Nigerian chooses Appalachian for sustainability program; dreams of making a difference at home

Monday, June 20, 2016

Peter Thompson ‘16, a native of Nigeria, wants desperately to make this world a more honest, sustainable and less polluted place. To that end, despite a graduate degree earned in Nigeria and a lucrative job in the banking sector there, he researched the best universities in North America from which to earn a degree in sustainable technologies. He thought the program at Appalachian State University looked like a winner.

Despite short-lived confusion over the university’s name — “I did not think Appalachian State was one of the 50 United States!” — he chose Boone as his home from 2014 until this past June. During that time he earned a master’s degree in political science and worked as a graduate assistant for the Reich College of Education and the Office of Sustainability.

The transition was not always easy. Thompson, accustomed to a climate that hovers around 80º year-round in Nigeria, arrived in Boone on the coldest day of 2014. He said he never even attempts to describe it to friends back home, because they simply would not believe it.

Despite the frigid climate, Thompson said he found the warmth of friendship through the International Appalachian (INTAPP) program, making connections he described as “my first American family. There can be no better place,” he said about the university.

Thompson relayed that the relationships he had with professors and staff in the College of Education, which began the first day he came to campus when they drove him (“in a warm car”) to an appointment at the Office of International Education and Development, ultimately led to a job as a graduate assistant (GA) in the college. His experience as a GA inspired him to consider a doctoral degree, related to “energy, environmental policy and conflicts in developing countries.”

“Being a GA in the doctoral office (in the College of Education) was a wonderful experience for me,” said Thompson. “Seeing the studies some of the students were doing… being part of that process shaped my decision to become a doctoral student.”

The motivation behind his journey is at turns disturbing and uplifting.

During his undergraduate work in Environmental Biochemistry in Nigeria, Thompson realized foreign petrochemical companies were falsifying test results and returning polluted water back into the ground. Concerned for the health and safety of the land and citizens, he became increasingly frustrated at the willingness of those in charge to look the other way and to sternly advise him not to ask too many questions. Dismayed by the exploitation and poverty he saw around him, he said, “I felt I should be able to help more; I had no peace in my life.”

Changing policy was one way to alter the situation he thought, so he pursued a graduate degree in International Affairs and Diplomacy. The experience opened his eyes to the dynamics of international business and was, in his words, heartbreaking in light of the seemingly insurmountable odds against his uneducated and impoverished countrymen. His next decision was to board a plane to Boone with the hopes of someday returning home and making a lasting difference in education and energy policy.

Seeing firsthand the American perspective, and sharing his perspective as an outsider, have been important pieces of Thompson’s experience. “How the U.S. thinks is a reflection of how the world thinks, so understanding how Americans make decisions is helpful.” Bringing his experiences to Appalachian students and faculty has been transformational to them as well. “I had trouble comprehending the things my fellow students saw as problems to fix,” he says. “They are all problems that my country would love to have, we would see them as blessings.”

Thompson returned to Nigeria this past June where he will pursue a doctoral degree and continue his fight for education and equity in Nigeria. His time at Appalachian, he said, will not be forgotten. “I can’t imagine anywhere else offering the wonderful experience I’ve had here. The warmth at Appalachian is universal, and I will take it with me everywhere.”

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