FAIRBANKS — “When I landed back in Fairbanks and walked through those airport doors, I was relieved,” recalled Chidozie Menakaya after returning to Alaska from Lagos, Nigeria. “I thought, ‘What does that mean if Fairbanks gives me relief?’” Then he broke out laughing.
Menakaya, a pharmacist at the University Avenue Safeway, was born and raised in that city of 20 million in Africa’s most populous country. His family’s roots are in the nation’s southeastern state of Anambra, but his parents, both professionals, found success in the vast metropolis.
Menakaya’s mother is a pharmacist. He was drawn to the same profession. “I would volunteer in her pharmacy when I was young. I got exposed to the idea of drugs that could help you when you are sick, someone you could talk to for health advice. Watching her made me interested in pharmacy.”
Menakaya described schools in Nigeria as quite rigorous despite having limited resources. Universities, however, pose problems. “With the Nigerian system, you can apply for one major but be given another major based on whatever the school feels or your score grades.”
His Nigerian university wouldn’t place him in a pharmacy program. But since English is the country’s national language, he knew he could succeed academically elsewhere. So, when an opportunity arose to attend University of Texas Arlington, he seized it, arriving in the United States in spring 2008. For his postgraduate work, he was accepted into the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Worcester, where he completed the three year intensive program in 2015.
“After I graduated, I got a job with Walmart in North Carolina. I worked there for nine months, then moved to Fairbanks in 2016,” he said.
Menakaya first learned of Alaska via television shows and Sarah Palin’s nomination for the vice presidency the year he arrived. Still, all through school, he said, “Alaska was never in my plan.”
Menakaya had used up the year foreign students are allotted after graduation in North Carolina, and wanted to remain in the United States. However, as a noncitizen, he wasn’t able to fill his spot with Walmart permanently. “It wasn’t that I wouldn’t be a good candidate for the job based on my experience, it was the work visa that was the issue,” he explained.
He could only get the position if there were no citizen or permanent resident applicants, which wasn’t the case. “I loved my boss in North Carolina. She told me if it was up to her she would keep me, but it was beyond her power.”
Faced with losing his job in early 2016, Menakaya remembered an alternative option. “When I was at school, I heard about a recruiter for Safeway and the career center mentioned they were willing to do the paperwork for people going to Alaska. I thought, ‘Alaska. OK. I guess if I have to go there.’”
Menakaya started making phone calls and sending emails. He said Donna Bellino, with the Alaska Board of Pharmacy, was particularly helpful. “She worked with me to help me get my application pushed forward and meet the deadlines.”
He got permission to take Alaska’s pharmacist’s license test and scrambled. “It was a Saturday night I got that email, so I booked it for Tuesday. I had two days to read Alaska’s laws. I drove 21/2 hours for this exam. I had a cold, a fever, but I said, ‘It is what it is. You have to do this.’ I passed the test and I reached out to the recruiter.”
Within weeks, he went from being on the verge of having to leave America to a job with the sponsorship to get a work visa. He arrived in Fairbanks in March 2016 and started immediately at the North Pole Safeway. A few months later, he was transferred to the University Avenue store, where he’s been since.
Menakaya speaks warmly of his coworkers at both stores, who helped him adjust to life in Fairbanks and get on his feet in his new community. “My coworkers, if not for them, I think I would have been very lonely. It’s not even work for me. I enjoy going in. My coworkers are amazing. We laugh a lot, we talk, I think it transcends just work. I can honestly say we are friends. And it began in North Pole. They were so welcoming to me.”
He’s found customers and other Fairbanks residents equally kind. He recalled sliding off the road on his way to work one morning two winters ago and people stopping to help pull him out. “That’s something I was told Alaskans do. You hear that and you think, ‘whatever,’ but once it happens to you, you really appreciate it.”
Menakaya is grateful for what the U.S. has given him, and said he feels people born here can learn from his experiences. “I think if more American students from high school realized how much access they are given, the opportunity they have, I think things would be different. In America, you are almost guaranteed that if you work hard, eventually you will make it.”
Menakaya compared this to Nigeria, where even someone who graduates at the top of their class can struggle because getting a job requires connections. Here, if you graduate summa cum laude, “You will be sought after.”
On his recent trip home, he said he found the crowds and heat oppressive, and he missed Alaska. He said as an immigrant he now feels partly Nigerian and partly American. “I’m a blend of both, I think. I’ve taken parts of the American lifestyle and infused that with my upbringing from Nigeria. You pick and choose what you like and don’t like. It’s a good dynamic.”
Menakaya is unsure if he’ll stay in Alaska longterm. He wants to travel, and he enjoys living in places with more modern conveniences. But for the time being, he treasures what he’s found in Fairbanks.
“I’ve met some really amazing and warm people here.”
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Becoming Alaskan is an ongoing series documenting the lives of immigrants in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.