Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 2000
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Abandoning her dream of becoming a doctor was wrenching enough. But then Joy Igonikon faced an even more painful prospect: breaking the news to her parents.
H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

Pride in Joy
By Joy Igonikon '00 and Dale Keiger
Photos by Steven Rubin

K e i g e r

On the first day of the autumn semester two years ago, I was reading names off the class roster and stumbled through "McNoriah Igonikon." I looked up from the sheet of paper and a young woman smiled broadly.

"Call me Joy," she said.

"Joy it is," I replied, grateful.

The class was an entry-level writing course, Rudiments of Nonfiction. There were 11 students, and Joy, a sophomore, was one of those who worried me. When we discussed readings for the class, her observations tended to be superficial: It was pretty good. At least it wasn't boring. Her writing exhibited many of the technical problems common to student work, but of greater concern was her difficulty with coherence on paper. Teaching writing students the mechanics is not that hard; teaching them how to think like writers is another matter. In a critique of an early assignment, I wrote: The revision still reveals some places where your thoughts are not quite ordered. It reads as if now and then you think of something you want to include and then just toss it in, without thinking through how it fits into the story. Writing is a process of ordering your thoughts and conclusions.

She could revise a draft and improve it, but the next assignment would contain many of the same mistakes. She seemed nowhere near as sophisticated as many of her classmates. She worked hard, she never missed class, and she always seemed positive. But as a writer she was struggling.

The end of the semester brought the longest pieces the students had to write. I turned to Joy's and began reading:

"I am scared. Nothing is working out like it's supposed to. I had it all planned out, but my plans are not working out. My parents had a plan too, but their plan is not going to work either. I would never have dreamed of the things my college experiences are showing me about myself and my future. And now, since my plans are out the window, I am walking towards a new study and future career.

"When I received my letter of acceptance from Hopkins during my senior year in high school, I was just stunned. Johns Hopkins University wanted me, a black girl from a public high school, whose 3.78 grade-point average shrivels in the light of the 3.78 of a student who graduated from [a prep school]."

She talked about the strong support, but also the high expectations, not just of her parents but of her congregation in the Christian Life Church in Woodlawn, a suburban Baltimore community. She spoke frankly of how she had come to Hopkins and struggled, not just to excel but to merely pass courses in mathematics and the sciences. Finally, she described how she had entered Hopkins as a pre-med student but now had decided to change majors, from pre-med biology to writing:

"The only problem now is how to explain all this to my parents. Nope. I haven't told them that I changed my major, though they did notice that I took fewer science courses on my transcript. Waiting to tell them may be a mistake, but I'm still afraid of letting them down, as well as Bro. Johnson and the others at church. The really hurtful part will be watching the expression on their faces. As I've said before, I value their expectations of me, but it's such a heavy burden to bear."

Joy's words stayed on my mind for months. At Hopkins, you can be lulled into thinking that all students are whiz-kids who work hard, to be sure, but who sail along as perpetual overachievers destined for golden careers. But for some, Hopkins is a long, daunting grind. Their stories are, in some ways, the more compelling. This is one of them.

"When it was announced that Joy had gotten into Hopkins, it was the talk of the area. People would come into our store and say, 'Thank God for you.'"
I g o n i k o n

Growing up, I always wanted to be a doctor. I had the toys and everything. I remember watching an infomercial with sick children as a little girl, and I wanted to help them.

My parents have always kept after me to do my work, even when I was doing very well and getting awards for achievement. Like any other kid, I wanted to make my parents happy. The way to do that was by getting good grades and obeying them.

I graduated from high school ranked 12th in a class of almost 300 students. I was in the honor society. At graduation, I got to wear a gold honor society stole over my gown, and sat up front in the first two rows. I was proud of myself, but still a little disappointed that I couldn't be on the stage as the valedictorian. Listening to the valedictorian's speech, I thought to myself that I should have tried harder, worked harder, and spent more time with my teachers.

I had applied to about 15 colleges and universities. Hopkins was not first on my list. When I began applying, I didn't even know Johns Hopkins had a university. I had heard of the hospital, but the college dimension was new. My dad said, "I want you to make sure you apply there," and I said to him, "Dad, they probably won't even let me through the doors!" I meant it in jest, but Dad did not see the humor. I was applying to Hopkins and that was an order.

