For the first time in several years, the Department of English at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Osun State produced first-class graduates, and the duo of Kehinde Lawal and a colleague achieved the feat. Interestingly, they both graduated with 4.56 CGPA. In this interview with TUNDE AJAJA, 23-year-old Lawal speaks on this great feat and other things of interest about her days in school
We learnt your department has not produced any first-class graduate in years, did you set out to break that record when you got into the department or it happened by providence?
The negative comments that spread all over OAU about the Department of English was enough to discourage anybody that planned to achieve that feat. From senior colleagues in the department to other places, the submission was the same. You hear comments like: ‘Don’t stress yourself reading too much, you won’t graduate with a first-class degree’. It was so strong that when I got into the department, I became very unsure of my ability to graduate with a first-class degree because those demotivating comments weakened many students’ resolve to work towards it. Meanwhile, before I got admission into OAU, I had attended several convocations and I was aware of my parents’ remarks on excellent grades. So, I was prepared to be an excellent student and make them proud, until I was faced with the negative comments. However, I remained determined to be the best in my class and now I’m more than excited that Roheemah Arogundade (the other student who graduated with a first-class degree) and I have been able to shine the light of ‘possibility’ and I hope this would encourage students to know they can achieve anything they set their minds on.
With your resolve, how easy was it to make first class it?
To graduate with a first-class degree in a department that has not recorded such for over two decades was not so easy. At the time it was yet to be achieved, it seemed difficult but now that the race is concluded, it feels like it was a lot easier than I expected. That’s on one hand; on the other hand, learning any language could be a daunting task because language itself is a complex phenomenon.
When did you start having excellent grades that make you achieve the feat?
I had excellent grades throughout and the least GPA I had was 4.53.
Did you win any scholarship or award throughout?
No, I didn’t, even after graduating. I feel the recognition, celebration and promotion of academic excellence is appalling in Nigeria. There are limited scholarship opportunities for Nigerian students and it is even more difficult to secure a scholarship as a graduate of courses that are not related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Presently, I have been offered admission to undertake a master’s programme in Corporate Communications, Marketing and Public Relations in four top universities in the world but I can’t afford to pay the fees. The difficulty in getting a scholarship slaps the sad reality on me that I can’t go to any of those schools.
Was there anything about your growing up that prepared you for your disposition to success?
Yes and thanks to my mum for that. My mum started preparing me and my sisters for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination and Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination from the time we were in Junior Secondary School 2. I was 12 then. That was when my elder sister was in Senior Secondary School 2 preparing for her O’level exams. It was that period that the culture of reading overnight was initiated in my house. From that time, my mum would wake me and my sisters up every day of the week (except weekends and holidays) to read from 12am to 4am. At 4am, we would rest till 6am when we would start preparing to leave for school.
Did she stay awake to monitor you?
(Laughs) The most amazing thing was that my mum would sit with us, picking beans or melons to ensure that we read. There were times she got big bowls of water for us to soak our feet in while reading. We did this for years and it became a part of us. Till date, I assimilate better when I read in the night and I will forever be grateful to my mother for that. In my WASSCE, I had distinctions in all my subjects; five A’s and four B’s. I was not happy about my UTME score because I knew I could do better. I scored 228 but I consoled myself with the 300 I had in the post-UTME at OAU. With that kind of upbringing, success became a norm for us. I used to be very unhappy anytime I got the second or third prize in my class. In my secondary school, I won a competition for Our Lady & St Francis’ Catholic College, Osogbo at the Vision of Hope Quiz competition in 2009 and that was where I got my first laptop. From that moment, I noticed many of my friends, classmates and teachers expected more from me. So, I was intentionally working towards having very good scores in tests, assignments, class exercises and exams. I became bold enough to join the debate club and I represented the school in other competitions. However, my WASSCE and post-UTME results opened my eyes to how better I had become.
It’s common for students to have some difficulty acclimatising in their first year being a new environment, what was your experience?
