Mental Health Leader Draws on His Immigrant Experience to Serve California’s Diverse Communities
Imo Momoh was just a teenager when he came to the United States from Nigeria to attend college and join his older sister, a student at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Three months later, in the Fall of 2000, his sister left, and Imo was on his own. “It was hard,” he says. “I was by myself.”
For Momoh, those early years were difficult. At one point, as a student at California State University-East Bay in Hayward, things got bad enough that he confided in a school nurse. “We had built a friendly relationship and I told her I was stressed,” he says. “I just expressed the challenges and she listened. Sometimes you just want to vent and speak.”
He stuck it out through those tough times, and has used those experiences — and the trials of coming from another country and culture — to create a well of empathy and understanding that has informed his work as a leader in community mental health programs up and down the state.
“I know the challenges that exist when you try to assimilate into a new culture,” he says. “I understand the struggles people have in trying to understand a new system and feed your family. I understand not being able to pay rent, and what do you do? It can affect your mental stability, your emotional health. And if your mental health is affected, it affects your physical health.”
Momoh used the self-reliance he learned at an early age when he was sent off to boarding school at 11. He pushed through, completing his bachelor’s degree in 2005 and rolling straight into a master’s program, all at the Cal State campus. Two decades later, Momoh would receive a 40 under 40 award from Cal State, recognizing him for his contributions in health care.
“Mentally I’m conditioned to be independent,” he says. “I was away from home early. Coming to the States, I had a level of independence that maybe others didn’t have. I learned that I should just accept who I was and embrace my culture, where I really come from, as opposed to trying to be what I’m not, or trying to act as someone else.”
He left for a while to return to Nigeria, working in the finance department for Chevron Nigeria Limited and honing his skills in financial planning and administration. When he returned to California after a year, he went back to work for Contra Costa County, this time managing workforce development and diversity programs.