By Red Denty
“I choose to be happy; I choose to feel blessed.
I know that I am favored by God, and I am nothing less.”
The lyrics above come from the first lines of a song written by 22-year-old Maria Anifowose and are just one indicator of the native Nigerian’s determination, graciousness and positive attitude.
These traits, along with a magnetic personality, have empowered Maria to travel from her two-room shack in Lagos, Nigeria, to Athens, where she plans to attend the University of North Georgia in January.
“My journey to come to the United States has been a dream my entire life,” Maria said. “But my real dream is not just to come here, but to study mass communications and open a communications school back in Nigeria.”
Maria is on the cusp of realizing the first part of her dream of earning a four-year degree from an American university, but getting to this point has not been easy, and as she puts it, is the result of the generosity of countless strangers.
Maria grew up the youngest of four children in a compound on a crowded street in Lagos. The small plot of land was shared by about 12 families who built their ramshackle homes from scraps of wood.
Electricity was scarce, and when it rained, Maria said water would seep into the dirt floors of her home and the walls would sink into the swampy ground of her compound.
With no closet or wardrobe, Maria stored her clothes in grocery bags that hung from the ceiling to keep them off of the wet ground.
A stack of plastic lawn chairs made up the majority of the furniture inside the home and served as pews for the weekly church services hosted in the small space.
Food, when it was available, mostly consisted of rice cooked over a kerosene stove, and on the rare chances when Maria would visit a restaurant, she would save the meat from her dish to add to the stew pot at home.
“We would have meat in the pot for the next day, or two days even,” Maria said.
With no running water in the compound, her family would fill a drum with containers of water from a nearby spring, a task that could take hours depending on how many people from nearby compounds were trying to get water as well.
Times were often tough for many, but that doesn’t stop Maria from remembering her childhood home with a smile on her face.
It also didn’t stop her from realizing her dream.
“I always like to say, ‘Don’t let your background put your back on the ground,’” Maria said.
“Doors started opening for me to actualize my dream in high school,” Maria said.
Placing second in an essay and oratory contest hosted by her state’s minister of transportation gave a 15-year-old Maria her first chance to travel abroad.
“My dream was weird,” Maria said. “My parents cannot really afford three meals a day. How would I afford to pay for a visa, for an airplane, for accommodations?”
She found her answer in the kindness of strangers, and through scholarships and sponsors, Maria, who had never even ridden a bicycle, boarded a plane and headed to London in 2010.
That experience only further increased her desire to study in the United States, she said, and the very next year, Maria was on her way to the states for the first time.
This time, Maria was headed to an entrepreneurship conference, and once again, Maria attributes her ability to get there to the generosity of people she didn’t know who donated to create a sponsorship or scholarship.
“In my head, I’m trying to reason it. I have been so touched by the love of others,” she said.
Doors continued to open for Maria, and in 2012 she earned a scholarship to the Ultimate Life Summit in Atlanta.
It was there that she met April Farlow, a motivational speaker from Athens speaking at the event, and sparked a relationship that, as Maria put it, changed her life.
For Farlow, she said that getting involved with Maria’s success was a no-brainer.
“Everybody who meets her loves her,” she said. “You just feel blessed in her presence.”
The two stayed in touch when Maria returned to Nigeria, where she finished high school, earned an associate’s degree and began teaching English to preschoolers.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Farlow was working to help Maria realize her dream of going to college.
“A lot of people have a dream, but Maria has a real opportunity to make her’s happen,” Farlow said. “I believe that we will see her a graduate of a university in the United States.”
Maria got her chance to apply to college when she returned to America for the third time in June.
She was chosen as a counselor for the same conference she attended on scholarship in 2012. However, this time at the conclusion of the event, she stayed in the U.S., living with Farlow and her family in Athens.
“I’ve trained over 10,000 people, but I’ve never brought anybody home with me,” Farlow said.
Maria is now awaiting an acceptance letter from several colleges, including UNG, and is eagerly anticipating her first semester in January.
But even after all of this, Maria says that she is a long way from opening a communications school of her own.
“It’s the beginning of a journey,” she said. “I have a goal, but I have a means to achieve that goal, and going to school is the means to the goal.”
“So many people come to the United States and stay here,” Farlow said. “Maria is rare because she wants to go back and make a difference.”
Already, Maria is working to make that difference.
Before her most recent trip to the U.S., she would spend a portion of her monthly salary from teaching to purchase books, uniforms and supplies for the children in her compound.
The fact that her monthly salary of 15,000 Nigerian Nairas is equal to $40 further illustrates Maria’s desire to give back after all she has received.
“If one act can transform my life, it can do the same for young people. That’s what makes the world a better place, that cycle of love,” she said. “What do they call it when you throw a pebble into the water? The ripple effect.”
That same philosophy is what motivates Maria’s desire to return to her childhood home and make an impact through education.
“If love can transform my life and my destiny this much, it can transform the lives of so many others, too,” she said.
The last line of Maria’s song goes like this:
“I’m full of hope for tomorrow, I won’t put my head down because I know I will win.”
That attitude allowed her cross oceans, build relationships, to be impacted by others and to make lasting impacts herself.
“I have a long way to go, but I’m going to make it,” she said.
To help Maria reach her education goals, please donate to her scholarship campaign at www.gofundme.com/eb5c3-marias-college-fund.