A single image can move Danielle Obisie-Orlu to write, such as a photo of herself as a toddler next to her four older siblings. She’s wearing a stern look and a onesie that says “I am this big” 一 a phrase that became the title for one of her most popular poems.
“That toddler opened their eyes and they wanted the world to know that they were aware. It just looks like I’m mean mugging the camera every single time,” Obisie-Orlu said with a laugh.
As a locally-renowned poet and actress, Obisie-Orlu uses her art to tell stories of migration, belonging and empowerment.
“As long as you have this and as long as you have this,” she said, gesturing to her temple and throat, “you are a force to be reckoned with — go ahead.”
Obisie-Orlu was born in Washington, D.C. to Nigerian parents, moved to South Africa at nine months old and returned to the States in 2019 to join Pitt’s Bachelor of Philosophy program.
Growing up in Johannesburg, Obisie-Orlu said she experienced colorism from peers and teachers, including one male student who compared her skin to their pitch-black school shoes.
“I think the tears I expended for that day was also the resolve I built and still have now,” Obisie-Orlu.
“Joburg,” as Obisie-Orlu calls it, is also where she became familiar with “ubuntu,” a Nguni Bantu term that can be translated to “I am because you are.” She said the phrase signifies the recognition of everyone’s humanity that guides her art and research.
Obisie-Orlu is now in the final semester of a prolific undergraduate career, pursuing a BPhil in International and Area Studies as well as a double major in political science with minors in French and sociology and certificates in Transatlantic and African studies.
“If there’s one thing about me — if I think I can take it on, I’ll make the time,” Obisie-Orlu said.
D.C. or New York City seemed like natural fits for college, but she decided on Pitt after learning about the BPhil, a program that allows undergraduates to conduct self-directed research. As part of her BPhil, Obisie-Orlu studies xenophobia toward migrants of African descent in France — the nexus of her six degree paths.
Obisie-Orlu’s decision to attend Pitt also meant that she spent the past three years with her sister Immanuela Obisie-Orlu, who graduated from Pitt last spring to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology at Northwestern University. Immanuela said she saw remarkable growth in Danielle during that time.
“I’ve gotten the incredible opportunity to see her gain confidence in her school work, her passions, and leadership abilities,” she said. “She’s incredibly driven and puts so, so much effort into everything she does.”
Obisie-Orlu spent much of her time last year fulfilling the duties of Allegheny County’s Youth Poet Laureate, an honor bestowed through City of Asylum as part of a national network of up-and-coming poets. Through the award, Obisie-Orlu performed poetry at more than two dozen events, and even rubbed elbows with former ambassadors and world leaders — people she said she’d “only dreamed of interacting with as a political science student.”
Erin Roussel, former project manager at City of Asylum, said Obisie-Orlu helped define the role and attract future applicants as the second-ever Allegheny County Youth Poet Laureate.
“Not all poets are also extroverts like Danielle. That really helped her take advantage of the role, that she enjoyed speaking in public,” Roussel said.
Roussel worked with Obisie-Orlu as a poet, but also praised her acting in the 2021 City Theatre production of “The Rivers Don’t Know.” Obisie-Orlu used this experience as inspiration for “Home,” a poem written from the perspective of Khadija, the Somali-Bantu refugee who she portrayed in the play.
She absorbed a knack for the spotlight from her sister Shalom, who Obisie-Orlu described as “bold” and willing to take center stage no matter the outcome.
Growing up as the youngest of five had a profound impact on Obisie-Orlu as she strived to make herself heard, but it also encouraged her to help those around her. She was a self-described “fixer” who became the household’s “little detective” for things like missing keys.
“When you have four siblings, you learn about so many different personalities without leaving the house,” Obisie-Orlu said. “You learn about how people think about things, how people craft things, how an instruction means different things to different people.”
Obisie-Orlu eventually took some advice from her mother to focus on her own happiness too, but she continues to help others as a Student Ambassador for the European Studies Center and Global Ties mentor.
Obisie-Orlu plans to take plenty of stages throughout her life, whether that be literally as an artist or figuratively as a leader. In fact, she’s planned out the next 30 years of her career. She began drafting the plan during her final year of high school and started to implement it on her 21st birthday, starting with her current research on the intersection of xenophobia and governance.
After graduation, Obisie-Orlu plans to pursue a degree in international and public law, then parlay that into a position at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She said she dreams of eventually becoming the high commissioner.
“International law is such a beautiful field because it’s ever-developing,” Obisie-Orlu said. “It’s built on the goodwill and determination to cooperate and collaborate on a state level, but also on a grassroots level.”
After a stint as UN Secretary-General, the 30-year plan calls for a “palette cleanser” — becoming President of the United States, Obisie-Orlu said. In the meantime, she’s devoting plenty of attention to the present, and even the past.
In February, she revised a stanza of “Poem for the Expat,” an ode to her future self that she wrote at 15 years old. Obisie-Orlu’s recent changes focus on the transition from statements of hope to ones of determined action throughout the poem.
“Now I know, where there is loss, there is still home within yourself,” Obisie-Orlu said.