I'll never forget the day we went to the post office to check for acceptance letters. It was early in the morning, on our way to open our store. [Her parents have a small store in suburban Baltimore.] I sat in the passenger seat with a pile of mail in my lap. The schools that I thought would accept me had rejected me. The envelope from Hopkins was a big, thick one. By the time I got to it I was so disappointed that I was wondering why they needed a big packet to tell me they didn't want me. I started reading it out loud in a quick, dull monotone: "Dear McNoriah...On behalf of the Hopkins community, we would like to welcome you to the Class of 2000."

"Dad, I got in!" I shrieked, "I got in!" Very calmly, my dad smiled and said, "That's great, Mac, that's great." I read the rest of the letter, laughing. Then Dad said to see if they had given me any financial aid. They had. My dad started crying. That's when I knew God must have answered his prayer. We called my mom, who was in Nigeria. I was almost yelling, but Mom, also very cool, replied, "I knew they would. Good! I'm proud of you." I couldn't sit still for more than 10 minutes that evening. I stayed up late and read the letter again and again.

I had flown to the moon and back. That acceptance letter was proof that miracles happen. It also meant that I could keep up with the genius-type kids and achieve the stuff they did. The opportunity to go to college with them was exciting and promising.

K e i g e r

Late on a warm spring morning, I drive out to Woodlawn to meet Joy's parents at their store. Damin and Lynn Igonikon are gracious, well-spoken people, somewhat wary of their daughter telling her personal story in a magazine, but cooperative with me. "Our name is 'Igonikon,'" Lynn explains. "It means 'we welcome strangers.'" They hail from the eastern Nigerian town of Buguma, which Damin describes as small but beautiful, a place where "people are prone to education." Lynn takes care to point out that their people in Nigeria speak Kalabari. Together Damin and Lynn own and operate D'Lynn's Store, a modest convenience grocery in Woodlawn where they work seven days a week. Throughout my conversation with them, a Christian radio station plays in the background as customers stop for cigarettes, soft drinks, and milk. Damin Igonikon is a man of precise memory. He came to the United States, he says, on March 2, 1975. He had worked in Nigeria for the U.S. Information Service as a press assistant, and came to the States to further his education. "I didn't intend to stay this long," he says. He earned an MBA from East Tennessee State University. He was already married to Lynn, and she joined him from Nigeria six months after he arrived in the States. She worked as an assistant store manager, an interior decorating consultant, and a management trainer. She recalls, "It was a struggle, really. We were not on scholarship, we were paying our own way." In 1991 Damin decided that he wanted his own small business and opened a store in downtown Baltimore. He moved the business to Woodlawn in 1997.

Joy was born in 1978, the only child. "She is a very good child," Lynn says, "a great kid. We're very proud of her." Which prompts her husband to add, "Joy is an exceptional human being. In the midst of a million people, she will win the friendship of every human being in a couple of years. We are Christians. She was brought up in a Christian home, to be God fearing. She's just worth a million number of children to us."

As the Igonikons remember it, many people in Woodlawn were delighted by Joy's accomplishment. Lynn: "When it was announced that she'd gotten into Johns Hopkins, it was the talk of the area. People would come into our store and say, 'Thank God for you.'" She recalls the reaction in their church: "Mr. Johnson, who calls her his daughter, was so excited he wrote a note and it was announced in church, and she was applauded."

During her darkest moments of uncertainty, Igonikon turned to her faith to sustain her.
I g o n i k o n

When I started at Hopkins as a freshman, other students in lectures would ask all kinds of intelligent questions about theorems and equations and laws of thermodynamics. I was always lost. I was furious at myself for not quickly understanding everything. Sometimes I actually thought I was retarded. Chemistry Lab was humiliating. My partner and I were always the last ones to leave, with no clue about how to finish the experiment, or record the results, or draw conclusions. My parents kept telling me to work hard and put in long nights. When I told them that I was kind of having a hard time, they said things like, "We expect nothing less than the best from you. We're depending on you. Our hope is in you." Not wanting to let them down, I put on my game face and hit the books again.

After my second semester at Hopkins, informed that I was on academic probation, I began to think realistically. I had just struggled through Organic Chemistry (I got a D), fought through Chemistry Lab (a C), and crawled through Calculus I (barely a C). I was so disappointed, I didn't even cry. I had used up my tears over failed exams that I had studied for all night. Maybe I wasn't good enough for this school. Hopkins was kicking my butt, and there was nothing I could do about it. The one thing I had to do was not let anyone know I felt defeated. My roommate didn't see my distress, nor any of my friends. My family already had this idea that I was strong and able, so I let them continue to have it.

It would look terrible for me to be kicked out of school. What would I say? In the minds of my family and friends, I would become a shame because I'd had the opportunity to study at such a prestigious university and let it slip through my fingers.

