In any American high school gym, you could find kids as young as six years old playing recreational basketball on the weekends.
Most rec leagues have all the fix-ins, such as uniforms and referees and coaches.
However, that wasn’t the experience for Vanderbilt freshman center Blessing Ejiofor. She had never played a real basketball game with an officiating crew until she was a freshman in high school in Ebonyi, Nigeria.
“Usually I would go to the basketball court and watch people play,” she told The Vanderbilt Hustler. “And when they would leave, I would shoot free throws.”
Before her first basketball game, that was the extent of freshman center Blessing Ejiofor’s basketball experience.
“Basketball is huge in Nigeria, but here in America, you have all the facilities you need,” she said.
She mentioned how many Nigerian NBA and WNBA players are coming back to the country to build basketball courts, which is a welcome change from five years ago, when most players did not even return home to give back to the community.
Two of Ejiofor’s role models are Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, the Nigerian-American sisters who starred at Stanford before both were first overall picks in the WNBA draft. Both return to Nigeria almost every year to run basketball camps.
Although the basketball infrastructure in Nigeria has been improving, she realized could find greater opportunities elsewhere and moved to Paterson, New Jersey, for her sophomore year of high school.
She was initially supposed to attend a school in North Carolina, but was informed once she landed in the United States that there was no host family available to house her there.
“I was just excited to be in America,” Ejiofor said.
Adjusting to a new life in New Jersey was difficult. She called her mother daily, but still admitted that the transition was tough, as even minute cultural differences could sometimes cause friction.
Ejiofor said that in Nigeria, “when someone older is talking to you, you don’t look them straight in the eye.” However, she found that in the United States, that was considered to be a sign of disrespect.
She cited the higher quality education and vast opportunities in America as the reasons she worked through such differences and finished high school in Paterson.
When the time came to choose a university to continue her academic and athletic career, Ejiofor had many options. Duke, LSU, Syracuse, and Miami were among the 20th-ranked center’s many offers. Vanderbilt’s unmatched academics stood out to her and her father, and were a major factor in her signing with the Commodores.
“I always wanted to go to Vanderbilt even when I was back in Nigeria,” Ejiofor said. “I knew I was going to come here.”
Everything was looking up for Ejiofor, but an immigration snafu had other ideas.
In September 2016, she was forced to take a year-long leave of absence when her visa expired. Her visa needed to be renewed in Nigeria after every two years, but she was unable to go back and renew it in time.
Last year, she joined a gym and worked out four to five days a week to try to stay in shape in preparation for when she could rejoin the team.
“I wasn’t in great shape, but I wasn’t out of shape completely,” Ejiofor said.
Even though she couldn’t be with the team as head coach Stephanie White took over the program, she still felt like a Commodore already.
“They were really supportive,” she said of her teammates and coaches at Vanderbilt. “They did everything they could possibly do to get me back.”
Her coaches even wrote to the U.S. Embassy in an attempt to speed up the process of obtaining a new visa for her.
After a year of paperwork and waiting, Ejiofor was granted a visa to return to the United States, and she enrolled at Vanderbilt this year.
Being out of school for a year made the academic transition crazy and stressful according to Ejiofor. With the help of her academic counselor, assistant coach Carolyn Peck, and her teammates, she was able to handle the workload.
Like many Vanderbilt students, Blessing remarked that she had to learn how to study once she experienced the university’s rigorous academics.
On the court, Ejiofor has come off the bench in 15 games. Her 6’5” frame has been useful against taller SEC competition.
Coach White’s fast-paced style of play was the complete opposite of what Ejiofor had been accustomed to.
“Back home, they just wanted me to be in the paint,” she said. “But here [the coaches] try to make you go out of your comfort zone as a post player.”
Ejiofor is optimistic about this team, which she describes as resilient and passionate.
“We have a vision, and we are going to get there soon,” she said.