Ukeme is Breaking Stereotypes since Arriving in the U.S. in 2000

“Have you ever considered modeling?”

Ukeme Awakessien Jeter ’04 was riding the train into New York City in the spring of 2001 when a complete stranger approached the then 20-year-old with that question. Jeter was visiting the Big Apple while on Alternative Spring Break during her sophomore year at the University of Maine. At first, she politely said no.

But the modeling scout was persistent, calling Awakessien Jeter several times after that to try and convince her to come into the office for headshots. Awakessien Jeter admits that for most young women that age, a modeling gig in New York City sounded like a dream come true.

But Awakessien Jeter wasn’t like most young women.

“I told them I wasn’t interested because I intended to finish my mechanical engineering degree at the University of Maine,” she says emphatically.

Focus is something Awakessien Jeter both values and embraces. The attorney, city councilor, and soon-to-be book author grew up in Nigeria, one of five children. Her father is a biochemist who came to the U.S. for school, completing his undergraduate work at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

But attending school in Maine or even the United States was the last thing on Awakessien Jeter’s mind as a 17-year-old. “I was set on going to college in Nigeria,” she says with a smile that’s hard not to want to copy. “But then there was a hiccup with my entrance exams. That’s where the idea of going to college overseas kind of percolated.”

She decided to take the SATs to apply to schools in America. A colleague of her dad’s had a daughter attending UMaine for engineering with another getting ready to transfer there. “That made my parents more comfortable with sending me so far away for school,” Awakessien Jeter says.

She left home in August of 1999. “My parents could not come with me,” she recalls sadly. “And I had never been on a plane without my parents before. This was before cell phones. I think my mom and dad repeated the travel plan to me about 500 times.”

When classes at UMaine began that fall, Awakessien Jeter discovered not only was she the only Black student in her mechanical engineering class, she was one of just three women.

“Nigeria’s population is predominantly Black so growing up, I was exposed to Black, female engineers quite frequently,” explains Awakessien Jeter. “But now I am on the other side of the Atlantic, in a country that has a very different history than Nigeria when it comes to Black people. The dynamics were interesting, to say the least.”

Feeling a bit out of her comfort zone, Awakessien Jeter began immersing herself in the culture on campus. She worked with the Student Alumni Association, became a resident assistant, and joined the track team. “That’s my MO,” Awakessien Jeter says matter-of-factly. “When I’m in a new situation, I buckle down and get involved so that I can understand and be a part of the culture and the people. I want to be on the inside, not the outside looking in.”

Liz Downing ’77 was the senior associate director of new student programs at UMaine at the time. “When an application for new student programs orientation leader came across my desk, I read about all the activities the candidate was involved in as a first-year student — Culturefest, Circle K, American Society of Engineering, Society of Women Engineers, African, Latino, Asian, Native American/Black Student Union,” recalls Downing. “Meeting Ukeme Awakessien that day was like seeing the dazzling future of a rising star.”

Awakessien Jeter became a student orientation leader, and immediately connected with other international students on campus. “It felt like home,” she says, sighing. “I often say as immigrants, while we are not a monolithic group, we fundamentally share the experience of being in a new country and having to rapidly adapt. Talking to other international students kept validating whatever feelings I was going through.”

To help stave off homesickness, Downing took her under her wing. Knowing she had never experienced snow before, Downing offered to take her snowshoeing that first winter. “We’re doing what?” Awakessien Jeter recalls, laughing. “This was definitely a new term for me.”

Warned to dress warmly, Awakessien Jeter thought she was prepared. “I did some layers and then I had this purple Fila tracksuit as my overcoat,” she says. “I remember it distinctly because for a very long time after, people lovingly teased me about how woefully underdressed I was.”

Awakessien Jeter admits the thought of shoveling waist-high snow was a major reason she didn’t move off campus until her senior year.

But despite the polar opposite weather from her home country, Awakessien Jeter’s experiences at UMaine were enough to convince her sister Nti Awakessien ’05 to emigrate from Nigeria in 2000 and attend the Orono school. Another sister, Inyene Awakessien (Udoh) also joined her siblings. The three sisters were featured in a brief article in the spring 2003 edition of MAINE Alumni Magazine.

Inyene ended up transferring to the University of Oklahoma after her first year. A fourth sister, Ofonime Awakessien (Bleess) ’08 would also attend UMaine, although she arrived after Ukeme graduated. All four sisters were student orientation leaders during their time at UMaine.

Awakessien Jeter received her B.S. in mechanical engineering from UMaine in the spring of 2004. After graduation, she decided she wanted to stay in the United States.

“And that’s when the realities of being an immigrant started to really take shape,” she says. Awakessien Jeter had attended UMaine on a student visa, but now she needed a work visa to continue staying in America.

She landed a job at the former Georgia Pacific plant just up the road in Old Town. Soon after, Awakessien Jeter began pursuing an MBA at UMaine. “I had taken so many business classes as an undergraduate just because I enjoyed them,” she explains. “And Georgia Pacific had an educational reimbursement, so I thought why not.”

But in 2005 came word that the Georgia Pacific plant was going to shut down. That meant Awakessien Jeter had to seek out another company to sponsor her work visa. She found it, clear across the country at SCA Tissue in Flagstaff, Arizona.

