It would take a whole year to plan for one week. I hadn’t the slightest idea of how our team was going to pull it off. It was going to be a week filled with inspiration, sweat, motivation, tears, hugs, and hope, and for the entire year, I was going to be in the thick of it all…

My name is Omer Shaiyen, and this is my Crystal Stair.  

That one week is called Alternative Spring Break (ASB). This is a time where college students “forfeit” the luxuries of a traditional beach-filled Spring Break to go into underserved communities both domestically and abroad. When I got to Howard University, I knew I wanted to get involved in the community but did not imagine participating in such an amazing program. 

I first joined the student-led steering committee in 2015. I served as one of the program directors coordinating the community-building efforts of 400+ students in about ten US states and two other countries. At the time, I was taking 20 credits and was incredibly introverted. I had no business putting more on my plate or coming out of my shell. As an international student, I also didn’t know much about these communities we would be going to. I had to learn a lot. And quickly. 

From the comfortable life of just going to class and having a low-key life to the sometimes high-stress, high engagement and unpredictable planning of this week, I learned organization, team building, and resourcefulness. I fell in love with this new life and had the privilege to work with the program until I graduated. Moments spanning those three years would be my most challenging and rewarding. ASB taught me the power of one question:

If today is my last day, did I add value?

I was reminded of this from a call I got in 2016. It was an unknown New Orleans number which I didn’t want to pick up…but I did. A young girl on the other side answered, “Hi, it’s Madison!” She was one of the students we had worked with a year earlier in New Orleans. We spent that week mentoring kids at a home school, helping out local businesses and cleaning up communities still devastated by Hurricane Katrina almost ten years later. The fact that this girl remembered our group and called to say hi warmed my heart. It also made me realize that I had taken our impact for granted. It changed how I operated from that moment. 

Being an International Student 

One thing that I think a lot of people overlook is that you have to be more than just smart to be an International Student. It’s more than just traveling from one country to another to study. Most times, it’s nothing like you’re used to. You’re changing the entire way you interact, your diet and the kind of clothes you wear. You have to make new friends and adjust yourself to the laws and social norms of an entirely new place. I left Nigeria in 2014 for college; I left my family, too. I didn’t have the luxury of seeing them every holiday. In fact, since the time I left, I was unable to see my parents until my graduation 4 years later. 

I always thought there to be a special relationship between international students because of the struggles we relate to. Most of us struggle to get a visa to study abroad then get there, get good grades, adapt to the new environment and then find out that we can’t benefit from the same opportunities as everyone because we’re not citizens. To diligent, motivated and brilliant students whose families sacrificed a lot for them to get to that point, this can be devastating. The beautiful thing is that through it all, we stick together and push through, creating bonds that last. When it all works out, we know what it was worth and make the best of our opportunities.

On Black Men

I’m grateful for my time in the US and at Howard especially. Going to a historically Black university is usually not the first choice where I’m from. A lot of parents want their kids to go to the most “prestigious” schools and don’t put HBCUs in that category. Even to Africans, negative stereotypes of African-Americans have been perpetuated through the media. If I didn’t study at Howard, it would have taken me much longer to find the well-concealed suffering and contribution of Black people in America’s history. Since going to Howard, I’ve changed the way I see myself as a black man in the world.

In Nigeria, like many other African countries, it’s no different. Large parts of our history have been kept from us and we’ve been left with mainly post-colonial memories leading to a lost identity and destruction of so many of our communities. Because of this, I have decided to put more effort into learning our history to re-imagine the future. 

To young black men and women, if you want to make meaningful change, here are a few suggestions:

  • Know who you are and start with improving yourself holistically; from sleeping well to overcoming your fears. 
  • Realize that your time, attention and energy are very important assets; spend them on the few things that matter. 
  • Listen more and talk less. Sometimes you need the silence to hear yourself.

After being a better version of yourself, seek to change your community. Know your history, share it, find new avenues to make a change and follow through to add value one person at a time.

It’s your responsibility.