Chibby Uwakwe is in khaki shorts and a blue-striped polo, sipping a peach smoothie through a straw in the side room at Tig’s Courtyard in Wilson’s historic downtown. It’s one of his favorite places, a revitalized space in a once-thriving district of paint-faded and stucco-chipped brick buildings that date back way before most, if not all, of Wilson’s citizens were born.
Soon, he’ll graduate from local Fike High School and NCSSM-Online and be off to college. Where that will be, he still doesn’t know.
“I have to decide soon,” he says. “By next week.”
Chibby applied to a dozen universities. Acceptance to at least one of the three in-state public universities — UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University — seemed like a reasonable expectation given the academic and civic engagement resume he had assembled.
But there were nine others on his list: Yale, Harvard, Princeton. University of Pennsylvania. Columbia. Duke, Caltech, University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins. These schools’ incredibly low acceptance rates have humbled even the brightest and most ambitious of applicants. “Reach” schools, Chibby called them. He knew what he was up against, but he applied anyway. “I never thought there was no chance,” that he would make it into any of them, he says.
A three-week span in March completely obliterated even his most optimistic expectations. First to respond was UNC-Charlotte. Then the others came rolling in. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, UPenn. By the time it was over, all twelve of the universities to which Chibby applied had returned with offers of enrollment.
“It was like a whirlwind,” Chibby says. It was so incredible, in fact, that after the first couple of responses he stopped sharing news of his offers with those outside his immediate family until all of the schools has returned with their decisions. He didn’t want it to be, “like, a week-after-week thing.”
It’s almost unfathomable. To get into college — any college — is an achievement of which any student should be proud. To get into 12 is nearly mind-boggling, especially when among them are schools like Duke and Johns Hopkins and Caltech. But to also get into all five of the Ivy League schools to which you applied?
Chibby laughs in near disbelief as if to say, “I know. Crazy, right?”
But it’s not luck.
“I want to succeed, so I do it”
“I don’t really say ‘no’ a lot,” Chibby says. “A lot of times, if I have an opportunity, I take it.”
He is the student body president at Fike High School, where he is in the school’s International Baccalaureate program. He’s also an ambassador for the NCSSM-Online program in which he is dual-enrolled. Too, there is his involvement in Fike’s choir, the cross-country team, Youth and Government. Outside of school he is a dedicated classical pianist who plays regularly at his church and in public. Before sitting down at Tig’s with the smoothie, he and a friend had spent several hours canvassing Wilson as part of the city’s Youth Council, seeking business sponsorships for a fundraiser to be held later this spring at Wilson’s Whirligig Park in support of a local non-profit.
Plus, there were conferences, competitions, organizations, and initiatives.
Talk turns to family. Chibby is the second of four siblings, all first-generation Americans born to Evan and Ijeoma Uwakwe, Nigerian immigrants who came to the U.S before starting a family. Though education led his parents to successful careers, they never pressured him or his siblings, choosing instead to encourage and guide and support them as they discovered their passions and interests.
“They just wanted us to make sure that we knew that education was important,” Chibby says.
Chibby considers himself self-driven and academically motivated, characteristics that have been in play since he was in elementary school where teachers regularly noted his effort while classmates predictably ribbed him for his studiousness. But he never faltered. “I just liked learning from a very young age, and it kept growing from there. I want to succeed so I do it.”
Chibby’s interest in academics led him to consider NCSSM’s residential program, and he knew fellow students from Fike who became residential students here.
But his connections to his Down-East community were too strong for him to be lured away to the Triangle. Enrolling in NCSSM-Online allowed him to continue growing the relationships he had developed in his home community while supplementing his IB curriculum at Fike with five math courses. He also participated in NCSSM’s Summer Research Internship Program.
Though it’s hard to imagine given his current engagements, Chibby was even more involved in academic and extracurricular activities as a freshman and sophomore. “Overcommitted,” he says. But at NCSSM-Online’s orientation program, he learned about the pitfalls of spreading himself too thin. “They really emphasized knowing your passions and doing things that you really love to do and prioritizing those,” he says. “Taking online courses in general makes you more organized and [forces you to be] sure you’re on top of your own work. That’s really helped me be disciplined in my academics.”
It’s also helped him to expand his collaboration beyond his home community. While his IB courses at Fike tend to be small — usually around 10 or 11 students for most of the courses — NCSSM-Online allowed him to “connect with a whole bunch of people from all walks of life across North Carolina.” A number of those students have become genuine friends. Quite often they and other Online students cross paths at academic activities and conferences.
