Overcoming Challenges Together for Education

Cordillia and Chima Agbam with son Chijoike, 2. The HCC students have won an award for
Cordillia and Chima Agbam with son Chijoike, 2. The HCC students have won an award for "persistence." (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

The recent awards ceremony was for students who don't have an easy time in school -- those who cope with learning disabilities, struggle to rise above poverty or are first-generation college students.

Howard Community College's Student Support Services had a special award to recognize "dedication and persistence," and friendly laughter rippled through the room as Chima and Cordillia Agbam, their 2-year-old son between them, stood to receive the honor.

It has taken years and a heap of dedication and persistence for the two, from faraway homelands, to reach their first college graduation day. Tomorrow, both will receive pins as graduates of the college's registered nurse program. As part of a class of 69 RNs, they'll also participate in HCC's 4 p.m. commencement ceremonies for 550 spring semester graduates.

HCC educators warn their nursing students that demanding studies leave little time for a social life, much less starting a marriage and having a child. So Cordillia and Chima were an exception.

"That's why they have been successful -- because of what they bring to each other," said Joan B. King, assistant director and counselor at HCC's Student Support Services.

Cordillia, 37, is quick to talk and laugh, and Chima, with his easy smile, slyly pokes fun at his study partner.

"She always wants to beat me in every exam," says Chima, 40, who, like his wife, speaks English steeped in the cadences of their native languages. Cordillia became an American citizen years ago, and Chima is applying to become one.

It wasn't love at first sight when they met a decade ago. Cordillia was in her 20s and had grown up as one of 13 children in a poor farming family on the tiny east Caribbean island of Dominica. Even as a girl she was drawn to nursing, enchanted by the crisp, white uniforms and the way nurses efficiently ministered to people at the local island health clinic. But when she followed family members to the United States in 1992, money was scarce and she had to work. She was managing a Laurel fast food restaurant when a robbery occurred.

"I had a gun held to my head," she said. "I knew that wasn't for me anymore."

Urged by her father to pursue her education, Cordillia trained as a geriatric nursing assistant and began working at the Lorien Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Columbia.

Chima had been a professional soccer player in Nigeria for 10 years when he came to the United States in 1994, hoping to win a berth on the DC United soccer team. He couldn't even get a meeting with the coach, and soon he was working at a McDonald's. The long hours of standing hurt his left ankle, so, along with a friend, he decided to try work as a geriatric assistant at Lorien.

Cordillia thought African men were pompous, and she said so, and Chima took offense. But he also noticed that she was there to help him when it was difficult to lift and move elderly patients. When his Hyattsville apartment was emptied in a robbery, leaving him with only the clothes on his back, Cordillia bought him housewares and helped him settle in a new place. There was something special about her, he decided.

They began dating, and in 1998, they enrolled in the licensed practical nurse program at HCC. Chima's love of soccer hadn't dimmed, but the close relationship he developed with an elderly female resident at Lorien helped him realize that with nursing, he could "make an impact on somebody's life."

Cordillia and Chima married in 2000 and finished the college's practical nursing program the next year. They took their board exams on Sept. 11, 2001, even as the nation was thrown into turmoil by terrorist attacks.

"We got so scared," Chima said. "Cordillia was very worried -- she had a lot of family in New York."

They worked, took more college courses and in 2003 had their son, Chijoike, whose name means "god of creation" in Nigeria's Ibo language. Last fall, they enrolled together in the college's RN program, an unusual move and one that college officials usually discourage.

"It's considered a very rigorous program," said Sharon Pierce, director of HCC's nursing program. She listed some of the requirements -- general education courses such as chemistry, English and sociology; medical textbook readings that amount to hundreds of pages a week; nursing skills practice in college labs; and work in clinical settings such as hospital emergency rooms.

"It is a huge time commitment," she said.

Cordillia offered to delay her degree and continue working while Chima went to school. He refused.

"Both of us have to go together even though it's tough," he said. "This is a promise I made to myself."

But even with Cordillia's mother and sister-in-law providing child care for the couple's son, Cordillia at times has felt overwhelmed.

"You don't have a family life," she said. "That's not what I bargained for. But you know, that's what is needed to move on. It's something that you want. It's like a craving."

For Cordillia, being the first in her family to earn a college degree is especially sweet. She'll celebrate tomorrow wearing a white pantsuit that Chima's family in Nigeria arranged to have made for her. The couple have been thinking about what comes next. They want to buy a house. They want to have another child. And they want to continue their education, earning their bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing. They will do it together, Chima says.

After all, he adds as his brown-eyed boy clambers in his arms, "that has been our strength."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company