The orientation I got from home was my road map to success. I knew my parents expected so much from me and my dad was fond of telling his children that his only inheritance for us was good education and that we must use the opportunity well. So, those were enough motivation. In my first year, all I focused on was my education. During the day, I was either in class or in the hostel sleeping. At night, I was out reading till morning. I knew what I wanted before I got to school, so from my first day, I never really struggled with thoughts of how to go about my lifestyle in school.
Were there times you almost gave up on that goal?
During the rain semester in my second year, I had 5.00 GPA. I was excited, as you can imagine, and the desire to graduate with a first-class degree became stronger. But when I lost my dad few days to my final exams, every dream and desire in me practically died. That was the only time I felt it was pointless to try so hard to be anything in life. My dad was a very hard-working man. He was strong, determined and highly committed to his family, even the extended family. But at that point when he was supposed to enjoy like never before and watch more successes of his kids, death took him away. Every positive thing I thought about life became negative at that time. I didn’t want to study, I never wanted to pass exams or do anything extraordinary because I thought death could put an end to everything the next minute and my first class could mean nothing.
How did you overcome that low moment?
What killed my vibe also rekindled it. Even though I was bitter about my dad’s death, his words never stopped playing in my head. He told us many times that ‘good education is my only inheritance for my kids’. I did my final exams in tears but I did them well because I wanted to make him proud even in his absence. The support I got from my family and a very good friend also kept me going. Hard work, diligence and prayers all made it possible.
How would you have felt if you hadn’t graduated with a first-class degree?
I would have felt disappointed in myself because I worked and prayed really hard for it. For me, I used to start preparing for exams from the day lectures began and most times I only revised during examination. Also, I had my personal note for each of my courses that contained a full explanation of all the topics in my own words.
From what you observed, why do students fail?
There are many factors one could adduce for that, ranging from psychological, like what I went through when my dad died, to financial challenge, broken home, low self esteem, lack of interest in their course, perhaps due to imposition by parents, unconducive learning environments, prevailing rate of unemployment, which could discourage some from giving their best and wrong association, which could breed huge distraction and make them lose focus.
What attracted you to English?
My dream course was law but I got admitted to study English. And sincerely, I was never convinced that there was any good going to study English in the university until I found myself in the department. Many people would ask why study English when everyone speaks good English even without a degree in it, but now I ask them if they know what ‘good’ English is. The English language is more than just the speaking; every language has embedded in it more features than you could imagine. My course taught me that.
OAU is socially inclined; were you sociable or you were always reading?
I wasn’t a nerd as an undergraduate; I was involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities. I was a member of the press outfit of the department and I rose to the position of the Editor-in-Chief. I also chaired a lot of planning committees for social events in the department. My second year was the time I started my training in the French language and I did that until I graduated. I passed the professional exams in French. My A2 certification in DELF (diploma awarded by the French Ministry of Education to prove the French-language skills of non-French candidates) exam gained me an admission into a language institute in Togo where I studied for six months in the hiatus before the National Youth Service Corps programme. I also took up part-time jobs to augment my income in school. I was equally the Public Relations Officer for a multilingual consulting firm. In addition, I took some kids at the university staff quarters in home lesson. I would say my stay in OAU was really adventurous. I explored a lot and I had fun.
Did you face any challenge as an undergraduate?
Yes, I used to get some money from home but it wasn’t sufficient, so I had to do some work to complement what I had. In my second year, I sold bread and egg at Moremi Hall but later the hostel management frowned on such so I stopped. When I started living off campus, I sold bedspreads and those things helped. Quite a lot changed when I got a part-time job at a foreign language institute in the university environment. Though I had more money, I pumped all into my French studies.
Could you remember how your mum received the news?
I was in Togo when the news got to them but my sister told me she rolled on the floor happily to give thanks to God (laughs).
What are your aspirations?
I want to become a professional in corporate communications with special expertise in media and public relations, advertising, brand and marketing communications.
Two of you graduated with a first-class degree and with same CGPA; did you work together?
We were friends. I think we got quite close in our third year. We had group discussions with some others in the class and we solved past questions together when exams were close. I’m glad we made it.