But while I'm thinking all this, I'm also thinking, But I am working hard! I'm putting my all into this stuff, and all it amounts to are C's and D's! Maybe I won't be a doctor after all. I cried at the thought of giving up a dream, but I also prayed. I asked God just what in the world He was doing. He wasn't helping me, it seemed, and I wanted to know why.

My parents got the letter about my academic probation and very promptly called me in my dorm room. They were very concerned that Hopkins was ready to throw me out. Mom straightforwardly asked me if Hopkins was too hard. I should have said yes, but I didn't. Like a brave little scout I said, "No, it's not too hard. I just have to study harder, that's all." I was lying. Not only was it too hard for me, I did not like pre-med.

At the start of my sophomore year, I changed my major, at first from pre-med biology to philosophy. However, I couldn't come up with any future in philosophy. I went back to the Office of Academic Advising and looked at other things. I filled out forms and became a Writing Seminars major. I wasn't even thinking about how I would tell my parents.

My sophomore year was the best because my grades went up significantly. But I was only taking one science course. My parents wondered why my report card suddenly had more writing courses than sciences. I told them I didn't have to be a science major to get into medical school. "In fact," I said, "medical schools are looking for non-science majors to diversify the kinds of students they admit. All I have to do is satisfy the minimum science requirements, take the MCAT, and keep a decent GPA." I wasn't lying, but I knew I would not be taking the MCAT.

Eventually I had to tell them that I had actually failed a test. It wasn't the first, by far, but it was the first time they'd seen a big fat F (in Physics) on my report card. It absolutely shocked them. That evening at home, all I could do was silently pray. They looked at me in disbelief. I didn't say too much and focused on the twists in the carpet fibers.

"An F, McNoriah?" my dad said. He uses my first name only when he's upset. Mom and Dad just did not understand what I was going through. They sat there and lectured me as if taking these stupid science courses was easy. All I had to do was study! Concentrate on this, work hard on that--I was sick of it. I was raised not to talk back to my parents, so I didn't. But when I went back to campus, I cried it all out, and prayed for God to help me do better if He loved me, if He knew what I was going through, if He had a purpose in all this crap, to please, please help me not to flunk out of Johns Hopkins University.

At church with Brother Kenneth Harper (left).
K e i g e r

Every semester, the Hopkins academic advising staff tries to help undergraduates who are experiencing trouble: low grades, spotty attendance, late withdrawals from courses that are defeating them. The Krieger School of Arts & Sciences reported that, after the spring 2000 semester, 34 students had been placed on academic probation, 10 were in danger of going on probation (pending resolution of grades), 21 had been required to withdraw from the university, four were pending withdrawal, and 61 had brought their grades up enough to get off probation.

Martha Roseman, associate dean for academic advising in Arts & Sciences, is retiring after 32 years at Hopkins. She has seen plenty of kids who were academic superstars in high school flounder in their first or second semester at Homewood. "Things were easier in high school," she says. "They just listened and remembered. They didn't learn how to study." Nor did they learn how to handle independence. Says Roseman, "They are here away from home and can do all these fun things. School is a pain in the neck."

Though problems can overwhelm a student at any time, most undergraduates in Arts & Sciences who experience academic difficulties do so in their freshman year. This is especially true for pre-med students and science majors who encounter organic chemistry--the dreaded "orgo"--and physics, courses renowned for their difficulty at Hopkins. In the School of Engineering, problems tend to set in a bit later. Janet Weise, a senior academic advisor there, notes that 5 percent of Engineering undergraduates land on academic probation after their first semester, and the number increases to 14 percent after the first semester of their sophomore year. Andrew Douglas, Engineering's associate dean for academic advising, notes that the school's coursework is cumulative. If students don't do well in calculus, for example, that will cause mounting problems in later classes. Advisors in both schools agree that problems cross all gender, racial, and ethnic lines, though Susan Boswell, interim dean of student affairs, notes: "It seems to me that the students who struggle the most are Asian kids whose mothers and fathers expect them to be doctors. And it's often not that they can't do it--they don't want to. And they can't talk to their parents. It's not an option."

When advisors identify a student who is in trouble, there are a variety of things they can do. Graduate students who participate in the Student Consultant Program instruct undergrads in simply how to be a college student. Some kids need counseling; Weise and her colleague Pam Carey recall times when they have personally walked a troubled kid to the campus counseling center. The student may be assigned a tutor, or a note-taker. The latter was Roseman's idea. The note-taker, a volunteer who has previously aced the course, attends class with the student and, as the name indicates, takes notes. The student must take notes as well, then compare pages.

