MaryAnn Ihejirika Marsh grew up hearing about Northwestern, where her father met the people who helped his wife and children escape war-torn Nigeria and find refuge in America. Soon after Marsh’s father, Christopher Ihejirika, left Nigeria in 1967 to study abroad, the Nigerian-Biafran War broke out in the region where his family lived. The war devastated the country, caused mass starvation and cut off all communication with the outside world. For more than two years, Ihejirika didn’t know if his wife and six children were alive or dead.
Since returning home was not an option, Ihejirika accepted a scholarship to study finance at Northwestern. When Peter Dietz of Northwestern’s School of Business (now the Kellogg School of Management) learned about Ihejirika’s family, he enlisted the help of friends, church congregations and local politicians to locate them. In June 1969 the Ihejirika family was finally reunited in Chicago. Marsh, a Chicago-based real estate broker and entrepreneur, says if it hadn’t been for her father’s experience at Northwestern, she might not be here today. Now, as the president of the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association and a member of the Northwestern University Leadership Circle (NULC) Chicago Regional Board, Marsh says she owes the University as much as she can give.
Why did you apply to Northwestern?
My father always emphasized that education was the only way to elevate our people and our culture — it was everything to him. Northwestern has a special place in our hearts and in our family’s history. I was determined to go there and make my father proud. My brother, Francis Ihejirika ’83, and sister, Maudlyne Ihejirika ’87 MS (who chronicled the family’s experiences in Escape from Nigeria: A Memoir of Faith, Love and War), also attended.
You studied economics at Northwestern. What inspired your entrepreneurial spirit?
I definitely got that from my mother. Shortly after arriving in America, she started working as a seamstress. She capitalized on the Afrocentric movement of the 1970s by selling her African designs on State Street in Chicago. She did really well. After Northwestern, I knew I wanted to be my own boss, so I started an import-export business — selling American blue jeans in Europe — before opening an art gallery in Chicago. Then I met my husband, Reginald Marsh, and moved to Cleveland. When we returned to Illinois, I embarked on a career in real estate. Then, in 2006, my husband and I opened M Lounge, our South Loop jazz club.
What are your top priorities for NUBAA?
We want to create a liaison with the Black student population so we can communicate more with the students. Our members give predominantly to the NUBAA Promise and Achievement Scholarships, and my priority is to make sure that Black students know about NUBAA and what our organization is doing to support them. Secondly, I want to create a professional network so that if you are in a city like Miami, and you want to support a business owned by a NUBAA member, you can do that. Or if you move to Chicago and don’t know anyone, you have a network of NUBAA members to reach out to. And, of course, we want to have fun too!
Thank you, Mrs. Ihejirika-Marsh, for all you do for the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association and the Northwestern University Leadership Circle and for sharing your inspiring success story of faith, resilience, hard work and the goodwill of Professor Dietz's exemplary demonstration of "love your neighbor as yourself" in action. May God bless him. That type of goodwill is what makes the world a better place. I hope that we will all continue to further Professor Dietz’s belief-in-action stance in relationships with our fellow citizens of the world, thereby making this world a better place for all.
I experienced the Biafran-Nigerian War as a toddler and quite understand the grace of God demonstrated toward your family through Professor Dietz, who saw a need and did not succumb to inertia, but stepped out by faith and walked on water to save your family. I truly applaud him for his kindness to my brothers and sisters and join you and your family in praying God's blessings upon his life and his posterity. God will never forget his labor of love. That was a great sacrifice!
—Maureen Okoli ’19 MS, Aurora, Ill., via Northwestern Magazine