International students add enrichment, excitement and diversity to Stony Brook University, but their struggles and hardships often go unnoticed as they seek to blend into the American way of life.
Such is the case for Bisola “Subomi” Babawale ’21, originally from Nigeria, who got a glimpse of the United States at age nine because her father’s job involved international travel.
Although she initially longed to attend school in Canada, that did not come to pass. The United States was her second choice because of its educational opportunities and because her father was familiar with Stony Brook’s reputation.
As an artist from the age of five, Subomi would sadly realize that a career in the fine arts would not be taken seriously in her native land. But that would not stop her from creating; the process centered her and provided ample opportunity for her personal growth and self-expression.
Subomi would also come to appreciate the relative sense of freedom when compared to the more rigid Nigerian model she said restricted and discouraged curricular experimentation.
“What I enjoy here at Stony Brook is the ability and freedom to explore and truly find what I might connect with course-wise,” said Subomi, who is a psychology major and a geology minor.
Since she arrived on campus in 2018, however, Subomi has had to worry about much more than her studies — she has twice faced deportation due to financial challenges exacerbated by a volatile and mercurial global economy. Nigeria’s economic recession and governmental reaction to it triggered inflation. “My father was being underpaid and the exchange rate was so poor that the value of Nigeria’s currency depreciated,” Subomi said.
Things got more difficult when COVID hit, and last fall, her family was unable to pay the academic fees in full. Her father tried to sell some properties and her mother sold whatever expensive items she had but her three other siblings also had financial needs. So when her account was put on hold she was unable to enroll in classes, and eventually, her F1 status as an international student was also jeopardized. In spite of obtaining several extensions to come up with the necessary funds, Subomi’s academic situation remained bleak.
That’s when a friend recommended she launch a GoFundMe account to make up the difference and that proved to be the godsend ($80,000) she needed.
In the short term, Subomi hopes to pursue a PhD in social psychology. “If I do and I do it successfully, I would be the first woman in my family to have my doctorate degree,” she added.
Subomi aspires to someday work for the United Nations. She is drawn to the fact that diversity and inclusion is an important component of the UN, as is immersion in a wealth of cultures and perspectives. Yet she remains clear-eyed about her prospects of achieving that goal. “While I know it is very competitive and I am not going to end world poverty if I work there, that is my dream job,” she said.
Even as she finds her footing in academia and makes schoolwork her top priority, Subomi vows to explore her artistic side.
“So far, I would say my biggest achievement was getting into my first-ever art exhibition called RAW Artists in Brooklyn, back in March 2019,” she said. “I had reached out to so many galleries, open art shows and applied to a lot of art competitions. I got rejections or no response.”
Subomi continues to use the larger canvas of life and its lessons to inform her favorite compositions. Working primarily with acrylic paint and sketching with black felt tip pens, she tends to generally favor the abstract over the realistic.
A connection to her grandmother inspired her to tackle a piece that remains unfinished out of respect, she explained, because she passed before it was completed. A conversation with a six-year-old about unicorns and rainbows became a visual testimony that the overwrought adult mind can kill the inner child within. Agonizing over introducing herself to and painting a classmate when she was a sophomore in her first semester translated into a piece titled, “The Epileptic Dilemma of Perfection,” an exercise in risk-taking and wrestling with one’s fears. And a verbal assault aimed at Subomi led to a composition that began with an artistic outpouring of anger but morphed into compassion and forgiveness and recognized that outward behavior often reflects inner demons we are all battling.
Whatever the form her artwork takes, one outcome seems certain.
“I made a promise to myself that even if I never get to have my artwork in a museum or in a great exhibition, or go to an all-expenses-paid art school, or even have someone seriously invest in my art, I will still never stop painting and creating,” Subomi said.
— Glenn Jochum