A seemingly random decision by a U.S. immigration officer changed a Columbus East graduate’s life so much that she now calls it her destiny.
Alicia Emily Borneo N’Guetta, who emigrated with her family from Trinidad to Columbus in 1998, has been visiting what she now considers her hometown this past month, catching up with high school and church friends and family members.
She lives in England now, an attorney and international traveler who works on human rights issues. N’Guetta and her husband, Leon-Henry, have forged ahead with several new companies in online business and app design.
Describing herself as a “citizen of the world,” N’Guetta has traveled throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada and the Caribbean. She has worked in Africa to set up a court to hear cases of human rights violations, and one day hopes to start a school for girls to help them understand how to navigate an increasingly challenging path to adulthood.
But if she had to point to the moment that led her to all the dreams she is pursuing now, it would be that moment when the immigration officer denied her U.S. visa request.
The rejection came at an inopportune time, but perhaps the best time it could have happened.
After graduating from East in 2002, N’Guetta (then Borneo), was wandering a bit, trying to decide on a college in the United States as her high school friends were scattering around Indiana and the country to continue their education.
For years, she had told her friends and family that she wanted to go to England and get a law degree. Trinidad was colonized by the Brits, she explained. However, no one really believed she would ever do it.
Instead, she applied to Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis, where she received a scholarship to be a manager for the women’s basketball team, and it seemed her plans were set. It was the same college where her brother, Kernell Borneo, had gone to school on a soccer scholarship.
But to finalize the school paperwork, she needed to go back to Trinidad to update her immigration status, which she did in the fall of 2003.
When she asked for a visa to return to the United States as a student, however, the immigration officer refused, saying she didn’t look like a bona fide student to him.
Only 19 years old, she was devastated, she said, crying for two nights — separated from her parents in Columbus, and her older brother Kernell and her older sister Josann. While at Columbus East, she had worked part time and had built a nest egg, so she had some money. Additionally, her mother’s best friend offered a place to stay.
The answer to what she would do came in an unlikely place, a home-based nail salon where she was visiting one day. A poster on the wall advertised a college in the United Kingdom — her dream.
When she asked the woman who was doing her nails about the poster, she was told her husband was a recruiter for the college.
Although the college, CRTS International College, admitted her and offered her a scholarship, she turned it down — because it didn’t appear like a traditional university.
But then the recruiter mentioned the University of Luton (now University of Bedfordshire) near London, much closer to what she was looking for.
With a different immigration officer involved this time, destiny again took a hand and she had her international student visa a few days later.
However, she would not see her family in Columbus for the next five years.
It was not the first time N’Guetta faced the unknown, not knowing anyone, wondering how to fit in.
That happened on her first day at Columbus East when she realized at age 14 that no one wore school uniforms as they did in Trinidad, and she wasn’t sure her clothes would help her fit in.
When Stephen and Jema Borneo, Alicia’s parents, emigrated here, they lived in an apartment near downtown Columbus and worked at minimum-wage jobs as custodians.
Money was tight then and the family shopped at Goodwill and Sans Souci as they saved and continued to work hard, eventually starting their own custodial services company, S&J Services LLC.
The adjustment was sometimes tough.
Alicia’s accent made it difficult for her fellow students to understand her. She remembered raising her hand in class when the teacher asked for someone to read a passage.
“That’s great,” the teacher said, “but no one understood a single thing you said,” she recalled.
The family joined Calvary Community Church, where they continue to attend today, and Alicia decided to join East’s swim team her freshman year, as she had enjoyed swimming in Trinidad.
She was about to quit, discouraged with the 5 a.m. practices and her lack of appropriate accessories — including the orange Columbus East bag that athletes carried — until she got in the car one day and her parents pointed proudly to a brand new one for her, along with new practice suits and other gear.
She stuck it out, swimming the breaststroke and freestyle as best she could. “I was rubbish compared to the other kids,” she said, laughing at the memory.
Her first competition, her goggles flipped off her eyes as she jumped in the pool and she felt silly, but was buoyed to finish knowing her family was there supporting her.
Even though initially she sat alone sometimes at lunch at the high school, she said she eventually formed a close-knit group of friends at East, people she still cherishes and keeps in touch with today.
