What’s stopping you? TCC alum creates new life in United States, earns full ride at Ivy League university

Christiana Agbo had the room’s attention.  She stood before the American Chemical Society meeting, presenting the results of research she conducted as a student at Tarrant County College. The room was packed with 100 scientists, who listened carefully as Agbo discussed the new process she developed for determining the alcohol content of beverages.

“She confidently and gracefully answered questions posed by chemists present,” recalled Martha Gilchrist, TCC chemistry instructor and Agbo’s faculty research partner. “And she did all this at the age of 17, before many of our students have even graduated high school.”

That’s not a surprise; Agbo is used to being ahead of the curve. Her journey began half a world away, in her native country, Nigeria. At the age of 14, Agbo began an entirely new life when she immigrated to the United States. The assimilation process wasn’t easy.

“Being new to the American culture, I started high school as a junior and was bullied for about a year for my accent, mode of dressing and mannerisms,” said Agbo. “I struggled with finding my place in society, not knowing what the future held, and knowing how to accomplish my aspirations and goals in a country where dreams come true.”

Undeterred, she continued on her path, knowing her next step would be to get a college education. She explored universities but decided to first enroll at TCC Southeast, where she was already a dual credit student. TCC’s affordable tuition opened doors for her; saving money was important in a family with seven children. Her academic achievements netted her a TCC Foundation scholarship, and to cover other costs, she worked two jobs during the academic year and three jobs during the summer—including as a peer leader, teaching assistant and hairstylist.

“I made every minute count,” said Agbo. “I studied every chance I got. Sometimes I had to pull all-nighters.”

With her eye on medical school, Agbo spent countless hours in TCC’s resource centers and took advantage of her professors’ office hours to ensure a thorough understanding of her subject areas.

“It made me learn that there is always help as long as you seek it out and ask questions,” she said.

Agbo succeeded, and quickly. After just one year, she earned her Associate of Arts. One year after that, she added an Associate of Science in chemistry to her résumé. In addition to giving her a solid undergraduate foundation, TCC gave Agbo a sense of belonging. She served as president of the International Student Organization, vice president of leadership for Phi Theta Kappa honor society and treasurer of Mu Alpha Theta mathematics honor society.

“I had friends and mentors who supported me every step of the way,” said Agbo. “Having people around me who motivated me to achieve my goals made a difference.”

Agbo’s co-curricular activities helped her hone the leadership skills that came naturally to her. As part of Phi Theta Kappa, she traveled to conferences and networked with peers across the state and country.

“When thinking about Christiana, the first thing that comes to mind is how tirelessly she works for her education,” noted Sarah Duesman, Agbo’s physics instructor and advisor for TCC Southeast’s Phi Theta Kappa chapter. “She dedicates an incredible amount of time to her studies and achieving her educational goals. Also, Christiana prioritizes her responsibilities and balances her many roles and obligations masterfully.”

In addition to seeking out campus organizations that supplemented her coursework, Agbo enrolled in the College’s Academic Cooperative class, which gives students hands-on experience in academic research. Her achievements aren’t a surprise to Gilchrist, her faculty mentor and research partner.

“Words that come to mind are vibrant, enthusiastic, organized, confident, ambitious and persistent in the face of obstacles,” reflected Gilchrist, who first met Agbo as her instructor of organic chemistry. “Her drive and initiative really became apparent when she started working on her research project.”

Agbo learned to read scientific literature and adapted published methodology to design a new research project, which focused on using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to more quickly and easily measure a drink’s alcohol content. She hopes her work will make people more aware of what they’re drinking and ultimately reduce drunk driving. Her research had another lasting impact—it gave her the opportunity to apply for and win the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Fellowship. Agbo spent the summer of 2017 at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) working under the mentorship of Matthew Gdovin, a professor in the UTSA Department of Biology, on developing a cancer treatment more targeted than chemotherapy.

“My lab and I were really blessed to have Christiana work with us over the summer,” said Gdovin. “While our lab may have taught her about how light-activated acidification can be used to kill cancer, Christiana taught us how discipline and sacrifice can lead to great successes. She is fearless.”

Agbo gave her all to the project.

“I spent 50 or 60 hours per week in the lab over the summer,” she said. “The fellowship required 40 hours a week, but I enjoyed my research so much that I spent nights and weekends in the lab too.”

Agbo is anticipating her first professional publication in connection with her LSAMP Fellowship research. She also recently presented the results at the University of Texas System LSAMP Fellowship Undergraduate Research Conference, earning first place in the sciences division.

Impressed? So was Cornell University. The Ivy League institution awarded her a full scholarship, and Agbo transferred to Cornell this fall. Today, at the age of 18, she is a junior majoring in biological sciences, with concentrations in neurobiology and behavior. Agbo’s goal is to become a physician to improve the quality of health care in her home country of Nigeria and in underdeveloped countries.

Her success is a testament to the power of hard work.

“If other students use Christiana’s story as inspiration for their own lives, it is important that they realize just how much hard work Christiana put into her studies and her transfer applications to reach where she is now,” said Duesman.

Agbo credits the lessons she learned from her family for her drive and persistence.

“As my mother likes to tell me,” smiled Agbo, “‘the patient dog eats the fattest bone’ and ‘nothing good comes easy.’ Never lose focus; it will all pay off in the end.”

This story is the latest in a series celebrating members of the TCC community who don’t let challenges stop them. Follow these links to read previous features: Salma Alvarez, Celia Mwakutuya, Jessica Caudle, Ken Moak, Melora Werlwas, Kevin Douglas, Marine Creek Collegiate High School students, students in atypical careers, Tre’Zjon Cothran , Karmin Ramos, Anthony Smith, Ashley Calvillo and Lance Lambert.