for the challenge of finding a new one. She, like many here, is on a mission fueled by determination. Her journey might be drastically different, but her motivation is familiar.
“I just want something different,” she said. “Something exciting, because I don’t want the adventurous person in me to just die.”
Fatimah was born in Pleasanton. But she had lived her entire life in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. Her family is of the Hausa tribe, one of the three main tribes in Nigeria, and they practice Islam. She is the youngest of three children to her mother, Bilkisu, and her father, Nuru — and a momma’s girl, through and through. Her personality is different from her brother, Akram, and sister, Khadeejah.
“She’s very focused,” her mother said. “And I feel she knows what she wants … She’s more sensitive than her siblings. And they’re similar in the sense that they are all very nice and quite easy to live with.”
Life in Nigeria wasn’t, at its core, too dissimilar from what many young American people experience. Normal in any sense. She got good grades in school — a boarding school not far from her home. She spent time with her family, hung out with her friends. And like every other teenager, she was in search of her true self.
With an ever-changing mind, Fatimah set her sights on journalism. Yet, that is but a stop on her journey, an interest to pursue while she works toward her passion. She isn’t sure what exactly she will do. She has ideas, but new ones come. One thing she was sure about was moving to the United States. Her siblings went to college in England, but Fatimah knew early that college for her was never going to be about following in her siblings’ footsteps. She was creating her own.
A month before her high school graduation from Lead British International School, Fatimah could feel the nervous energy and bubbling anticipation. So she started packing. Her 8,000-mile journey to the Golden State couldn’t come fast enough.
“I was so sick of Nigeria,” she said. “I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. So once we were done with our final exams, I was like, ‘Book me a flight.’”
It’s not like she hated Nigeria. It was her “home” for her entire life. Her rush to leave was more about her eagerness for the next phase. She couldn’t help the urgency she felt to move on with life and create her future. For some, it’s hard to do that if you stay where you grew up.
“You know when you’ve been somewhere for a very long time, and you just want to change the scenery? I was just tired of it,” Fatimah said.
Bilkisu and Nuru Mohammad expected what most parents do — that their child graduates from high school and pursues higher education. What’s unique about her situation, though, is the higher education part of this parenting equation is expected to happen outside of Nigeria.
It’s common in Africa for students to leave their home country for college, often heading west to one of the many prestigious schools. Fatimah left Nigeria because it was simply expected.
With several options to go abroad, Fatimah firmly settled on the United States. Born in the Bay, she always harbored the hopes of building her life here. She had ulterior motives, though. She also chose America because her dreams include moving to a big city and becoming a flight attendant. That’s her vision to capture the life she wants, full of exploration, adventure and new experiences.
The States are where she saw this dream coming to fruition. Canada and the UK didn’t stand a chance. Before even consulting her parents, Fatimah had already determined she was attending college in the U.S.
After rejections from four-year universities, Las Positas became her top option. She was informed of this esteemed community college, ranked No.1 in the state in 2022, by her mother’s best friend. Rahanat Abubakar lives in Dublin, and she has known Fatimah her entire life. When the rejections came rolling in, she gave Fatimah a suggestion that soon after became her reality.
“It was up to her. Left to me, I wanted her to go to Canada. Then at a point, I wanted her to go to the UK because I just figured that the UK has a similar education plan to Nigeria. So I thought, I mean, going to the UK would have been a lot easier for her. But then I looked at so many things. And then she said she wanted to settle in the US. So I’m like, ‘If you want to settle in the U.S. it is better you go and do school in the US,’” Bilkisu said.
The chosen isolation of her life at Las Positas is part of her calculated plan. A job as a barista at the Starbucks on Las Positas Boulevard. Four classes, all on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Weekends creating Pinterest boards and FaceTiming with family. She wants her life this simple.
Her first few months at LPC, last fall, were spent with her mom’s best friend, Rahanat Abubakar, who lives in Dublin and has known Fatimah her whole life. Her mom then joined her in January. Together they tackled her second semester in college.
