How i’m struggling my way through the USA

It was a distinct honor when Mylène asked me to write this article for Irawo. I was probably one of the first people she interviewed when she started doing digital media. This was five years ago. At that time, I was writing a book called “Le Debut d’un Reve.” I stopped writing to focus more on my studies. But, guess what? “Le Debut d’un Reve” will be available at the end of 2018.

My name is Salim and I’m a Beninese-American.

I was born in Benin and spent my entire childhood there. I lived in Porto-Novo and went to College Catholique Notre Dame de Lourdes. I’m very grateful for the education I received there. The rigor and commitment to excellence made me who I’m today. Generally, I am reluctant to talk about myself but I think my story will resonate with young millennials and may convey an important very important message to my generation.

After graduating from high school, I decided to rejoin my father in the US and continue my post- secondary education there. My plan was to get a degree in business or applied math so I could return home and open my own business. Well, for those who knew me, I was always good in math. I was so good that when I used to get 18/20, the second highest grade after me used to be 8/20 (I’m still good in math). So, becoming a math major was an easy choice for me over biology and physics. However, I underestimated the challenges I would face trying to adapt to my new life, when I first came to the United States.

The first challenge I faced as a French-speaking African was obviously learning English.

I had never liked English before in high school. It was actually one of the subjects I was really bad at. But I didn’t have a choice; I had to learn the language. It took me about 6 months to be able to write and read proficiently in English. I struggled with pronunciation and still do. I honestly think English pronunciation is ridiculous. The words are sometimes not spelled as they are written. A ready example would be “knead” and “need.” I’m not saying that this is not the case with other languages. However, I think English is one of the few languages you might need to take a pronunciation class. I speak French (fluently) and Italian (fairly) and I’ve never had a problem learning pronunciation.

It took me more than a year after I came to New York to get my first job, thanks to one of my classmate in my English as Second Language (ESL) class. He was working in a supermarket and told me that they needed a night shift cashier and I would be a good candidate. I got the job and worked there for nine months. During the same time, I had started college classes and was in my freshman year. As I worked as a cashier, I quickly realized that I did not want to do that job forever. I was verbally abused repeatedly by my boss and customers because they could not understand my accent. One customer actually told me that I was so dumb for not understanding what she was telling me. In a rather derisive manner, she recommended that I should go get my GED! What she didn’t know was that I was in college full-time, while working. I worked overnight just so I could pay my bills. Eventually, I quit a few months later to focus on my classes because I had a lot of ambition and working a minimum wage job would not get me to where I wanted to be. I was jobless for like 6 months but, looking back at it now, it was well worth it. I could not have gotten those straight A+ in my math classes or those straight A’s in my physics classes, without being focused.

Many Beninese I know have chosen different paths from me.

I have had some tell me that getting a college degree is a waste of time. They would prefer keeping their jobs. But my question has always been: How long will you keep that menial dead-end job you are doing now? You must have a plan. I don’t judge what others do with their lives and I don’t see why anyone would judge what I’m doing with my life. Many Beninese who get a student visa to come here are talented people who, if they continue with their education, could benefit our country immensely. That is my point!

How long will you keep that menial dead-end job you are doing now? You must have a plan Click To Tweet

I’m not saying all of us should be doing the same. I just think we all should try what we came here for before giving up. I have seen some of my fellow country men and women who have made bold moves to progress and prosper and I respect and admire that. I think in order to be successful, you have to be willing to take some risks that maybe nobody else would take. If you fail, you could at least fell proud that you tried and, if you become successful, the world will know your name. The death of my mother in my first year of college changed my whole perspective about what I see myself doing with my life. Before she passed away, I just wanted to get a business degree then an MBA at a world-class school and start my own business. It was always about making money for me back then. But this sad event is one of the many reasons I want to become a doctor and use the talents God gave me to make other people’s lives better. In order for any country to develop, the rate of mortality and natality must be low. This is not the case yet for Benin. We need to work on making our healthcare system better. I’m not saying we need to focus only on healthcare; what I’m saying is that healthcare needs to be a priority and should be a place of prominence in our developmental plans.

At this point of my life, I’m getting my bachelor degree in mathematics with a minor in physics at York College of the City University of New York.

