Pearl Ibeanusi: Finding her village—and elevating her community

Every morning, Pearl Ibeanusi would wake up at 4 a.m., hoist a pan of plantains onto her head, and walk the streets of her rural village in Nigeria calling, “Buy plantains for breakfast,” until all her wares were gone. She was 8 years old. 

Afterward, Ibeanusi would get her five siblings ready for school, go to her own class, pick up her brothers when school let out, feed them, make a lunch to take to her mother’s vegetable stall and help her mother sell produce, clean up, and then go home to help make dinner. It was what was expected of the oldest girl in the family.

Ibeanusi, who everyone in her village called Obere, or “little girl,” longed for more, however. She wanted an education. She wanted a good job. 

Today, the little market girl is a senior at UC Santa Cruz’s Stevenson College with a double major in community studies and in education, democracy, and justice; a 3.9 GPA; a student ambassadorship to UC’s systemwide Global Health Initiative; and an internship with the Office of Emergency Service in San Jose.

It took Ibeanusi’s determination and perseverance to get her where she is today, but, according to her, it also took scholarships, mentorships, and support from faculty and staff to help the mother of six find success. 

Ibeanusi came to the United States in 1992 hoping to continue her education and find a good job. She’d excelled at school in Nigeria—her family and community had cheered her on—but with a young daughter in tow, she found it was harder here.

“I was on my own,” Ibeanusi said by telephone. “There was no one to help me. In Nigeria, it takes a village to raise a child, and, if I was there, I would have had one. But here there was no one to take care of my child and I couldn’t afford day care.”

She enrolled in junior college and tried bringing her 3-year-old to class, but the professor refused to let the child stay, Ibeanusi said. In desperation, she set up her toddler in the hallway with a blanket, food, and toys, but when the little girl came into class and said she needed to use the bathroom, Ibeanusi was told she needed to leave.

“I left crying, thinking that was the end of the world for me,” Ibeanusi said. “My dream had been squashed.”

She got a series of minimum-wage jobs and suffered a bout with thyroid cancer. Eventually, however, Ibeanusi found her village: mentors at South San Francisco Adult School who helped her enroll in Skyline College, where she found another network of support. There, she earned a 4.0 GPA and became president of the Associated Students of Skyline College. 

Ibeanusi chose UC Santa Cruz not only because it offered the community studies major, which fit her goal of finding a leadership position where she could make a difference in the world, but also because, she said, she found critical support and mentors in Mary Beth Pudup, associate professor and director of the community studies program, and Sarah Arantza Amador, administrative manager in the Humanities Division. 

She also won two scholarships.

In 2020, Ibeanusi was awarded the prestigious Karl S. Pister scholarship, which provided $20,000 in funding over two years and is given to only 13 students nationwide, and, in 2021 she won the $4,000 Gabriel Zimmerman Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded to social science students who are committed to public service.

The scholarships, Ibeanusi said, were important as a way “to help me spread my wings at UC Santa Cruz.”

Now completing an unpaid internship with the San Jose Emergency Service Office in the housing division, Ibeanusi said she is hoping to find other scholarships to help her meet her goal of earning a master’s and doctorate since she cannot afford the cost on her own. 

“I want to be in a position of leadership to help make a difference,” she said.