Student conquers cultural differences and graduates first in her class

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Ogenna Iweajunwa had the advantage of studying at Western Michigan University-Thomas M. Cooley Law School when she was already a lawyer.

The disadvantages were, first, that, as a “barrister at law” in her native country of Nigeria, Iweajunwa had learned a legal system very different from that of the U.S. at both the macro and micro levels; and second, she simultaneously had to navigate a culture that often seemed a mystery.

Iweajunwa, for whom English is a first language, says that one of the main differences she sees between the Nigerian legal system, based on the British, and the legal system here in the United States is in the criminal system. “At first I?found the fourth amendment a little difficult. Here it seems like everything is made to protect the accused, and the focus is on the accused. In the Nigerian system the focus was more on the victim. The offenses are similar but the constitutional guarantees are very different.”

She also observes, “Contracts law is kind of similar, but torts law is different. We didn’t even have insurance or insurance law — America is all about insurance,” she adds.

“At first I struggled to separate the laws in my head, and eventually I relied mostly on the Internet. But then it got easier and easier to keep the two  separate,” she adds. Her degrees in Nigeria were both in law: a Bachelor of Law from Nnamdi Azikiwe University in 2004, and a Barrister at Law degree from Nigerian Law School in 2005.

Because she could study it, the legal work seemed the less daunting of the two disadvantages. But often, she found herself challenged by the differences in the way her U.S. counterparts thought and acted.

The need to “do everything yourself” contrasted with the Nigerian culture, she says. “Pretty much everything is done on the computer here,” she adds. Though she was familiar with Microsoft Word, and had done Google searches, she said that, across the board, it was hard to get used to taking the initiative herself.

“It’s way different from home,” Iweajunwa says. “In Nigeria, most everything is just given to you, you don’t have to seek it out. Learning to do that was very difficult for me.”

Combined with hearing a lot of words that seemed familiar but meant something other than she had learned while growing up, Iweajunwa says she simply had to ask a lot of questions and rely on assistance from others.

“When you move from Africa to United States, or even from United States to Africa, you find yourself almost like a child, like you don’t know anything. So if you don’t ask anything, you don’t learn,” she explains.

She says there were always people, in her neighborhood or at WMU-Cooley, who were willing to help.

Something she has consistently needed help with, and found it, is caring for her now-six-year-old daughter.

Iweajunwa’s journey to the U.S. started when she married a Nigerian man who moved to Minnesota. Though she and her infant daughter followed him to the states, the marriage was not happy —?“he did not treat us well at all,” she says — and she found herself a single mother.

Working two jobs in Minnesota, Iweajunwa discussed her situation with her sister back in Nigeria. “She said to me, ‘It doesn’t make sense that you were a lawyer back here that you’re not one there,’ so I started applying,” Iweajunwa says.

Once accepted by Cooley, she herself chose the Grand Rapids campus. “It’s a nice place to raise a child,” she comments. Before moving here, she visited a few times and settled everything, at first continuing to work for Walgreen’s as she had in Minnesota.

Her daughter now attends Holy Trinity Catholic School, but the early years at law school were complicated by child care on top of the challenging learning curves on the educational and cultural fronts.

To say that she prevailed would be an understatement. In addition to graduating first in her class, Iweajunwa received the Presidential Achievement Award, the Outstanding Adult Learner Award, a diversity scholarship award from Miller Johnson, and certificates of merit (given to the person earning the highest grade) in six classes.

“Because it was all so different from what I knew, I knew I’d have to work and work,” she says. “I just worked so hard.”

Iweajunwa reached a turning point partway through school “At the end of my first year I got a 4.0. I was even shocked to get that... but after that I just started believing in myself,” she says. “It started getting easier for me.”

WMU-Cooley Dean Nelson Miller — whom Iweajunwa calls “the most wonderful person on this whole earth” — arranged for her to take an educational assistant position. She was able to quit her Walgreen’s job, which freed up some of her time.

An added benefit to being in the classroom, as well as assisting at the Academic Resource Center last year, was that she came into contact with many more students, and was able to expand her social horizons. She became a Westlaw representative, staffing a highly-visible promotional table where others came to talk.

Iweajunwa participated in the National Black Law Students Association, the Christian Law Students Association, and was a student member of the American Bar Association. She was a grade appeals magistrate, and served as Resource Editor for the Thomas M. Cooley Law Review.

Moreover, Iweajunwa wrote, along with Scott R. Melton, an article for the National Business Institute published in Nov. 2014. It was entitled, “As Judges See It: top Mistakes Attorneys Make in Civil Litigation.”

“I’ve found I’m very good at writing,” she says. “I want to do transactional work and I think that skill will help.” She plans to stay in Grand Rapids and hopes to work for a firm rather than strike out on her own.

During an early 2013 clerkship with Miller Johnson, Iweajunwa researched and wrote articles and memoranda on a variety of subjects. Mary Bauman, the well-known employee benefits and health care attorney, worked closely with her, and comments, “We thoroughly enjoyed working with Ogenna during her clerkship here at Miller Johnson.  Her passion for the law and helping others was evident.  Her legal experience before she came to the U.S. gave her insight and a very helpful ‘big picture’ view of a client’s legal problems and the steps necessary to resolve them.”

She also volunteered at Justice for Our Neighbors, helping refugees file their paperwork.

Her most recent internship was with Gruel Mills Nims and Pylman at the end of 2014. She assisted with a broad spectrum of legal tasks, and shadowed attorneys in court as well as in a variety of other tasks.

Post-bar exam, Iweajunwa has applied for additional clerk positions, including one — about which she has not heard back — with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, someone who shares her capacity for overcoming obstacles.