Chibby is a firm advocate for NCSSM-Online, as evidenced by his role as an ambassador for the program. “It takes a very specific type of person,” Chibby says he advises potential students considering its merits. “It’s very different from the residential program. You need to be sure your personality fits the program you choose.”
As Chibby prepares to leave Tig’s for his piano practice space, a lady with a pastel green instant camera approaches the table and lifts the camera in greeting. “May I take your photo?” she says to Chibby in an Eastern European accent.
A sheepish smile forms on Chibby’s face. True to form, he does not say no. “Don’t pose, don’t pose,” the photographer says, and waves her hand as Chibby straightens his back and pushes out of the frame his sunglasses and phone and wallet lying neatly on the table in front of him. “Just stay like you were.”
Chibby eases. The camera clicks and out comes a small milky print half the size of classic Polaroids. She waves it in the air a few times, then presents it to Chibby as his image materializes.
Piecing together a plan
The few blocks to ProMusic Conservatory, where Chibby takes piano lessons, are a pleasant and easy walk with sidewalks clear as rural roads. Traffic is so light between the beaten brick buildings that you can safely cross the street pretty much whenever you please, regardless of the traffic light’s disposition. He’s travelled along these sidewalks since he was a kid. He hopes to one day walk the halls of a surgical unit.
“I’ve always wanted to do surgery,” Chibby says. “I think I started first in fourth grade. Being a young black student and seeing people like Ben Carson and things like that in the media definitely inspired me when I was younger.” So, too, did a television program that explored the connection between music, surgery and recovery from medical procedures.
Neurosurgery, cardiothoracic and ear, nose and throat have all been in the mix at various points. He won’t need to decide about that for some time.
“I’m very goal-oriented, so I’m moving toward my future; I’m trying to piece together a plan,” Chibby says. But he’s not going to box himself in just yet, instead remaining open to opportunity and new directions. “I do want to do surgery, right? But I want to major [as an undergrad] in biomedical engineering. That’s mainly for innovation and entrepreneurship. I don’t know where that will take me, but I’m very open to being dynamic. But I also know I definitely want to go to medical school and do surgery.”
ProMusic Conservatory is a community music school that hugs the sidewalk in an old, long, three-story brick building parceled up into various businesses. On one side is a print shop. On the other, a law firm.
“This is it,” Chibby says from beneath the shade of an overhang. For nearly 11 years he has been taking piano lessons here. He’s played recitals here, been in countless competitions and benefit concerts. He plays each Sunday in the youth worship band at Farmington Heights Church of God and accompanies his school choir.
From his pocket, Chibby pulls a ring of keys — car keys, house keys — and instinctively selects the one for the door.
On a riser by large front windows darkened by heavy grey curtains sits a Yamaha concert piano. Chibby pulls the cover from it, gently folds back the keylid, and has a seat.
“This is a piece I’ve been working on for about two weeks,” he says. “It’s by Maurice Ravel, who’s my favorite composer. It’s called ‘Une Barque Sur L’Ocean.’ I’ll play just a part of it.”
The music pours out, fills the empty building. Chibby lets the last note fade away, then lets his hands fall to his lap, the slightest slump returning to his shoulders, a teenager again. “That was just a little part of it,” he says quietly.
Might he play something else?
“Okay,” Chibby says and turns back to the piano for an “embellished personal rendition” of a traditional lullaby, commonly attributed to African-American slaves, called ‘All the Pretty Little Horses.’
Home and away
Wilson is the only home Chibby has ever known. It’s the setting of memories and experiences and relationships and successes that’ll he’ll carry forever. He could have left once before, for NCSSM and Durham, but his roots ran so deep that he chose to stay. But this time, if he is to chase his dreams, he’ll have to leave. And soon. The farm fields and deep forests of the surrounding countryside he’ll miss. So, too, the comfort and safety and the inherent familial feel of small-town life.
“You know a lot of people in town,” he says, “but it’s not [so] small that you know every single person. But I’m really excited, honestly. I’m ready to immerse myself in a new place and in new experiences.”
But before he leaves, he’ll have to decide where he’ll be going. One good option among many bad ones would be easy. But for Chibby, it’s like choosing between winning the lottery or living forever. Saying yes to one means saying no to all the others.
“It’s better than not having options,” he says and laughs. “I’m very blessed, you know?”
A week later, Chibby chose Harvard.
Editor’s note: This perspective was first posted by the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. It’s been posted with the author’s permission.