"Eventually I had to tell my parents I had actually failed a test. It was the first time they'd seen a big fat F on my report card. It absolutely shocked them."
Says Boswell, "If the student's desire is to make it, there's almost always a way to help him or her do it."

Why do some undergraduates, who had to be highly intelligent and accomplished students just to gain admission, hit the rocks? Weise and Carey have composed an unranked list: immaturity, the notorious Hopkins workload, poor study skills, poor work ethic, personal crises, family expectations, drug or alcohol abuse, overcommitment (too many activities, clubs, sports, etc.). Some kids simply pick the wrong major. Some can't seem to ask for help until they're overwhelmed by bad grades.

Says Weise, "We really wonder what makes the difference. What causes one student to thrive and another not to? On paper, all things look equal for these kids. That's how they got into Hopkins."

I g o n i k o n

One Saturday afternoon, I was in my room. The whole floor was quiet. The weather was cloudy; with my closed blinds my room was dim and depressing. I had planned on reading some chapters and doing some problems, and none of it was done. I wanted someone to pour out to, someone I could be honest with. I was tired of crying and being frustrated with school. So I called Kenneth Harper. Brother Kenneth is a minister and one of the youth pastors of my church. To him I confessed all the insecurities and fears I was ashamed to tell anyone else.

First, he said that I had to tell my parents about my academic change. (I still hadn't told them I was a writing major.) That truth I didn't want to hear. But the second thing he said is still in my mind and my heart today. "Do you think that I would love you any less," he said, "if you were not going to be a doctor? If you were a janitor cleaning floors, do you think that I would love you any less for that?"

I answered, brokenhearted, "No."

Hopkins tends to attract students with identities all worked out. If reality collides with those plans, they face the frightening question: Who am I going to be if not this?
Now that I think about it, I can't believe that I felt so in danger of being unloved. In Jeremiah 29:11, God says, "I know the plans I have for you...plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you...and will bring you back from captivity." Or in my case, back from hopelessness. I finally realized that I am loved, no matter what or how well I do in life.

More than anything, I wanted to keep my parents proud of me. My announcement of my changed major was not comforting to them. My heart was pounding as I said the words: "I've changed my major to Writing Seminars." Then I explained the program.

"Why did you decide that?" they asked. "I was not doing as well as I had hoped," I said, "and this new major will help boost my GPA." At this point, they realized that I was not going to medical school.

K e i g e r

Lynn Igonikon: "Johns Hopkins is synonymous with medicine. We were hoping that she would go into medicine. When she decided to get into writing, we were a little disappointed."

Damin: "I was not disappointed."

Lynn, smiling: "Okay, let me rephrase that. We were not disappointed."

Damin: "Let me put it this way: Joy was disappointed. She thought she'd disappointed us. But when you get into college, you change your mind."

Lynn: "You want your kid to take care of him or herself. It's all about trying to have your kid get a good job, something she can depend on. By suggesting to our children, 'You could do this or you could do that,' we probably put more pressure on them than we realize."

Damin: "When I knew that my child had a writing interest, I wasn't worried at all. To me it doesn't matter. She will make a living at that, too."

Lynn: "We are Christians. We believe that our pathways are directed by the Lord. Whatever she chooses to do, the Lord will be glorified. I hope that Joy knows that we love her very much, and we'll support her whatever she wants to do. Joy's goal is more important to me than anything that I might want her to be."

I g o n i k o n

Now that I think about it, I was mad at my parents' expectations of me. It was like I had no chance to surprise them and show them a talent that I might want to pursue.

It would have been so much easier for my hard-working parents if everything were mapped out, if I had stayed pre-med. I would take the MCAT, apply to medical schools, get in, be a success again, be a doctor. Done. The money comes in, I'm secure and dependent on no one for anything, then I get started on a family. My parents and I had planned a clean, neatly drawn map, and there was nothing wrong with it--it just wasn't a map for me.

I have found that all the distress of the change came from focusing my education in one area, on a secure plan that I was too scared to have faith in. There were times when I seriously thought I would not graduate. I even thought about enlisting in the Air Force or Marine Corps as a quick getaway if people started asking me about school.

K e i g e r

Joy's dismay at the wreck of her "beautiful plan" sounds familiar to Michael Mond and Laurence David. Mond is director of the Hopkins Counseling and Student Development center; David is associate director. Hopkins, says Mond, tends to attract students who arrive with carefully defined career paths, with identities already worked out. If reality collides with those plans, says Mond, the students face a frightening question: "Who am I going to be if not this?"