Learning to make friends at Columbus East and in Columbus served her well as she started school in England, she said.
Working her way to degrees
N’Guetta worked her way through her college degree, her master’s, and then a law degree, taking a few years off to work and save money.
While in England, she worked as a personal banker, something that almost lured her away from the dream of a law degree. At one point she was named the top personal banker in England.
She could have stayed in the banking field, she said, but decided to go back to school and finish.
N’Guetta spent two years working part time at Harrods, UK’s most exclusive department store, where she worked in the silver department selling flatware to high-society shoppers.
She spent her days polishing silver knifes and forks, flabbergasted at the wealth that passed before her daily.
“But I learned a lot,” she said. “Every opportunity I have had, I’ve learned something.”
Coming back home
Through the years, Alicia’s sister would visit in England. But as time passed, Alicia decided she wanted to see her parents in Columbus.
But she still heard that immigration officer’s “no” in her mind as she considered it, wondering if she would again see the city she still considers her hometown.
“When I did reapply for a U.S. visa, I didn’t tell anyone,” she said.
In July 2008, nearly five years after her previous try was rejected, N’Guetta was granted a 10-year visa.
“About bloody time,” she recalls reacting.
She had a friend pick her up at the Cincinnati airport and drive her to Columbus, where she sneaked into the back of the house and watched her parents and sister for awhile, as they talked to her friend, who had come in through the front door.
When her sister saw her, she began screaming “Oh my God,” over and over, and her mother dissolved into tears. Her father was stunned.
She wasn’t home to stay, but now had the freedom to return to the U.S. whenever she wished, something she has continued to do through the years.
N’Guetta’s travels have also taken her to China, Tanzania, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Canada.
She’s planning a trip to Slovakia soon.
Flipping through her Trinidad passport, the booklet is actually two passports because of all the stamps and all the places she has traveled. She discovered the hard way that travelers always need a clean passport page for the visas, after booking a trip to Morocco and being denied because her passport pages were full.
While at the University of Luton, Alicia started another journey, meeting her future husband while hanging out in a study lounge.
“I had studied French for three years at East, and I wanted to make French friends,” she said. Leon-Henry N’Guetta was studying Internet e-business and spoke French — and Alicia said she immediately thought he was someone she wished to say hello to in French.
They went on one date and have been together ever since, getting married in November 2006.
Describing her husband as a “serial entrepreneur,” the two have been busy coming up with new ideas for their Internet companies in England.
“Our house is like a think tank,” she said.
They are mulling a website to help clients work through the legal details of creating and designing apps, helping clients take their ideas to reality.
And Alicia said she wants to come up with a travel website that links volunteering and helping humanity with vacations.
“Who can sit on a beach for an entire week?” she said. “I can’t.”
Instead, she now takes time in each of her travels to help out in the country where she is visiting. She has volunteered in an orphanage in Tanzania, fed the homeless in London and taught English to people in Bulgaria.
If every world traveler would take that time, for one or two days of helping out, it would make a difference, she said.
This weekend, N’Guetta is traveling again — heading back to England after a month-long stay with her family.
She doesn’t think of it as going home, however.
Although she has lived in England for years, and is originally from Trinidad, when she and her family talk about “home” and their “hometown,” they are referring to Columbus.
The name game
Alicia is known as Emily to some of her friends and Alicia to others. She jokes that in her family, if you have that many names, you might as well use all of them.
Her parents are Stephen and Jema Borneo, who own S&J Services LLC in Columbus. Her sister, Josann Sims, is raising her family in Columbus, attending IUPUC and volunteering in leadership roles for the Mill Race Marathon. Her brother, Kernell Borneo, directs soccer programs at Pro Performance in Morgantown, West Virginia, and coaches soccer teams that compete internationally.
She is married to Leon-Henry N’Guetta, who she met in college, and the couple has formed several companies in app creation and Internet business concepts.
Come to dinner
She loves to cook and have dinner parties — introducing her friends and family to new dishes and meals with interesting combinations of foods. Recently, she had an International Pancakes Day party, but served crepes, a French favorite, with savory and dessert fillings.
“Anything is possible if you dare to dream, irrespective of what obstacles may be in your way.”