In Nigerian culture, the firstborn grandchild is called the “ada,” a name that carries both honor and increased expectations. The summer of her third grade year, Nkechi Nwagbara learned firsthand what it meant to be the ada of her family.
When the school year ended, she had friends and fun on her mind. But a visit from her Nigerian grandma instructed her on the priorities of the ada: work now, play later. She reminded Nkechi that she set the example for the family. So instead of running around playgrounds and laughing around pools, Nkechi dove into books and summer projects for the upcoming school year.
Most third graders would wallow in self-pity at the unfairness of the universe. But not Nkechi: she embraced the lessons of her grandma, the mantel of the ada, and the desires of a young kid. The next summer she worked hard and finished her entire summer reading list early so she could enjoy the break with her friends. "I learned that you need to know when to have fun and when to be responsible and do what you’re supposed to," she says.
Although she takes the firstborn grandchild responsibilities of her Nigerian heritage seriously, she's also half Jamaican, and says with a smile that she's "more infused" with her Jamaican side. She describes her family as loving and open, and her childhood always had a sharp focus on education.
Her pivotal years were spent in Texas, where her strong desire to do her best was cultivated. "It used to be just me, and I would go outside and lie in the grass and look at the stars. I want my kids to have that experience." She wants to provide that life for them, "that they won't feel like they're missing out."
When asked what career she dreamed about so that her kids could grow up under a sky of stars, she doesn't hesitate with her answer. "A doctor. A lot of African people encourage their children to be doctors and lawyers. My Jamaican side was more 'follow your heart' but my hairdresser passions got shut down," she laughs.
She moved with her mother from Texas to NYC in 2001, experiencing the upheaval and ”shift in energy” in the city due to the attacks on 9/11. Her mom became her hero, instilling in Nkechi an independence that she's proud of. "Despite the little we had, she made it work. We weren't 100% comfortable, but we were happy."
Rooted in the diversity of her Brooklyn neighborhood, she developed a desire to help people and invest in specific communities. That passion, coupled with her interest in science and her childhood experiences, led her on a path away from medical doctors and court room lawyers, and into the realm of Speech Pathology.
"I stuttered very badly as a child, and I still remember a speech pathologist who built my confidence as a kid. I was able to see communication in a new light, and I want to help kids like I was helped."
With that goal in mind, Nkechi applied the lessons of her younger years and proudly graduated this June with an Associates in Liberal Arts. The accomplishment brings her great joy because she had to persevere through a dark time of debt, including a time of confusion about her direction and education. She eventually transferred to a community college, finishing in two years...and made both the Dean's List and Honor Society.
She's currently researching schools in the southeast in order to earn a degree in Communication & Science Disorders so that she can work in deaf communities, hoping to travel around and invest wherever she finds folks in need.
As she plans for that next season, she also serves at the front counter at Chick-fil-A Fulton Street, where she's constantly learning lessons she knows will help her start her own practice in the future. "It's opened my eyes to the business side of things, and humbled me...with the screens red, and guests being frustrated or urgent, just learning how to show enthusiasm and love when that happens."
At her old job she hated cleaning up. But at 144 Fulton Street, there's a whole new viewpoint on why it’s important. She wants to "do it right and 'get in the corners' knowing I’ll need to do it one day on my own in my own home and business."
She really appreciates the way Team Members are encouraged to pursue their dreams. The leaders are "very supportive of our TMs, even if we don’t stay, you open the window for us, creating an environment where we’re encouraged to be what we want to be."
What do you think others should know about Chick-fil-A?
"We are a very loving culture. I love how we communicate with our guests and the way we go above and beyond. I love that our directors are hands-on, sweeping, wiping down tables, bagging, and I love working with directors rather than for directors... it makes it a family atmosphere, where we value relationships with guests in and out of restaurant."
And what do you want people to walk away with when they hear the story of Nkechi?
"Do not give up, and to have hope. No matter how dark things get, keep going."
Some would call that advice keeping your eyes on the stars...