Right Here: Nigerian native likes coming of age with Pittsburgh

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The "Right Here" column chronicles young people who enjoy living and working in Pittsburgh despite conventional wisdom that 20-somethings earn college degrees and flee the region.

"When I'm in Nigeria, I say [Pittsburgh] is home, but when I'm in Pittsburgh, I say Nigeria is home."

That's how Olabukunola "Buky" Williams, a Highland Park resident, describes where she's from.

Ms. Williams was born in the U.S.; her mother was pursuing a Ph.D. from Auburn University in Alabama. When she was 2, her family moved back to Nigeria, where she remained until she finished high school.

Ms. Williams and her family moved back to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, opting for Pittsburgh because a family member required specialized care that Allegheny General Hospital could provide better than anything in Nigeria. They got used to living in the 'Burgh, and most of them stayed -- Ms. Williams' brother still lives here, and her mother is a "part-time Pittsburgh resident," spending her retirement traveling between here and Nigeria.

"It was an easy place to live, and it was what we were familiar with," Ms. Williams said. "Pittsburgh is my home base in the United States."

Ms. Williams grew up in Lagos, a major city in Nigeria, and Ile-Ife, which she calls "a college town." She compares Lagos to New York City, but says Pittsburgh reminded her of Ile-Ife because of its universities.

"What I appreciate about Pittsburgh is that it's a town, but it's also very much a city."

She doesn't own a car and is happy to rely on public transportation, and says that Pittsburgh's small-town feel makes it seem like "anywhere you go in Pittsburgh, [you] know someone."

"You live in Pittsburgh long enough, it's [only] two degrees of separation," she said.

Ms. Williams, 29, moved to Pittsburgh permanently in 1998 and spent a year at Pittsburgh Peabody because her father thought she needed a year of U.S. schooling before college. She then earned a bachelor's degree in global policy from Chatham University.

After graduation, she worked various odd jobs in Pittsburgh, which allowed her to spend time with friends and relax.

She worked at a clothing store in Shadyside and then at a dry cleaning business. In another job, she went door to door in low-income neighborhoods, telling residents that welfare requirements were changing. She also worked as a temp at Pitt.

In 2004, she went to Costa Rica, where she got a master's degree in international peace studies from the University for Peace. Ms. Williams speaks English, Spanish and Yoruba, one of the three main languages in Nigeria.

She returned to Pittsburgh in 2005 to write her thesis. With an interest in international affairs, she started looking for jobs in the nonprofit sector in New York City and Washington, D.C.

But in the meantime, a friend told her about Global Solutions Education Fund, a Pittsburgh chapter of a national organization that raises awareness about international issues such as human trafficking, the genocide in Darfur and environmental problems.

Ms. Williams thought it would be a perfect fit given her interest in international affairs. She noted that in New York or D.C., she'd "spend all [her] money on rent," but because she lives in Pittsburgh, it's possible to travel extensively.

She has worked as a program associate for the Downtown nonprofit for 3 1/2 years.

Global Solutions holds model United Nations events every year at the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Westminster College, and Ms. Williams is responsible for everything from updating the nonprofit's website and writing newsletters to planning lecture series and fundraisers.

She says she has a diverse group of friends in Pittsburgh -- people from Kenya, India, Kosovo, Vietnam, Japan, France and all parts of Europe. "I always joke that my group of friends is like the United Nations."

"I'm not missing out on that international connection" in Pittsburgh, she said, noting that she and her friends talk about international and local issues and how they relate. "We become each other's family. We're a diaspora, but we still have a connection."

Though she says she'd consider international work in the future, she calls Pittsburgh her "coming-of-age story."

"Just seeing Pittsburgh grow up and growing up with Pittsburgh -- it's kind of cool to have that history with a city."

Annie Tubbs is a Post-Gazette staff writer and copy editor. Are you a 20-something who loves living and working in Pittsburgh? Send your stories to atubbs@post-gazette.com or call 412-263-1613.


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