If James Ihedigbo’s family had a motto, it would be one word. Education. His parents, Apollos and Rose, struggled to get the educations they wanted in their native Nigeria and immigrated to the United States specifically to obtain that opportunity. With two young children in tow, (Ihedigbo’s older brothers Emeka and Nate), the family settled in Massachusetts where Apollos and Rose worked full time while also attending the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Ultimately, both Apollos and Rose earned their doctorates, in, what else? Education. Apollos, who died in 2002, worked at his alma mater and at the time of his death, was building a college in Nigeria. Rose, who is also an author, recently retired after having worked for, among other things, the Massachusetts Department of Education.
Along the way, the Drs. Ihedigbo had three more children, Dave, Onyi and James. Like his brothers and sister, James followed in his parents’ footsteps attending the University of Massachusetts-Amherst where he was a standout safety on the football team before being signed as a rookie free agent in 2007 by the New York Jets.
Ihedigbo knew he wanted to follow the example his parents set and do something to help others further their educations. In 2008, Ihedigbo started the Hope Africa Foundation, which provides college scholarships to students in the United States who are of African descent.
“The idea truly came about from my parents struggling to get their education in Nigeria,” Ihedigbo said.
“There’re so many more students like my parents, even in the U.S., struggling through school to make ends meet while they pursue their education. I wanted to start Hope Africa to give scholarships to students to offset that burden.”
Hope Africa, which partners with Beyond the Boroughs, an organization founded by former NFL offensive lineman Tutan Reyes, is now in its sixth year, and is currently providing scholarships to 15 students in colleges and universities (including law school) across the United States.
The scholarships work in a unique way. They are what Ihedigbo describes as “the last dollar.” Once students determine how much of their tuition other financial aid and scholarships are going to pay for, Hope Africa provides the remaining balance. The need may also change from year-to-year with a student requiring $1500 one year and $5000 the next.
While scholarships are its main mission, the foundation has also reached out in other related areas when help has been needed. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a team of volunteers from Hope Africa traveled to the island to provide books and other supplies. In 2011, together with the foundation of Nigerian-born Amobi Okoye (currently with the Dallas Cowboys), Hope Africa traveled to Nigeria bringing a giant container of books for elementary schools as well as providing medical assistance and hosting football camps for children.
Ihedigbo’s goal is to grow the foundation each year so that the number of scholarships that are dispensed can be continually increased. “The only way that happens is if people are generous in their giving,” he said.
To that end, the foundation does three major fundraisers each year and since everyone working for Hope Africa is a volunteer, 100% of the funds that are raised go directly toward scholarships.
Ihedigbo’s own life has grown and changed along the way. Currently with the Detroit Lions, he spent his first four seasons in the NFL with the Jets, before stops with the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. Now married and with a new baby, his focus hasn’t wavered when it comes to moving the foundation forward. In addition to increasing the number of scholarships, Ihedigbo is planning a summit meeting for all of the Hope Africa scholarship recipients. He hopes to create a support network so that current recipients can help not only each other, but future recipients as well.
Ihedigbo has found a way to show respect for his family’s roots by helping those of similar backgrounds attain the same level of accomplishment that his family has been able to achieve.
For more information about Hope Africa: www.hopeafricausa.org