As I have stated, mathematics has always been the easier subject for me. Physics makes more sense when you are good at math, so it is the perfect combination for me. Since you don’t need to be a biology major to become a doctor, keeping my GPA up at least above 3.5 and having a great curriculum vitae was very important for me. This way I can focus on the Medical College Admission Test after graduating from college. As of right now, I’ll be completing my master’s degree in biomedical science at Duke University School of Medicine (SOM), in May 2018. Duke SOM has always been one of my favorite schools. It is among the best medical schools in the world and No. 7 in the US, according to US News. I always wanted to attend a prestigious medical school and I’m hoping that the opportunity to complete my master’s there would open more doors for me. For medical school, obviously, Duke is my top choice, but I’m also considering returning to New York City. New York University and Columbia University are my favorites.

Throughout my life, I have had many people doubt me but that has merely strengthened my resolve to succeed.

Among those who have doubted me are my own family members, especially my father, as well as my friends, co-workers and professors. My freshman biology teacher actually told me that I couldn’t make it to medical school with my C average in biology. I actually thanked her for telling me because it made me change my major right away. I don’t like to be around negative people. Nobody should be around negative people. I think the mistakes some of us make is we let negative people get into our head and we succumb to their cynicism. I choose to be extraordinary in the face of doubt and cynicism. So, let the doubters keep doubting and keep on being extraordinary. Recently, I started my modeling career. Again, people started doubting me. Being a model is honestly not something I had thought about before. But, after I started posting pictures of myself on Instagram, I caught the eyes of fashion bloggers and designers. And, why not? Being a model has made me more aware of my lifestyle. I’ve become more aware of diet and nutrition and I’ve started working out to keep a slender healthy body. I’m doing freelancing modeling right now and am building a large following on my social media. My goal is to sign with top modeling agencies in New York, Paris, and London. I’m also looking forward to influencing social media. Isn’t it a wonderful thing when you get paid to wear other people’s creation and post it on your social media? I came from nothing, so it’s always a natural thing for me to think about survival. For instance, how am I going to pay for my education? My master’s degree alone will cost me approximately $75,000. I don’t want to depend on loan for my living expenses in medical school. Be an influencer might be a short-term solution but I know it will be worth it in the long run.


One thing people ask me, sometimes, is how do I do it?

Some people think I’m lucky. I personally do not believe in luck per se. I’m a hardworking person, although I can be lazy. Let me explain myself ! I would play around all day, then I’ll spend the whole night making up for my leisure time, either by studying or brainstorming. I’ll also spend a whole weekend making up for the sleep I missed. Some people don’t have self-discipline and that make a lot of difference. I have also frequently heard people saying grades don’t matter, or not define intelligence. Well, it’s true that your grades don’t define your intelligence and a successful career is not based on grades.

Obviously, most doctors are not geniuses but most of them have good grades. Your grades do not define your intelligence but they indicate how seriously you regard your education. Do you want to have a neurosurgeon who did not take his education seriously perform on you? Obviously not, so my advice to young people is that you can never regret getting good grades in school; but you may regret not getting them.

To all those reading this and thinking why is he obsessing

…about grades and suggesting one must necessarily be educated to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty successful people out there who don’t have a college degree. However, those are special people and everyone cannot be that special. So, let me explain myself! If you don’t have any special talent (like me who failed at music and football), you may need to go back to school.

Salim, right

I remember, at one point in my life, I was so into rap that I stopped going to school. It was my first year of high school in a new school. I wasn’t really a good rapper but my lyrics were fine. People thought I was ok but not good enough. My mother put so much pressure on me about school that it made me realized, maybe, I wasn’t a good rapper at all. Maybe she was wrong and I was too but, to be honest, I’m happy now I didn’t follow that path. After that year, I got back on track with my academics and was even the top student in my class, while before I was nowhere near the top 10. That made me realize that when you found what you’re really good at, nothing is impossible. You just have to keep doing your thing, focus on yourself and let others think whatever they want about you. At the end of the day, everyone faces their own destiny, alone.

When you found what you’re really good at, nothing is impossible. Click To Tweet


Salim Gnabode

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One Comment

  1. Nazrul I. Khandaker

    Thanks for sharing your candid reflections, and by doing so, you are encouraging numerous individuals who had similar life experience to stay focused, remain alert, and steer the course towards a successful ending. Nice piece of narrative!


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