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Unexpected Blessing: Blessing Ejiofor is thankful to be at Vanderbilt after high school recruiting scandal

Feb. 26, 2018, 2:41 PM

Having dreamed of attending Vanderbilt from an early age in Nigeria, Blessing Ejiofor nearly missed that opportunity because of a New Jersey human trafficking scandal. “I never gave up hope,” she says. (JOHN RUSSELL)
Having dreamed of attending Vanderbilt from an early age in Nigeria, Blessing Ejiofor nearly missed that opportunity because of a New Jersey human trafficking scandal. “I never gave up hope,” she says. (JOHN RUSSELL)

Blessing Ejiofor is from Ebonyi, Nigeria, more than 6,000 miles from Nashville—but growing up, she was well aware of Vanderbilt. In fact, she considered it her “dream school” early on.

“I’ve always wanted to come to Vanderbilt,” says Ejiofor, a 6-foot-5 freshman post player on the Commodore women’s basketball team.

Her journey to Vanderbilt, however, was far from smooth. It began when she arrived alone at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2014 at the age of 15.

Identified as a collegiate prospect at a camp in Nigeria, Ejiofor was scheduled to attend Evelyn Mack Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina. That plan changed, though, when she was intercepted at the airport by a representative from Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. It was the first sign of trouble to come.

“The coach from Eastside came to pick me up,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m not supposed to go to Paterson. I am supposed to go to Evelyn Mack.’ It was very confusing.”

The reason for the switch, as it was explained to Ejiofor at the time: There was not a reliable host family in North Carolina, so the director of the camp in Nigeria brokered a deal for her detour to New Jersey.

Ejiofor shined on the court and in the classroom at Eastside and began to attract the attention of college recruiters. She received interest from several top academic schools but ultimately selected Vanderbilt over the University of Miami.

“When they offered me a scholarship, it was a dream come true,” says Ejiofor, who signed with former Women’s Basketball Head Coach Melanie Balcomb in November 2015. Despite the coaching change—Stephanie White replaced Balcomb after the 2015–16 season—Ejiofor remained excited about the prospects of playing at Vanderbilt. She enrolled in classes for summer school in June 2016, ready to embark on her collegiate career.

That was when things unraveled. Vanderbilt officials first realized something was wrong when they noticed Ejiofor’s student visa had been expired for a year.

It turns out that Eastside High School had failed to file proper paperwork for Ejiofor, but the problems for the school did not end there. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association found that Eastside had violated numerous recruiting and transfer rules over a six-year period while pursuing top international players for its boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, bolstering their own athletics programs while extracting payments from duped parents and scholarship programs. These human-trafficking violations resulted in several dismissals and suspensions within the Eastside athletics department and a two-year state tournament ban for its teams.

Ejiofor was forced to return to Nigeria, where she spent a year at home wondering if she would ever have a chance to wear the Black and Gold and play in Memorial Gymnasium. Eventually, her visa was renewed and she returned to Nashville for the 2017–18 academic year. Ejiofor has seen limited playing time this season but is expected to be a significant contributor to the squad in the years ahead.

“Blessing has the potential to be a real impact player for us,” says Head Coach Stephanie White, noting that Ejiofor was not able to play much while awaiting her immigration issues to be sorted out. “Getting back in shape, getting her timing and conditioning back, as well as getting back into a routine, are important. When it all comes together, she will be not only a great rebounder but also a solid low-block scorer for us.”

Ejiofor says her transition to Vanderbilt this year has been amazing. “I didn’t know what my fate would be,” she says. “I was just hoping for a second opportunity, and I never gave up that hope.”