Samira Okudo ('19), World Citizen

May 28, 2019

“In Nigeria, there is a saying ‘shine your eye’; meaning, to make sure that your eyes are open to allow you to always be alert and agile,” says Samira Okudo (Class of 2019).

Samira is, in her heart, a citizen of the world. She was 10 when her family immigrated to the Washington DC area from Lagos, Nigeria, and having now lived in the United States for the past 12 years, both places feel like home to her. In many ways, Samira says, “my morals and experiences straddle the Atlantic. Living in America, and as a US citizen, I am someone whose views stand somewhere in the middle of the traditionally conservative values I grew up with in Nigeria and the Western norms that dominate in the US.” Her extensive travels in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America have richly broadened and deepened her international exposure and understanding of local nuances. Recently awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, Samira will be expanding her horizons even further with a nine-month fellowship in Brazil, where she will work in close relationship with the US Department of State to serve as a cultural ambassador for US-Brazil relations by working with university students training to be English-language instructors.

Set to graduate in June from MIT with a joint Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Comparative Media Studies, a minor in Design, and a concentration in Spanish, Samira has well demonstrated her own agility, maintaining a very challenging schedule balancing her technical classes with humanities classes that provided an important counterpoint. 

Samira first came to MIT as a high school student participating in the MITES program—a six-week science and engineering program at MIT for rising high school seniors from across the country. The people she met struck her as very down-to-earth despite their obvious brilliance; she was particularly drawn to, and impressed by, the vibrant humanities and arts programs -- a combination she did not know could be associated with “MIT’s nerdy and technical reputation.” That experience completely redefined how she looked at the idea of a technical institution and what it might offer. “I wasn’t just interested in building robots or participating in science fairs… It was very important to me to feed both sides of who I am as a person. I chose MIT ultimately because I figured if the people were great, I’d have a great experience as well.”

Pursuing a joint bachelor of science at MIT, Samira managed to balance both sides of her interests, with a full schedule of technical and humanities classes. This can be especially challenging, she pointed out, because with many HASS disciplines “ideas take time to ruminate. With such a rigorous and demanding technical program, it can be hard to have time to let your brain process everything. A lot of students struggle with finding the time to read, draw, paint, write, or dance.”

But Samira makes it a point to praise the way MIT links creative ideas with practical application. She took on a Design minor under the Architecture department, which she credits for allowing her to embrace her love of art while also teaching her hard skills, like how to build furniture, visualize datasets, design games, and model 3D installations. She notes, “it taught me how to use and create different types of tools and spaces, and how to think of them—not only to acknowledge their beauty, but also the precision required to fit them within certain physical constraints.”

Exploring global languages and cultures was also an integral part of Samira's MIT journey. Having taken Spanish since the seventh grade, Samira chose a Spanish concentration in order to advance her skills. Interestingly enough, it was her fluency in Spanish that enabled her to apply for the Fulbright Fellowship in Brazil, where she also plans to learn Portuguese. Another expression of her inquisitiveness was her decision to take 21G.030 “Introduction to East Asian Cultures: From Zen to K-pop” in order to broaden her awareness of parts of the world with which she was less familiar. She was very struck by the concept of filial piety that was discussed in the class. Growing up in Montgomery County, MD, Samira saw that many of her East Asian friends had grandparents living with them. It was not until she gained understanding of the history and foundations of East Asian cultures that she was able to connect these ideas with her observation of the prevalence of multigenerational families, where the grandparents, as the heads of the family, play a pivotal role. Continuing her interest in East Asian cultures this semester, Samira served as the Teaching Assistant for Professor Emma Teng’s first-year "discovery" class, 21G.012 “Exploring Globalization through Chinese Food.” This experience illuminated for her the history of Chinese immigrants in the US, and “some of the difficult realities that they were able to transcend.”

Samira chose Brazil as the country for her Fulbright placement, partly based on a “gut feeling.” As she began to look into countries to which she would apply for the Fellowship, she says that “the topic of Brazil never came up as much as it did within the months in which I had to pick a country to apply to.” She adds that “even total strangers would somehow bring up the country, so it stood out because of a lot of serendipitous conversations and experiences that I was having.” Looking back, she also realizes that she was attracted to its blend of West African, European and indigenous cultures, explaining that, outside of Nigeria, Brazil has the largest black population in the world. “As my interest in the country grew, I learned that a lot of its cultures and traditions mirrored those I grew up with in Nigeria -- even down to the names of many of the country’s foods, religions, and ideas,” Samira explains. “I wanted to go there to experience a different flavor of the Nigerian part of my identity.”

Looking ahead beyond her fellowship in Brazil, Samira is interested in having a voice in the conversation on how we are integrating technology into our lives. “Technology is publicizing our lives and in such a scarily panopticon world, we need to find ways to maintain empathy.” Samira maintains that her classes in Comparative Media Studies helped her to realize the importance of these conversations.

Reminding us of the Nigerian saying to "shine your eye," Samira says, “I’m hoping I can be a voice for our humanity because an intensified focus on innovation isn’t always the best idea if our humanity is set aside.”