Felicia Ikpum kissed her only child goodbye four years ago, sending him off to America for a chance at a better life.
Already 6-foot-7 at 14 years old, Michael Tertsea had an opportunity to receive an education and play basketball at a Catholic high school in Maryland. But it meant leaving his village in Nigeria where, for as long as he could remember, his mom was his whole world. He barely remembers his father, who abandoned them when he was about 5 years old.
Four years later, Tertsea, now 6-foot-10, is graduating Saturday and has a full ride to play Division 1 basketball at the University of Rhode Island. He dreams that one day he’ll make it to the National Basketball Association and be able to bring his mother to the United States.
But his senior classmates at the John Carroll School, who call him a “gentle giant,” didn’t want Tertsea to have to wait to get to the NBA to see his mother again. So they decided to raise the money among themselves to fly her to United States to see Tertsea graduate.
It was meant to be a surprise, but Ikpum couldn’t keep the secret and let slip on one of their weekly phone calls. Still, Tertsea didn’t quite believe it until he stood at the Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport arrivals gate last Friday and embraced her for the first time in four years.
She looked him up — way up — and down. She said she barely recognized her son who left her as a boy and stood in front of her as a man.
“I was so happy to see her,” Tertsea said. “I’ve changed a lot. … she’s been amazed at the person I’ve become.”
Tertsea says he didn’t grow up poor, but there were nights when his mother went to bed hungry because there wasn’t enough food for both of them. Electricity or running water in the village was spotty. But his mother had a steady job at an immigration office that gave her a window into the possibilities for her son. A cousin already living in the United States found him the opportunity at John Carroll.
John Carroll has an international student program that recruits from all around the world. About 10 percent of its student body is international — a miniature melting pot in Bel Air, Md.
Encouraging her son to pursue an education in the United States was “the most difficult decision I ever made in my life,” Ikpum said. But also the most rewarding.
Tertsea lived his first year in the school’s dormitory, but has been with a host family for the past three years. He has come to love pizza — a food once as foreign to him as his new home. He loves “The Big Bang Theory.” And of course, playing basketball.
His high school coach, Tony Martin, said even playing in an indoor gymnasium — rather than a makeshift outdoor court — was a cultural adjustment. But Tertsea has thrived, he said.
“When Mike arrived he was very introverted, shy and lacked self confidence,” Martin said. “Over the four years you’ve seen him grow into a leader in the community and certainly within our basketball program. Often I’d see him with his arm around one of the students, being a mentor.”
Martin, who has coached there for 11 years, has become like a father to Tertsea. Martin also grew up never knowing his father, so he fills that void for his fatherless players.
“He and I bonded on that front, and we’ll have a lifelong relationship,” Martin said.
In February, Tertsea was profiled by the student newspaper. It mentioned that Tertsea hadn’t seen his mom since he’d come to the United States. In a senior class group chat, the students decided they wanted to collect money to pay for her to come to graduation. They pulled together $1,600, while a school coordinator worked to ensure Ikpum could get a visa in time. When it was confirmed, the faculty chipped in another $500 to pay for the trip.
Ikpum traveled nearly 12 hours to Lagos where she got on a flight — her first time on an airplane — to London and then from London to Baltimore.
Since she has arrived, Tertsea said his mom has been in awe of the paved highways and his computerized school. She tried pasta for the first time. She was especially impressed with the supermarket and its abundance of food. After graduation and before she returns to Nigeria next week, he plans to take her to Washington to see the monuments and the White House. They plan to go to Ocean City, Md., for the boardwalk and beach and to Baltimore to see the National Aquarium.
Tertsea was amazed at how his friends made the reunion happen. For him, it’s the best part about coming to the United States — “seeing a lot of people who show love and care towards me,” he said, “makes me feel at home.”
“He’s so humble and appreciative. Even though he didn’t have his mom with him, he feels like he has a family here,” said Kishan Patel, a senior who wrote the story about Tertsea.
His mom, who already attended a Baccalaureate Mass on Wednesday for seniors and their families, said it will “feel great” to see her son graduate — all of her dreams for him coming true.
“I think America is great, with wonderful people,” she said. “No wonder everybody wants to come here. And I thank the people that have made it possible for me to be in this wonderful place.”