Sometimes a short conversation during a plane ride provides insights into cultures and geography, and dispels myths like the one that says elephants roam wild in the major cities in Africa.
Annette Charlie Eko Ngakam recalled that conversation earlier this summer with her seatmate who asked about her accent and where she was from, sharing that she grew up in Cameroon. When he asked if she saw animals such as lions or elephants walking around the area, she laughed.
“I told him, honestly, the first time I saw an elephant was in the circus. That was the closest I’ve ever been to one,” she says, adding that this close-up look took place while she was living in Buffalo before coming to RIT.
Originally from Bamenda, Cameroon, on the west coast of Africa, Eko has been able to share a bit about her country both in and out of the classroom.
“People don’t really know that there are so many countries in Africa,” Eko explains. “They view Africa as just one country. But, Cameroon is just a country on the continent of Africa. Cameroon has a lot of traditions, languages and tribes. You can tell someone’s tribe from the clothing and accent, just like you can tell I am not from the United States,” she laughs.
Eko came to the United States six years ago and lived for several years in Buffalo, attending Erie Community College, where she received an associate’s degree in telecommunications technology. She heard about RIT through school counselors.
“It was kind of scary to move to a new city where I didn’t know anyone,” says the third-year telecommunications engineering technology student in the College of Applied Science and Technology, “but I had to make that decision if I wanted to continue my education and do exactly what I liked to do. I said to myself, ‘If I can make it in Buffalo, then I can make it everywhere in the USA.’”
At RIT, she is an active member of the Women in Technology organization and a member of the RIT chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
“The first time I met her she was very quiet, almost shy,” says Elaine Lewis, program coordinator for Women in Technology. “But after the first meeting and being introduced to the others, she never hesitated to get involved. She has put so much into the program and has gotten so much out of it.”
Eko has taken advantage of the networking and professional development programs WIT offers, Lewis adds. She participates in the program’s outreach activities, hosting high school students for overnight programs sponsored by the Society for Women Engineers and volunteers as a tour guide and science workshop leader on a regular basis for WIT’s Girl Scout Saturday Camp program.
She represented RIT and the program at the American Association of University Women National Conference for College Women Leaders held in June at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was on a panel of young women who discussed increasing and retaining the number of women in STEM programs through training and mentoring. “I was very proud to go and represent RIT,” Eko says.
Joining WIT was a way to network with other young women pursuing degrees, and eventual careers, in science and technology fields. It also was a way to connect with others at a time when she had several painful losses in her family. The passing of one of her brothers, her father and grandmother, all within a span of a few years was difficult she says. But, the loss of her mother two weeks into the 2009 academic year was even harder to come to terms with, especially being so far away from her home. She and her mother were very close, talking every day, laughing together and encouraging each other, Eko says.
Unable to get travel papers in time for the funeral arrangements, Eko leaned on the RIT family she had made to help console her. Through her connections within the telecommunications technology department, the Women in Technology program and other RIT friends, she has found some peace.
“Every family would love to see one of their children succeeding in America, so my family opted to make that sacrifice to send me to a better school, a better education, so maybe I would have a better life and help them in return,” she says.
Her older sister encouraged her to come to America and provided funds for travel and tuition. While Cameroon boasts moderate prosperity, it is still a country developing a broader, municipal infrastructure. It will rely on its young people, like Eko, to help maintain traditions while influencing its growth.
“I’d very much like to return to Cameroon after graduation because my country needs people to build up the country,” she says. “Maybe it was my technical spirit that made me so tough to come to this big city. That made me bold enough.”