The Statue of Liberty and an American flag
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Editor's Note: While this article is directed to new immigrants, its precepts can be applied to anyone experiencing challenges in life.

When I moved to the U.S. from Nigeria I already had a veterinary degree, but it was nearly impossible to find a job without a green card or U.S. citizenship, especially as a Black immigrant with a non-American accent. There were days when I was tremendously discouraged and experiences that made me question everything. But I kept going. 

Whatever your journey, it’s going to take a lot of inner strength to succeed. Take what you can from these five lessons based on my own struggles to get a footing in a new country:  

1. Remind Yourself of What Really Matters 

I came to the U.S. for a better life, but in the face of new hardships it was easy to lose perspective. Keep asking yourself the questions that remind you of what’s most important: Why am I here? What brought me here? What is my dream? What do I hope to achieve here that I can’t achieve where I come from? 

Ask yourself these questions before someone else asks you. The answers should be yours and yours alone — you don’t owe them to anyone but yourself. Holding those truths close will drive you through frustration and difficulty. 

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2. Take Pride in Starting Over

I learned just what it means to be an African immigrant in the U.S. when I had to find a job. As educated as I was, the only job I could find was as a meat cutter in a butcher shop. It was debasing work that had nothing to do with what I’d achieved or the future I imagined.

Two weeks into the job, I nearly lost a finger. That’s when I knew it was time to stop. I didn’t even wait to get paid, realizing my desperation to quickly pay my bills and send funds home to my family in Nigeria had put me in a dangerous situation. I was trying to do too much too fast.

It got worse before it got better: I found a job at a local restaurant cooking and cleaning for six dollars an hour, but for every 12 hours I worked, the owner only paid me for 10. Then, I started over. I found two part-time jobs in sales and as a pharmacy technician. I began taking graduate classes, and studied for the veterinary board. If I wanted to create a solid foundation for myself and the generations to follow me, I had to put myself in a better position.

3. Grow a Thick Skin

Working the drop-off window at my pharmacy job, I had a stunning moment I’ll never forget. An elderly woman, maybe 80 or so, pulled up to pick up her medications. After I handed her the pills, she laid them on the passenger seat, then looked me in the eye. In a hateful tone she said, “You African monkey!” 

I thought I must have misheard her. “Sorry, what did you say?” I asked through the drive-thru intercom.

“You African monkey!” she repeated, only louder.

It took a moment to pull myself together — why would anyone say something like that to a fellow human? I asked her why she said it. 

“Because you African monkeys keep coming here, taking jobs away from our sons,” she said. 

There I was, far too qualified to do this job, walking four miles every day to do it, and I’d just been insulted by a customer I was trying to help.

Then I thought about it and I began to feel sorry for her. It’s a blessing to have dreams, goals, and aspirations, and more importantly, to be able to pursue them. To her, the job I held was likely the job she hoped her son r grandson could take one day — probably the best job he’d ever get. In the meantime I was just doing it to get through grad school.

You will most likely have better, similar, or worse experiences. Prepare yourself mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. Keep your eyes on the prize. Never let what other people say deter you, no matter how mean and condescending they are. Shake it off and move forward.

One thing about my skin that experiences like these taught me was that it had to be thicker. That was my first experience with racism in the U.S., but I knew it wouldn’t be the last.

4. Find the Right People and Build a Network 

I’d always been independent and unafraid to overcome any challenge. I was used to figuring things out for myself. But in a new, unfamiliar place, that wasn’t  enough. All I knew about the U.S. was what I’d seen in movies or on social media. I knew I had to put myself out there and meet people willing to explain what I needed to know and show me what options aligned with my goals. 

Anywhere you find yourself, try to build a reliable network of friends, colleagues and mentors. One simple rule of relationships: If you’re there for others, they will be there for you. Pay attention to  where you spend most of your time. You need human interactions, and you need to build those foundational human relationships and camaraderie. I found that many were willing to help me, but the best people were those who had experienced what I needed to learn about. 

5. Don’t Box Yourself In

After graduate school, I looked for public health research and international health jobs. I interviewed for veterinary residencies at three veterinary schools. But I felt another sense of purpose, and began to contemplate joining the U.S. military. I hadn’t been eligible in the past because I wasn’t a permanent resident. But after I got married, this was no longer an obstacle. 

If I really wanted to join the military, my only viable option was to enlist, naturalize, and then commission. It seemed like a terribly unwise step to relegate myself to a high-school diploma job and then fight back up to just below where I was before I came to the U.S. But that’s what I did. Despite my quest for the American dream of landing a good job and money, happiness was more important — and the real journey was to find my purpose and fulfill it. 

Life will demand a lot from you, so be ready. You will have experiences that prompt many questions, beliefs, decisions, and constant changes to your plans. Despite all the strategies I came up with and moves I made to settle down in the U.S., I didn’t account for the one thing that got me to where I am today —meeting my future wife. A life without love is empty. When you give love, you will receive love. Find love in your own way.

Always, keep the faith in yourself. Be your best advocate. How we perceive and conduct ourselves can set a precedent for how those meeting us perceive and treat us. Never give up on yourself, as I never did. My grandmother once told me that during tough times, you need to know that men can only slow you down, but they will never be able to change what will be, Your destiny is up to you.

Copyright ©2023. All Rights Reserved.

Book by this Author:

UNDERGROUND: A Memoir of Hope, Faith, and the American Dream
by 'Deji Ayoade.

book cover of UNDERGROUND: A Memoir of Hope, Faith, and the American Dream by 'Deji Ayoade.Discover the powerful story of one man's quest for the American Dream and spiritual fulfillment in "Underground". Join the author on an emotional journey filled with trials and triumphs, grief and joy, loss and love. Through candid and vulnerable storytelling, Deji shares his personal narrative with raw honesty and poise.

Whatever you have dreamed for your own life, however, you have imagined the next several years going, there is something for you in Deji's memoir. This is a must-read for anyone who has ever dared to dream, and for anyone who has ever wondered what it truly means to find faith and purpose.

Click here for more info and/or to order this paperback book. Also available as a Kindle edition.

About the Author

photo of ‘Deji AyoadeDr. ‘Deji Ayoade is the first African immigrant to become a nuclear missile operator in the United States Air Force and serve in three U.S. military branches. He’s a trained veterinary surgeon, combat medic, Nuclear Weapon System SME, Senior Program Analyst, and U.S. Space Force Department of Defense Civilian at the Pentagon. He turned to storytelling as solace from an early life of poverty and loss.

His new book is Underground: A Memoir of Hope, Faith, and the American Dream.

Learn more about Deji at as well as at