By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Patience Bruns, 40, couldn't have plotted her climb from poverty on a graph three years ago.
In fact, the Nigerian nursing student had never seen a mathematical chart with X and Y coordinates until she walked into Claire Don's introduction to algebra class at John Wood Community College.
She had completed secondary school in Africa, but the mango trees outside her classroom interested her more than her math schoolbooks. While her classmates in Nigeria worked through problems indoors, she leapt from the window, dashed into the fields, climbed the trees and reached for mangos.
Throughout her life, she's never stopped reaching.
As Bruns spoke about struggling through math homework, cleaning homes to pay bills and utilizing the food pantry, a delicate gold chain around her neck alluded to a past filled with finer things.
Before she immigrated to the United States three years ago, she spent 10 years building a successful gold business in Nigeria. As her business expanded, her wealth did, too. She had grown up sleeping on the floor in a house crowded with eight other siblings and eating meals with her hands from a large communal tray. The family had little money, but Bruns, the eldest child, was rich in spirit. When her business boomed, she moved into a modern home and employed a servant to do her cooking and cleaning.
Ten years later, she traded that wealth for a humble new beginning in the United States.
"I think I can grow again," she said. "If I put my heart in there, I can grow to anything."
Monica Foster, adult education coordinator at JWCC, said the college enrolls roughly a dozen immigrant students each year. Most attend English as a Second Language courses, and some work toward their GED, but Bruns falls into the minority who has pursued higher education.
"She's willing to put the time in and the work in," Foster said. "She's very outgoing."
Community colleges enroll nearly half of all the 6.5 million undergraduates in this country, and 24 percent of those come from an immigrant background, according to the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education. Statistically, those from Africa and Asia achieve higher levels of education than other immigrant groups. Forty-four percent of African immigrants have earned bachelor's degrees.
"If they were working or fairly educated in their own country, then (often) they have that drive," Foster said.
Don has seen that commitment in Bruns from the first class. Bruns has no mango tree to run to when equations frustrate her, so Don fills that void. The equations and problems Bruns sees in her schoolbooks are just as foreign to her as the recipes in American cookbooks. Until she immigrated, she had never seen numbers with exponents or prepared a spaghetti dinner.
"I ended up finishing my schooling without knowing a+b-2b," Bruns said. "The only kind of math I knew was how to calculate my profits."
Don won't let math stall the nursing student's education.
Bruns had built a prosperous life for herself in Nigeria, and she believes she's capable of achieving success in the United States, too. As she talks about her goals, her determination overshadows her African accent. Bruns has struggled with math but thrived within the community. She formed deep connections with the congregation at Faith Assembly of God Church and the entire JWCC community.
"Everyone I've come into contact with has shown me love," Bruns said. "People struggle a lot in Africa, but they are poor because society doesn't encourage you to grow. Here, there's that opportunity for you to expand."
That expansion began with the man of her dreams. During a vacation to the United States, she dreamed about walking along the riverbanks and holding a golden wedding band. She met a husband shortly after and decided to immigrate. She believed the wealth she'd accrued through her gold business in Nigeria wasn't as important as her happiness.
"I had reached a point where I wanted a change in my life, and in Africa, we take our dreams very seriously," she said.
With that dream came a new climb and a chance to reinvent herself.
She bought a mannequin, watched YouTube videos and taught herself African braiding. She printed advertisements for her own housecleaning services, even though she had never cleaned her own home in Nigeria. Bruns, her husband and two daughters live a content but simple life as they've saved for her nursing degree. The move to the United States had given her an opportunity to pursue a career dedicated to helping others in a way she couldn't have in her homeland.
"I wanted to do something that I can really touch people's lives," Bruns said. "It's hard for me, but I'm not going to give up."