Opportunity equals growth, at least in Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s book.
Whether it’s by pursuing creative writing, poetry or athletics, the 6-foot-3 high school junior from Nigeria with “off-the-charts” potential on the basketball court knows she has plenty of paths that could help her forge a better life.
But the self-described “introvert” with a “malleable” personality didn’t always see it that way.
Since coming to the United States from Africa about a year and a half ago, Kunaiyi-Akpanah has discovered she is much more than the shy teenager who knew little about basketball and even less about herself. And the junior center at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun Gap, Ga., now understands that, with hard work, she has the power not only to alter the course of her own life, but also to set an example for other girls back home.
“I have had things handed to me to start off,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “Now I am handing stuff to myself and I am achieving things for [myself].”
Kunaiyi-Akpanah received a chance to come to the United States largely due to the efforts of Hope 4 Girls founder Mobolaji Akiode, a former standout women’s basketball player at Fordham and a member of the Nigerian national teams that competed in the Olympics in 2000 and 2004. The camp teaches young women life skills, gives them a place to develop their basketball skills and, possibly, to earn an even bigger opportunity.
In only her second season at Rabun Gap, a college preparatory and boarding school two hours northwest of Atlanta, Kunaiyi-Akpanah is doing just that. Rabun Gap has a 20-4 record and plays in the Georgia semifinals on Thursday. Auburn, Georgia Tech, Northwestern, Ohio State, Oklahoma, South Florida, Southern Mississippi, Virginia Tech and Washington are just some of the schools that have shown an interest in Kunaiyi-Akpanah, Rabun Gap girls’ basketball coach Dale Earnhardt said.
“I think she sees [basketball] as a means to an end to get a great education,” Earnhardt said of Kunaiyi-Akpanah, who also plays volleyball at the school. “I think she enjoys [basketball]. I don’t think she realizes how good she can be and she isn’t thinking much after that. Her initial goal is ‘What college am I going to go to?’ She knows that is her ticket to get it paid for.”
Kunaiyi-Akpanah arrived on campus in October 2012 after the students had been in school for more than a month. Earnhardt remembers the first workout with her and how “raw” she was as a basketball player. He said she averaged 6 to 8 points per game and 10 to 12 rebounds a game last season on a team that went 16-9.
This season, Earnhardt has seen Kunaiyi-Akpanah make significant strides. Not only is she averaging 10 points and 12 rebounds per game, but he also has seen her develop more confidence, which has helped her speak out and lose some of the shyness she had when she arrived.
Despite an emerging game, Kunaiyi-Akpanah isn’t going to get lost in basketball. She said she envisions pursuing a professional basketball career or using a degree in business or finance to get a job in the U.S. Either way, she believes her hard work down either path will show her two younger brothers and sister how hard they need to work to make something of themselves. As much as she wants to accomplish those things for herself, she wants to show her siblings and girls like her in Nigeria what they can do if they have hope in themselves and if they use their voices to make a name for themselves.
“I just feel the need to be able to handle myself and take this opportunity God has given me and make the most out of it,” Kunaiyi-Akpanah said. “I will be proud of myself because I know I will have achieved it and nothing has been handed to me. I have achieved my own goals.”