But UMaine didn’t have online MBA classes at that time. So Awakessien Jeter transferred her credits to UMass Lowell, which had just started an online MBA program.

Two years later, work and life as an immigrant would intersect again. Just as Awakessien Jeter’s work visa expired, the paper industry began declining. “I had a choice to file for a green card to become a permanent resident,” she says. “And SCA Tissue agreed to sponsor me for that.”

But Awakessien Jeter wasn’t sure she wanted to continue working for the company. “I was feeling stuck,” she admits. “And when they filed the paperwork, I began to panic.”

Her work at SCA Tissue had connected her with intellectual property attorneys through wastewater treatment projects. It turned out a lot of them were former engineers.

The wheels started turning for Awakessien Jeter. “IP law sounded like a great melding of all the things I’d done up until that point,” she says.

But Awakessien Jeter knew law school was a full-time venture. “I had already experienced what it was like going to school and working at the same time. I just knew I couldn’t do that again.”

Becoming a full-time student again also bought Awakessien Jeter six more years in the U.S. on another student visa. “Law school became my obsession,” she says, smiling.

After passing the LSATs, Awakessien Jeter began applying to schools. “It would have been ideal to go to a law school in Arizona since I was living there,” she chuckles. “But law school is expensive so I was intent on finding the best scholarship package available.”

She ended up at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “I had never heard of the school before,” she says. “They actually contacted me.”

During her second year attending law school, Awakessien Jeter got married. One year later, she and her husband welcomed a daughter. “I do not recommend to anyone that they have a child during their final year of law school,” Awakessien Jeter insists, shaking her head and laughing. “But that’s just how the cards fell for me.”

Having a child now meant making choices when it came to the kind of IP law Awakessien Jeter wanted to practice. “I knew that corporate law involved a lot of meetings,” she says. “I needed balance in my life so I went into private practice.”

She is currently a partner at Taft Law, which was recently named one of the best law firms in the country for women and diversity.

Awakessien Jeter’s marriage did not work out and in 2018, she found herself a single mom to a five-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son. They moved two hours south to Columbus, Ohio.

“Suddenly my priorities shifted,” Awakessien Jeter acknowledges, “and I was having to think about community in a very different way. Where are my kids going to go to school? Is our neighborhood safe? If one of my kids starts vomiting, can I leave my job and be home in 15 minutes flat?”

All of those questions and more led Awakessien Jeter to the city of Upper Arlington, Ohio. “It hit all of the targets,” she says.

But when Awakessien Jeter’s daughter started attending kindergarten, their utopia started cracking. “She was the only Black person in her class,” recalls Awakessien Jeter. “She’s coming home and asking me if she can straighten her hair for school. She’s choosing white American Girl dolls rather than the Black ones. It was subtle but I knew she was doing it to try and be accepted.”

Awakessien Jeter was devastated. She flashed back to her first year at UMaine and remembered how much she desperately wanted to fit in.

“As a mother, you choose the community for your children to grow up in,” she says. “Home is where you should feel most comfortable.”

And just like her time at UMaine, Awakessien Jeter knew the only way to make positive changes was to take charge and dive deep into unknown waters. When a seat opened on the Upper Arlington City Council, Awakessien Jeter decided to run.

“Upper Arlington has about 36,000 residents and Black people make up two percent of that,” she states. “But that two percent is actually about 660 people. It was important for them, including my daughter, to be represented in the highest places in the community.”

In November of 2021, Awakessien Jeter became the first person of color elected to the Upper Arlington City Council in the city’s 103-year history. And in January 2024, she was sworn in as the council president and mayor of the city. “It wasn’t that no one wanted a Black councilperson,” she notes. “It’s that no one had stepped up before me. Was there a chance of failure? Absolutely. But you cannot make changes or take risks without being okay with failing.”

“Council Member Awakessien Jeter gives a unique voice not only to the Black population of Upper Arlington but also to our many fellow residents, who like her, have come to the United States and our community as immigrants,” says fellow Upper Arlington, Ohio Council Member John J. Kulewicz. “I often think of how fortunate her two children are to have a parent who shows by her own actions that the only real barriers in life are those that we impose upon ourselves.”

IN 2021, Awakessien Jeter joined the University of Maine Alumni Association Board of Directors. “Ukeme is someone who immediately makes you feel comfortable and welcome,” says Thomas G. Peaco ’88, President and CEO. “She exudes positive energy, but doesn’t shy away from offering her thoughts and ideas to improve UMaine and the Alumni Association. We are so fortunate to have her as a leader in our organization, and her commitment to participate from 1,000 miles away.”

Additionally, Awakessien Jeter serves on the board of directors for Ohio Legal Help and the United Way of Central Ohio’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council.

She is currently writing a book titled ImmiGRIT. “It showcases the diversity and complexity of the immigrant experience, drawing parallels between the qualities that emerge from the experience and the characteristics essential for effective leadership,” she explains. ImmiGRIT will hit bookshelves in the summer of 2024.

In May of 2022, Awakessien Jeter found herself back at the Harold Alfond Sports Arena. More than two decades after first setting foot on American soil with just a suitcase to her name, the now nationally recognized attorney, city councilwoman, and mother of two was there to present the commencement speech at her alma mater. “It was life coming full circle,” she gushes. “I felt like it was a great service to give back to the first place I came to in the United States and the community that has always given me so much.”