It wasn’t the easiest of beginnings.
“She had to struggle,” her mother said. “But after a year, I notice she’s gotten to understand the system now. In Nigeria, they’re not so used to deadlines, where they give you things to do on your own.”
She doesn’t have her community of support and comfort here. It can be difficult to find your place. Bilkasu came with the intention of making sure her daughter was settled. Once Fatimah was set up in her apartment, Bilkasu returned back to her life in Nigeria.
“I miss her a lot,” Bilkisu said. “But, I mean, she has to go. I have to leave her to herself. I have to live my own life as well.”
Mohammad moved into her one-room apartment in the heart of Livermore. December of 2022, over a year after she booked the flight to a new life, she was finally on her own. Within the barren white walls of her living room that surrounded her cozy gray couch, not even a coffee table in sight. Just a couch, a blanket and a small space heater to keep her company.
She isn’t throwing parties or trying to find them. A good time within her hollow halls only exists over the phone. This loneliness is choreographed.
“I could talk to people, you know. I feel like everyone already has friends. So it’s like we can never reach that level, past class. It’s not real friendship,” she said. “After class, I would go to the cafeteria, I would go to the library. I’ve been everywhere on campus. I like to walk around and see, but after doing that for a while, I’m like, I’m just wasting my time. I’d rather just be at home, you know?”
Fatimah believes she is more suited for the online college route. The ASU online program offered through Starbucks is exactly what she desires. It will provide her the opportunity to get a degree from anywhere in the United States. It will give her independence, freedom and autonomy over her life. Fatimah has a loose idea of what she wants her future to look like. It may change and flux over the years, but the concept is key.
“I don’t want this again. Like, I don’t want to be in a place. Just go to work. Come do school online. I want to move somewhere, do school totally online and just be going to work and living my life,” Fatimah said.
Suburban life is not made for Fatimah. She yearns for a life filled with adventure and travel. She doesn’t want to be held down by one place. Instead, she pictures herself creating her life from 30,000 feet in the air.
For Fatimah, Nigeria wasn’t home. Las Positas isn’t home. Home isn’t a place or a destination. It’s with her family and those she loves. Her goal of flying all around the world stems from a sense of adventure. An added bonus would be building a life of many homes. Wherever she settles, maybe New York City or San Diego, Fatimah will have homes around the world.
It’s hard not to feel any pressure in life, especially from your parents. Whether it’s the simple things in life like cleaning your room or the bigger decisions you make, like where to go to college. There is always something or someone pushing you one way or another. Expectations are dictators ruling your steps and decisions. For Fatimah, the expectation to go abroad was not a light one.
“That’s how every Nigerian child does it. If you’re in Nigeria for university, then it’s like, either your parents don’t trust you, or they just can’t afford to send you there. When you even go to university in Nigeria, they look at you weirdly, like you have to go abroad,” she said.
Luckily enough, the decisions that came after felt easy. She had her sights set on the U.S. before her parents even had a clue. Las Positas has become a stepping stone on her way to the bigger picture. With a year left to go at LPC, Fatimah is holding strong. She is independent, self-assured and working towards her dreams every day. And she has all the support in the world to do so.
“I just want her to follow her brain,” Bilkisu said. “They have a lot of dreams. I always tell her, ‘Don’t give yourself limitations. Everything is attainable in life. It’s all about your mindset. There is nothing you can’t do.’ When I tell her brother the sky’s the limit, he says, ‘No, the sky is no longer the limit. It’s the beginning.’ And that’s what I tell her too.”
While there were questions about her coming to the United States, her mother is grateful they went with that option. It works with Fatimah’s plan, with her goals. She is not following her siblings to the U.K. She isn’t pursuing more than a bachelor’s degree. She is doing what she wants. Her path is no longer dictated by the expectations of her parents. It is encouraged.
The sky is not the limit for Fatimah Mohammad. It is only the beginning.
Georgia Whiting is the managing editor and photo editor for the Express. Follow her @gwhiting_.