MECHELEN, CITY OF CULTURES – Data Science student Ikechukwu (The Gambia): ‘I’ll put my foot in my mouth when issues are brought up’

‘Oh wait, I’ll take out my laptop,’ Ikechukwu ‘Ik‘ Nwakanma (20) stops me right before I can snap a photo, ‘they have to know I’m a coder.’ Ik came from The Gambia to study Data Science, Protection and Security at Thomas More University in Mechelen. He aspires to become an ethical hacker after graduating.

Almost two years ago, Ik found himself alone in a strange country, anxious and unprepared for the cold weather. It’s nothing he hadn’t done before. Previously he had been to Scotland, the UK, and the US and before that he had moved around during childhood as well. But it was different then. For the first time, he was staying somewhere for at least three years.

For Ik, this adventure started during his gap year after graduating. He had always been interested in computers and was therefore looking into computer degrees. In the meantime he kept himself busy with online projects, like Phyton and C++.

‘I would probably want to be an ethical hacker, I mean, saying you’re a hacker sounds cool,’ Ik says when asked about his future.

‘Then I got a bit curious about cyber security because of the place I was interning at. I looked in the security and it was fine, although I noticed an intern had way too much access to things.’

One thing he was certain about. He wouldn’t study in the US. At first, he tried looking into an education in the UK, but then Brexit happened. Then he focused on the EU. His mom found Thomas More and the shortened period of three years instead of four. It seemed like a perfect match.

Mechelen central station, for most international students this is their first experience with the city.

I’m terrible at basketball

Ik admits that he hadn’t really thought about Belgium before coming to Mechelen to study. Now that he’s here, he can see truth in some stereotypes. One of them being their love for drinking. His teacher also once said that Belgians get very defensive over the origin of ‘French’ fries, but he isn’t sure if she was joking or not.

‘A lot of you guys are like Alcoholics. Are you going to deny that?’ Ik asks 21bis reporter Tharsice. ‘I am going to be impartial.’

When asked about the truthfulness of some stereotypes about him, Ik laughed. ‘That I’m good at basketball. I’m terrible at basketball. I was on the bench most of the time in high school.’ But Ik understands people think that way. It is also the only one he can think of.

Prejudice, racism, and discrimination are things he is not often confronted with. He even believes that it hasn’t happened to him yet. ‘The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing racism here was a while back. This lady was putting stuff from her car into her house and when she saw me, she sped up ten times faster. But I can’t really call it racism because I would have done the same.’

Under the influence

Sometimes, to adjust to new settings, we hide or tone down some of our characteristics to better fit in. Ik believes he has gotten quite good at it, mainly because the many influences he had during his childhood. He was raised in The Gambia; his parents are Nigerian, and he went to an American missionary school in Senegal.

To him, those four years of school were very formative. He wasn’t aware of many things as a side-effect the isolated education he received.

‘With all the events the school offers, it’s really easy to make friends.’

‘Sometimes, I’ll put my foot in my mouth when issues are brought up by other people here, because they’re a lot more sensitive to the issue than I am.’ He doesn’t really know how to contribute to more loaded conversations. Because of this, he often just quiets down in those situations.

However, it’s easy to adapt to Mechelen for Ik. He can especially link the peacefulness of the city to The Gambia.

‘It is just like Mechelen. When I go to bed here, it’s quiet. I like that aspect.’


Text: Julie Terrasse, Maria Białek & Tharsice Commissaris

Photo: © Julie Terrasse & Tharsice Commissaris