This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services
. The author of this post is Benjamin Abel
Esther Olajide graduated from East Carolina University's College of Nursing's Bachelor of Nursing program after spending nearly a year deployed with the Navy. (ECU photo by Rhett Butler)
In May, Esther Olajide walked across the stage as Pirate nurse, having completed all the requirements of her bachelor's in nursing science degree: research papers, end-of-semester exams and day after day of clinical rotations.
However, before Olajide graduated, she had an extra challenge that none of her peers shared before being able to turn her tassel - nearly a year in military uniform supporting counter-terrorism missions on the east coast of Africa.
Esther Olajide and her family moved from Nigeria to Charlotte when she was old enough to be completely culture shocked by the change in just about every part of her life.
"I didn't really know how to feel at first. I was just kind of like, 'OK, I'm here. What do I do?'"
she recalled. That she had her little sister, just a year younger, as a partner for the adventure was a blessing. The young women remain very close, as siblings who meet the challenges of new worlds together often do.
Language wasn't an issue, though. Olajide grew up speaking both English and Yoruba, the language of the more than 5 million Yoruba people who live mostly in Nigeria, but some in the U.S. as well. Becoming an American citizen wasn't an issue either - her father zealously applied himself to the naturalization process and, because Olajide and her sister were under 18 when he took the citizenship oath, they automatically were naturalized as well.
While her family has all returned to Nigeria to visit since emigrating to the US, she has yet to. Commitments always got in the way of opportunities to return to her childhood home.
Olajide studied at an early middle college during her junior and senior years of high school, and then completed a "13th year."
When she graduated from the program, she had two full years of college completed.
Like many young people, Olajide wasn't ready for a full-time college experience immediately after graduation - she had some things to figure out, a bit of life to live. She was the last person that her friends and family would have expected to join the military, but something about the ability to help others in uniform called to her. She considered the Marines, but that wasn't the right fit. The Navy was. She enlisted with the hopes of training to be a corpsman - a medic - to get on the path to being a Navy nurse, but was trained as a logistician, instead, and graduated at the top of her class.
"It was kind of scary at first because you think the military is for fighting, but that's not all it is. This is an opportunity to be a naval officer. I can be a nurse and I also wanted to travel and see things,"
After a few cold months of boot camp in Chicago, Olajide was back in Charlotte bouncing between jobs and looking for the next step in her adventure. A friend said she was going to East Carolina University in the fall of 2019, which sounded like a good idea. With two years of college classes already under her belt, nursing school seemed well in hand.
By the fall of 2020, Olajide was accepted to the College of Nursing and taking courses in Greenville. The university was in the fluctuating transition between distance education and in-person classes, masks and fervent use of hand sanitizer.
"When the school shut down, I had to go back to Charlotte. It didn't make any sense to stay here. In that moment, I needed my family because it was really a crazy time,"
Olajide said. "I wasn't sure I was quite ready to be back in school anyway so being at home helped ease me back into school life."
Being in school at home was weird, but things were about to get weirder.
In the summer of 2019, the Navy told her to get ready for a possible deployment. In the fall of 2021, her third semester of nursing school, the orders came through. She would spend the next 10 months in Djibouti, where the U.S. military was pushing back against insurgents who were disrupting the fragile ecosystem of developing nations in coastal East Africa.
"It was emotional for me because I've always wanted to mobilize - this is why I joined, of course. But I was also like, 'I'm kind of in the middle of something, can you wait till I'm done?'"
Olajide joked. "I started notifying my teachers and they were super supportive. They made sure that I was able to finish my third semester so that when I came back, I would only have one semester to go to be able to graduate."
Olajide worked to wrap up her coursework before lacing up her boots. Instructors provided pre-recorded lectures to listen to and exams were scheduled and taken before her mobilization. One of her clinical instructors, Kelli Jones, praised Olajide's responsibility in getting the work done early.
"Esther was an excellent communicator and focused on completing the semester prior to reporting to her duty station,"
Jones said. "She successfully completed and passed all her nursing courses within that shortened semester. These nursing courses are rigorous within a 16-week semester and Esther's scholastic achievement and her professionalism are commended."
In April, Olajide was presented the DAISY award for her academic achievements. The DAISY award was created by the family of J. Patrick Barnes, who died of an immune system disorder and was cared for by competent and caring nurses.
Because she is a logistics specialist, Olajide said that the deployment was unremarkable, more "Groundhog Day"
than a whirlwind of combat. One event stood out that reinforced her path to a nursing career. The medical staff at her base pressed her into service as a role player in a mock mass casualty training event, which reinforced her appreciation for being well-trained and level-headed under the stress of an emergent medical situation.
"I was playing it so well, I was really gone, out of it. And the corpsmen were freaking out. But it was really fun because you got to see how people acted under pressure and how they would react. It's important what you do in a stressful situation because you can either save somebody's life or you can lose them,"
While the deployment was unremarkable, Olajide said that being back in Africa was a blessing, even if it was on the opposite side of the continent and a universe away from her family in Nigeria.
"It was surreal. When the plane was landing and I saw the country itself, it just took me back to my childhood. I got emotional because I'm here in Africa again, 14 years later, but at the same time, it really sucks because I can't see any of my family,"
Back on track
The 10 months flew by and a return to the States meant the need to get in gear for nursing school. Olajide said the faculty and staff at the College of Nursing made the transition back to civilian life smooth.
"I started reaching out to my advisor about a month before I came back. Everything was just overwhelming and confusing. I needed some guidance, and they were honestly the best set of people that I've ever worked with,"
Not being in student mode for most of a year and shifting back to campus life was challenging, but Olajide said she wanted to come back to ECU and push through, which she did.
Olajide has already spoken to recruiters to explore being a nurse in the Navy as a commissioned officer. She raised her hand to serve in uniform because it was a way to help others, which she's be even more qualified to do after officially joining Pirate nurse nation.
"Nursing and helping people go hand in hand and that's really what it is that I want to do,"
Olajide said the mentoring and friendship that she received from her clinical instructors, Kelli Jones, Liz Mizelle, Laura Batson, Erin Beaman and Susan Lally, and advisor Amy Bradshaw will help her model how to be a nurse once she graduates.
"Those women were really, really instrumental in making me feel like I was not alone and, and that I didn't feel lost and confused, which is so which is so great,"
Lally said that Olajide's positive attitude, determination and caring nature carried her through the challenge of a disruptive break in the middle of her nursing education.
"She came back after a year of being gone, and it was like she never left. She has done exceedingly well in her courses despite being gone. She has even taken the initiative to get involved in student organizations,"
Lally said. "She is a true Pirate nurse."