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Couples podcast: parallel but opposite

Jide and Uzoamaka Nzelibe both have roots in Nigeria and careers in international law, but it’s a mirrored path that led them both to Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

Photos courtesy of Doug Haight

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Podcast transcript:

This is Northwestern Now. Continuing our couples podcast series with the story of two people who have spent their entire lives running opposite directions along parallel paths. They both have roots in Nigeria. They lived just miles apart but never at the same time. Their mirrored paths led both of them to careers in international law and, eventually, to Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, where he studies and lectures on legal theory and she helps children fight deportation.

Jide: My name is Jide Nzelibe. I’m a professor of law here at the law school.

Uzoamaka: My name is Uzoamaka Nzelibe, and I’m a clinical associate professor of law at the law school and a staff attorney with the Children and Family Justice Center.

Even though they work in the same field at the same school, they have very different specialties, and they like it that way.

Uzoamaka: I think it’s to our strength that we’ve built very separate lives at the law school.

They say they don’t ever want to be seen as “just a couple.”

Uzoamaka: People will know us individually as Uzoamaka and Jide and probably sometimes forget that we’re married.

Northwestern: And that was an intentional effort.

Uzoamaka: I don’t know if it was intentional, but I think it’s probably something we ended up doing. That way we’re not thought of like an entity, like when you have Angelina and Brad Pitt, and they joined their names. I think we both still have our own separate identities, and I think that’s good.

But for students, it can still get a little confusing.

Uzoamaka: They say, ‘Why does this person have the same last name as my contracts professor?’ Now I’ve taken to just saying, ‘If you had Jide Nzelibe for contracts, I’m not his sister. I am his wife, in case you’re wondering.’

It was work that initially brought Jide and Uzoamaka together, long before they came to Northwestern. They both lived in Washington, D.C., and another lawyer asked both of them to help with a case. That working relationship quickly developed into something more personal.

Northwestern: When were you married?

Uzoamaka: Actually, today is our anniversary. Fourteen years today. We got married in 2002.

They both started working at Northwestern’s law school two years later. Jide works on the research side. Uzoamaka does clinical work with real clients. They say there’s a special type of synergy in their two perspectives.

Jide: I may become more sensitive to the facts, as to whether or not the pedagogical delivery is effective. Am I teaching them enough about how to write and think like a lawyer? I may talk to her, and she may say, ‘These are some of the issues that the students may be having.’

Uzoamaka can help fill in the gaps, to let Jide know what students are missing from lectures.

Uzoamaka: Right, so it’s less the fact that it’s law and more the fact that I’m a clinical professor, and he’s a research professor. He’s focused more on what’s behind, and I’m very focused on, ‘I need to prevent that person from being deported.’ It’s much more narrow I think.

Uzoamaka says Jide really helps her understand the broader impact of her work.

Uzoamaka: I tend to think of immigration as very domestic. Even though the people are coming from abroad, the way we choose to handle them is very U.S. specific, but it’s good to know where this fits in internationally. Jide has that perspective.

But despite two very different perspectives, they say they both have the same end game.

Jide: We have one mission, to provide students the professional training they need to become lawyers. That provides a common core in many ways.

This mission has profound meaning for Uzoamaka.

Northwestern: You immigrated as a child. Is that part of the reason you ended up doing this as a career?

Uzoamaka: Yes. I think I always knew that I would.

Uzoamaka was born in Nigeria. She came to the U.S. as a young child and eventually came to Northwestern for her undergraduate degree. She studied environmental engineering even though she always knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

Uzoamaka: Yes, it’s a very Nigerian path. What I mean by that is that you have a backup. Your parents are like, ‘It’s good, but what if you don’t make it to law school? You definitely want to have a career that you can start right away.’

During her junior year of college, Uzoamaka had to go back to Nigeria because her visa status lapsed.

Uzoamaka: I ended up getting stuck there for six months. What really made the difference was a lawyer.

A lawyer helped Uzoamaka get back to the U.S. in time to finish her senior year and graduate from Northwestern, and that’s when she realized…

Uzoamaka: I didn’t know exactly when or how, but I wanted to do immigration work.

And that’s how Uzoamaka wound up at the Bluhm Legal Clinic, advocating for children, like herself, who are struggling to hold on to their lives in the United States.

Uzoamaka: My students and I can really make a difference in the couple cases that we take because a kid gets a lawyer.

Now we turn to Jide’s story, which is a lot like Uzoamaka’s but in reverse. So remember, Uzoamaka was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. as a child. Well, Jide…

Jide: I was born in the U.S., but I grew up mostly in Nigeria, and I came back in the late high school time phase.

They both lived in Nigeria but never at the same time. But they experienced a lot of the same things, maybe even visited the same stores. Jide grew up very close to where Uzoamaka’s family still lives in Nigeria, and that shared experience goes way beyond geography.

Jide: The connecting thread is that if you have a common ethnicity, it comes from a certain geographic area. For example, there may be an ethnic group that lives in West Virginia. If you see the person in New York, you know they came from West Virginia because that ethnic group lives in West Virginia.  

Geography and ethnicity are very much tied together in Nigeria, so it really didn’t take long for Jide and Uzoamaka to recognize this bond.

Jide: We had not been in Nigeria at the same time. We met here as grownups in the U.S.

Northwestern: How long did it take to realize you had lived in the same place?

Jide: Well once we know our names, you can figure out from the names that it’s the same ethnic group. Then you know in short order whether it’s from the same state.

They share a geographic background, as well as cultural, and the cultural traditions followed Jide and Uzoamaka even as they started their lives together in the U.S.

Jide: When it came to getting married, you’re supposed to have both what I would call a Christian wedding but also a traditional wedding.

A traditional Nigerian wedding really isn’t about the couple. It’s more about the families getting to know each other.

Jide: Part of it is also saying, ‘Look this is who we are. We come from a town that is about 100 or 200 or 80 miles from where you are. We are now part of your community and vis versa – you’re now part of our community.’

Uzoamaka: It’s the joining of a family.

But Jide and Uzoamaka aren’t exactly part of that community anymore. They live half a world and several flights away. Still, their families stuck to tradition.

Jide: What happened is that they decided to do it without us.

Uzoamaka: What they said is, ‘We will send you a video of your traditional wedding.’ But we were here. They said ‘We don’t really need you. We will send you a video, and that’s it.’

Now, 14 years later, Jide and Uzoamaka have visited Nigeria and traveled the world together with two young children in tow.

Uzoamaka:That’s one of the great things for both of us working at Northwestern. Because we have an academic calendar, we are able to take the boys on trips. Whereas if I were at a law firm, it would be harder to find the time.

For Jide and Uzoamaka, their shared workplace lends them strength in their family life outside of the office. It serves as the junction for two life paths that ran parallel – close but never crossing – until that key moment in Washington, D.C., when a mutual acquaintance brought them together. For Jide and Uzoamaka, it’s natural to carve their own impact on the Northwestern story – each person’s carving unique but dedicated to the same goal of educating students to go out and make their own marks on the world.

This has been Kayla Stoner for Northwestern Now. Check out other couples stories on our website, Northwestern.edu.

Special thanks to Kevin Macleod and Incompetech for the music used in this story.

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