Pressure to perform can come from all directions, say the counselors: parents, other relatives, the student's culture, the students themselves. Says Mond, "Their identities are so invested in doing well academically that when they begin to fail, that's really hard for them." Culture can play a part. For example, says Mond, "Hopkins admits a significant number of international students from many Asian countries. Asian cultures tend to value more technical fields: medicine, the sciences, engineering." David cites an additional source of pressure: other Hopkins students. He says, "For a student at Hopkins to not know what he or she wants makes them a fish out of water. The student body expects them to know what they want." There's an intellectual pecking order at the university, David adds. Students can be made to feel--by other students--that if they change majors from, say, biomedical engineering to something popularly viewed as less rigorous, they've been sent down to the minor leagues.

Mond says that about 38 percent of undergraduates come to the counseling center for help at some point in their four years at Hopkins. Some face family pressure, including conflict with parents. But often, say the counselors, the parents are far more understanding than the students imagined. Says David, "One thing that impresses me is how many really caring and supportive parents are out there."

Last spring, I examined my class roster for Nonfiction II, an intermediate writing course, and saw Joy's name. She was now a senior, one semester from graduating. I wondered if school had gotten easier for her, if her writing had improved, and what had happened when she told her parents that she was now a writing major. She told me they had taken the news well, and I grinned and said, "Well, writers happen even in the best of families."

In class, her work still had a tendency to meander from idea to idea, without the cogency that marks good writing. Sometimes, I likened her prose to a verbatim record of her random thoughts.

But in class discussions it became clear that she was more sophisticated now, more confident, a deeper reader and thinker. We read 10 books that term, and she was more assertive discussing them in class, more forceful in her viewpoints. I grade students on their participation in each class, and on more than one occasion, Joy earned among the highest marks. I was rooting for her, and when she asked for a letter of recommendation to a graduate program in health communications at Emerson College in Boston, I agreed to write one.

I g o n i k o n

My senior year was very exciting. I made it! My GPA from the summer classes I took was just enough for me to make it into the fall. I spent that summer praying a lot and asking for strength. This was my senior year, and I wasn't the only one who couldn't believe it. People would say, "Has it been four years already? It's like you just started!" Hah! If they only knew! My grades weren't the highest, but I was going to become a graduate of Johns Hopkins University. If only I had believed God's promise for my future when the hardships hit. Looking back, He got me into Hopkins, and He was going to get me out.

While ordering my cap and gown and finishing the last of my finals, I found out that I'd been accepted at Emerson College. Another miracle!

Even on graduation day, I experienced proof that every step of my life was taken care of. I didn't panic when the ladies couldn't find my name on the list to line up for the procession. I just waited. Eventually, they saw that their papers were out of order. I was actually pretty calm when the processional music started. And I was fine when we were walking out. It was when I saw two of my teachers from high school that the tears flowed. It was a little embarrassing. But walking across the stage I was the tearless, proud recipient of a bachelor of arts degree from The Johns Hopkins University. I had earned it, but I felt like I was receiving an incredible gift.

K e i g e r

Damin and Lynn were disappointed by the Hopkins commencement. They had trouble seeing and hearing, and Damin does not understand why the university couldn't do better for the ceremony than a large tent on a muddy quadrangle. But his daughter's graduation was a source of great happiness. "That cannot be measured," he says.

"We are very grateful to God," he adds. "He has opened a place for her. The future is whatever He destines for her. But we will be behind her 110 percent." Damin would like to see Joy complete her work at Emerson, then study abroad, perhaps at Oxford. He adds, "Joy will surprise you, someday, somehow." She already had surprised me with the power and expressiveness of what she wrote for this story. Her drafts required little revision. She had indeed come a long way in two years.

I am pleased that this kid made it, and buoyed by something said to me by Martha Roseman, who has spent three decades working to get students all the way to commencement: "You know, the kids who struggle to get through here tend to do very well once they're out." Hopkins is their crucible. If they can do this, they can do anything.

I leave the last word to Joy.

I g o n i k o n

I have made it, and I'm thankful for the pressure I felt and all the frustration that might have broken me, because it didn't. Rather than choosing an easier route through these four years of my life, I would pick this blessed opportunity at Hopkins again and again. And I wouldn't have had my parents be any other way but constantly worried about me and my future.

Who would I be without them?

Dale Keiger ( is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine and a visiting associate professor in The Writing Seminars. Joy Igonikon '00 begins graduate study this month at Emerson College.