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Anthem singer takes center stage

05-02-14-COMM-uchendu-scroll

Chidinma Uchendu poses with her mother, Chinwe, who is visiting from Nigeria. “I’m very fortunate to have the kind of mother that I have,” says Uchendu, who was born in Nigeria and will sing the national anthem at her Commencement ceremony. (Photo by Natalie Battaglia.) 

• Chidinma Uchendu will sing the national anthem Friday at the College of Arts & Sciences Commencement ceremony. The event starts at 9:30 a.m. in Gentile Arena.

• See Uchendu sing during this year’s Arch Madness tournament.

Although she was born in Nigeria and went to high school in New Jersey, graduating senior Chidinma Uchendu is right at home in Chicago.

As an undergraduate at Loyola, Uchendu was in more clubs and organizations than she can remember. (“I should really get out my resume for this,” she said when asked to recall her on-campus activities.) She also worked in several University departments and is on a first-name basis with many Loyola administrators.

But it’s what she did during halftime of a college basketball game earlier this year that turned Uchendu into a true campus icon.

Uchendu—who goes by Chi (pronounced Chee)—was plucked from the stands at the Ramblers first-round Arch Madness game in St. Louis and asked to sing for the crowd. Most people in such a situation would butcher a few lines of an old standard like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and then sit down to a round of sympathy applause.

Not Uchendu.

 She calmly grabbed the microphone and belted out 30 seconds of beautiful, soul-stirring Italian opera. And the crowd, as the saying goes, went wild.

“It was a good time—and we won the game,” said Uchendu, who sang throughout high school and was in the choir briefly at Loyola. She took some time off after her freshman year but returned to singing in 2013 when she studied in Rome with renowned opera singer Delia Surratt.

Uchendu reached out to Loyola administrators last fall to see if she could sing the national anthem at Commencement. She was in Rome at the time, however, which made it difficult to set up an audition.

Her St. Louis solo changed all of that. After hearing her perform at the game, Loyola’s Commencement committee tapped Uchendu to sing Friday at the College of Arts & Sciences morning ceremony, where she will graduate with degrees in philosophy and black world studies. Uchendu’s mother—a teacher and a huge influence in her life—is flying in from Nigeria for the ceremony. It’s bound to be an emotional experience.

“Knowing and remembering what my mother and I have gone through—and the sacrifices she made for me and how difficult it’s been—singing the national anthem at my college graduation in front of her is truly an honor I’ll never forget,” Uchendu said, fighting back tears. “I’m very fortunate to have the kind of mother that I have.”

Uchendu plans to keep the family tradition of educating others alive. She’s been accepted into the Teach for America program and is interviewing for an elementary school teaching position the day after she graduates.

“Coming from Nigeria, I’ve seen what happens when people are denied an education,” Uchendu said, “so I’ve always had a passion for providing people with equal opportunities.”

“When I came to this country, I realized that some things aren’t as different as you would think,” she said. “No matter how wealthy a country is, there are still people who suffer and who lack certain basic amenities.

“And I believe education is a basic amenity that everyone should have access to.”