FAIRBANKS — “My parents always had a desire to have at least a few of their children be exposed to other cultures and other countries because they knew that the world is so large and yet so small,” Louisa Moje, said, explaining how she came to America.
Moje was born and raised in Benin City, a busy hub in southern Nigeria. The youngest of 10 children, her father is a minister and retired engineer, and her mother a business owner. She visited England and the United States as a child and her parents wanted her and her twin sister, Odion, to attend college in one of those two countries. Their mother told them, “You just have to get good grades, pass the SAT, find a school, and we’ll make it happen.”
“We’d been to Boston and New York, and we assumed everywhere in the U.S. looked the same,” Moje said. “My parents’ only condition was we had to go to the same school, my twin sister and I. We got our admission to University of Wyoming first, and they also gave us a scholarship. We thought, ‘That’s a sign from God.’”
The sisters headed for America with a fixed image in their minds. “We looked at the map and thought, ‘Wyoming is going to be just like Miami.’ Then we got to Wyoming. It was the 22nd of January, and it was just like a freezer.”
What they discovered at the school and in the town of Laramie, however, was a warm and welcoming community, and Moje, a city girl by nature, found herself adapting to the pace of small-town life surprisingly well. She and Odion got involved in international student activities, and Odion was elected to the student council.
Moje completed her pre-pharmacy studies and was admitted to the Doctor of Pharmacy program. One of her instructors advised students to find diversionary activities to help relieve the stresses of the challenging curriculum. So Moje, who loves cooking and Nigerian cuisine, started a food blog, La Passion Voutée. When that didn’t work out as envisioned, she switched it to fashion and started modeling the clothing she wore.
Upon graduating, Moje weighed her options of either entering a residency program or taking a job. There were pros and cons for either choice, but she knew she wanted to be someplace small.
“I wanted to be in a place kind of like Wyoming,” she said. “I saw Alaska and thought, ‘Well, no kids, nothing to tie me down, no family here, I’m just going to apply to this place called Chief Andrew Isaac Pharmacy.”
After a couple of interviews and a visit, Moje thought, “I like Alaska, I like the facility, and the people seem pretty chill. Kind of like Wyoming. Maybe better.”
She was hired and, “A few weeks after graduation, I was on a one-way flight here. I knew nobody. It was the middle of June. I said, ‘Oh my God! The sun doesn’t go down. This is so cool.’”
As her first winter came on, however, she began to feel a bit down.
“Initially, I felt isolated, leaving all my friends behind and coming to a place where I knew nobody. I think it hit me around Christmas when I didn’t have my siblings or twin sister around me, or my African friends or my study buddies from college. But my coworkers were really nice. One said, ‘I know you don’t have any family here. Come over to my place for Christmas.’”
Her friends gave her gifts and treated her like part of their family, and her developing gloominess evaporated, never to return. “That’s a sense of community,” she said, still moved by the experience. “That’s belonging.”
While she enjoyed her work, Moje wanted further education, so she entered the MBA program at UAF. There one of her professors told students their assignment was to build a venture around something they felt passionate about. When it was her turn to discuss what she might do, she said, “I have this blog where I share my fashion and talk about my style and life in Alaska.”
When she pulled the blog up, the professor was impressed and asked her to show strangers her website to get valuable feedback about it. Too shy to meet people in public, she went on a business forum on Reddit and requested input. “I got amazing feedback and suggestions. I said, ‘OK, I have some work to do.’”
Between those suggestions and the help of her professor, she made incremental improvements. “One of the things he told me to do was share more about my African culture. Me being a Nigerian here, I’m trying to blend in, not stand out. I’m trying to be more American. I wondered, how do you balance the two?”
“After the semester had ended, I had this random thought of compiling the 50 best African print styles. Within a month my blog blew up. People were coming, asking me questions. ‘Do you sell this? I love this style.’ I thought, ‘Oh my word, the professor was right, I should have done this a long time ago.”
Her blog now includes fashion, stories of her Alaska adventures, blogging tips and more. Designers and manufacturers pay her to promote their brands and designers pay her to style their products. Readers pepper her with questions about Alaska.
Even though her blog has become a source of income, she returned to Chief Andrew Isaac after obtaining her MBA. She loves her job and finds the Alaska Native cultures she interacts with fascinating and in some ways reminiscent of her own upbringing.
Between a job that connects her with Alaska and a successful online enterprise connecting her to the world, Moje, who calls herself “the Accidental Alaskan Fashion Blogger,” has found her place.
“Someone asked me, ‘How are you so happy in the morning?’ I said, ‘Why wouldn’t I be happy in the morning?’ It’s natural. That’s who I am.”
Louisa Moje’s blog, La Passion Voutée, can be visited at www.lapassionvoutee.com.
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 interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.