People: Spotlight

Onoso Imoagene
PSC Research Associate

Last semester Shannon and Nykia spoke with PSC Research Associate and Assistant Professor of Sociology, Onoso Imoagene. Over the course of an hour they spoke about past, current, and future research projects. Special thanks to Esther for transcription assistance.

Onoso’s experience at Penn actually began before she was officially a part of the University faculty. In 2005 she visited her sister, a medical student doing a fellowship in Nephrology, and spent time studying in the Biomedical library. Since coming to Penn she has published a book, taught classes, and continued her survey and ethnographic research.

Throughout her academic career, Onoso has carried out research across the world that has sought to keep a delicate balance of quantitative and qualitative methods. For her undergraduate thesis, she designed, implemented and collected quantitative data looking at socio-economic factors of child health. She then went on to receive her Ph.D. in Sociology at Harvard University. There her research focused on mainly qualitative data and questionnaires looking at segregation and discrimination Nigerians experienced in the workplace. This interest in combining qualitative and quantitative tools to answer the driving questions about populations is one of the reasons why Onoso is at Penn and the Population Studies Center.

In 2017, Onoso’s book Beyond Expectations: Second Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain hit bookshelves and libraries across the U.S. We asked her about the process of writing a book, the challenges she faced, and advice she may have for an aspiring academic writer. For Onoso, focusing in on a story arch, getting editing help from the right people at the right time, and honing in on the issues you want to address in the book were important points during the writing process. She said, “Actually I think my greatest challenge with my first book was that I had so many stories to tell. In a book you’re not pointing out gaps in the literature, you tell the story you want to tell. I remember I had a conversation with Annette Lareau and she said something quite useful to me. She told me to ask myself: What’s the pebble in your shoe? What’s out there that you want to address?”

Tackling the flow of the chapters and making sure the discussion points were well rounded were super important to Onoso and to her publisher. “I did the best of my ability and wrote the book and sent it off for review because Stanford University Press was interested in it at the time and they sent it out to readers and it came back and they said this is a diamond in the rough; it needs to be polished. I had no idea about all the editing you really need. It is an industry attached to academia. There are so many different kinds of editors. You have copy editors, developmental editors; the whole process is quite involved.” Onoso also brought up a very helpful piece of advice she received while writing her book. It was recommended to her that she pick out a few of her favorite books and read them from different perspectives, to take notice of the ways in which the book is organized. 

Onoso feels her book was received with mixed reviews because of its honesty. Onoso is a Nigerian Immigrant, which put her in a unique position during her interviews where people opened up to her and did not see her as an outsider. That level of honesty, she says, produced strong reactions and a more robust dialogue about black people in the U.S. and Britain. She plans to continue this dialogue and expand the conversation and her research to immigration.

“In a book you’re not pointing out gaps in the literature, you tell the story you want to tell. I remember I had a conversation with Annette Lareau and she said something quite useful to me. She told me to ask myself: What’s the pebble in your shoe? What’s out there that you want to address?”

Onoso has many projects in the works, but right now she is working on a new project about winners of the U.S. diversity visa lottery program in Ghana and Nigeria, as well as their families. Onoso went to Ghana during the fall of 2017, between October and November, to observe the visa registration period and process. Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, the system went down and the deadline was pushed back to the end of November, causing the loss of some online applications. She observed the ways in which people apply for these visas; mainly through companies that assist clients through the application process. She spoke with applicants, families, employees, and company owners about the use of a third party to apply, specifically about the risks and consequences associated with this method of applying for a visa. The goal is to turn this research into (a) manuscript(s), “It is a clearer story about the impact of U.S. immigration police on immigrants, their family members, and their sending countries,” she asserts. 

Onoso discussed how she could see this project possibly producing two books. The first book would examine family relationships, answering the question of: “are you a family champion or a family deserter?” When Onoso talked to siblings, parents, and friends of diversity visa winners back in Nigeria and Ghana, she recalled that “a sister of one of my respondents told me that she regarded her brother as the family Joseph.” Onoso explained that the sister was “alluding to the biblical Joseph who managed to bring his family out of Canaan during the famine and saved them in Egypt” and shared how “a lot of families told me that everybody is looking for a Joseph. I think that’s one clear way of talking about family champions, family deserters notions of remittances, and different conceptualizations of remittances.”

“As for the second book” she says, “I could focus on the effects U.S. immigration policy on these immigrants and diversity visa lottery winners.” The applicants are fortunate because they have been selected out of 9 million entries, yes, but she is also interested in the whole notion of luck and the consequences of luck as another way to talk about the effects of immigration policies on individuals at a micro-level during both pre-migration and post-migration, as well as in the sending countries themselves. 

When prompted about tools and skills she has developed over the years and what advice she might give, Onoso was firm in her belief that throughout her career she has benefited from developing her computational and analytical skills.

“Go and take classes that might not seem useful and you will be surprised when it becomes a plus when you are in the job market or sometime down the line. For example, I had never taken a GIS class, but I know some colleagues of mine who did when I was in Harvard. So I attended Atlas.ti workshops that were useful to me. I went to a teaching practicum classes about how to draft a syllabus, those kind of things are useful. Attending workshops about how to write grants is useful, if they are available to you. I think really all these are just keeping your eye open on how you can add to your skills is never a bad thing.”

Onoso also recommended taking advantage of the resources available at Penn. Lauris Olson was a particularly helpful person to her when it came to finding data, whether it was the U.S. Census or the British Labour survey. Onoso has also made time to network and develop connections with others on and off campus. 

Onoso’s innovative research, dedication to telling the stories that matter most, and willingness to explore social and demographic changes across the world make her an asset to the PSC and to Penn. We look forward to seeing what Onoso does in the future!