Just some years ago I was an undergraduate student at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) or “Great Ife,” as it is fondly called by friends and foes alike. Great Ife is one of the top universities in Nigeria, and it is recognized all over the world. It has produced notable alumni. It attracts the best students from around the country, so the entrance test is usually very competitive. When you get in there, you are either ready to study or get thrown out. Great Ife is a furnace where you get either burnt or refined. It is not a piece of cake!
The mechanical engineering class (which I was part of) was exceptional; like it was carefully selected. Everybody was intelligent. You could not call anyone dull. That class was sound in every respect. However, when you bring over eighty intelligent young people together, some challenges naturally come up. For instance, making decisions was more difficult than passing the proverbial camel through the eye of the needle. That is because everyone had great and superior ideas. For every project we would have more than eighty great ideas and suggestions. We were suffering from a surfeit of ideas. It is said that more is not always better. That statement proved to be absolutely true in my class. Organizing anything was a nightmare. In our final year, we were supposed to, among other things, take a group photograph. That seemingly simple activity was more challenging than all the exams we had written at Great Ife put together. We just could not get it right. Everybody knew the best camera angle or the best arrangement. Just when we thought we were set to take the photograph, somebody would bring up a new suggestion on how to do it better. That would lead to a long argument, and then we would start the process all over again. To curtail our peculiar problem, we decided to appoint leaders for every group activity and have everyone agree to abide by their decisions. Of course we still had people who would argue against the leaders’ decisions. We were just intelligently impossible. Other classes in the Faculty of Technology were like us, only they didn’t seem to be as disorganized as we were.
Back then we felt invisible. You see, OAU students believe they are the best in Nigeria*, and rightly so. There are some things only OAU graduates can relate to. I am sure other universities in Nigeria are great places in their own right, and offer wonderful academic environments. But anybody who has visited the OAU campus would agree that there is something in the atmosphere that you cannot find anywhere else. The serious studying, the devoted religiosity, the rich culture, the political consciousness, and militant Aluta spirit all combine to produce an aura that cannot be described with words. One just has to experience it.
We believed in my class that our certificates could get us employment in any company of our choice. After several strike actions we graduated six years later for a five-year course. Then we stayed at home for nine months awaiting the mandatory one year national service programme. Finally, we did the national service, but events did not happen as planned. A recession was imposed on the country by a political class that cares only about their pockets. Some of them still claim that the recession is just a word, when ordinary Nigerians are committing suicides in droves as a result of it. The recession has changed everything. Some companies have folded up. Others have laid off most of their staff. So there are no jobs, or rather, the type of jobs we had in mind. Employers now demand some annoyingly unattainable requirements for the few jobs available. Consequently, a few of my classmates have travelled out to pursue a postgraduate degree, while most are doing things that they do not consider engineering-related.
We have a Whatsapp group which enables us to keep in touch. As expected, the group is very active. Obviously, being out of school for so long has not cured us of our many ideas and suggestions. One question that’s in everybody’s mind that sometimes spews out is, what is now the value of our certificate? Why did we spend five – nay, six – years in the university? What is now the benefit to us? Was it worth it? For right now, we are not using that certificate for the “engineering” that is written on it. It is just a piece of paper filed away somewhere with some other sheets of papers called certificates. Of course we know that with time most of us will eventually settle on something that will require all or some aspects of engineering skills. However, our minds have been disabused of all those notions that we had concerning the certificate. It has dawned on us that we had focused on the wrong item. The certificate is not worth the value we ascribed to it. But then, trying to determine the value of the certificate is misleading. That is because the certificate is just the final result of a process; the proof of the completion of the process.
The important thing is not the certificate. The important thing is who we have become in the process of acquiring the certificate. The people we met. The skills we acquired. The things we learned. The friendships we built. The challenges we overcame. The battles we fought and won – as well as those we lost. Those are the most important things. We acquired not just engineering skills, but something more valuable – life skills. While at OAU, my class was almost self-sufficient. The class was diverse as it was intelligent. No matter what came up, there was always someone who knew something about it, or who could direct you to the appropriate resource. We had pastors, imams, programmers, technical directors, farmers, entrepreneurs, writers, poets, project managers, choir directors, musicians, guitarists, pianist, singers, dramatists, etc. They became that at OAU. And these guys were still academically sound in spite of all their extracurricular escapades. In fact, the student with the highest CGPA in the graduating set of 2013 was from my class! It was a class of leaders. Leaders made at Great Ife. It was amazing how easily we learned things. We were adept at beating deadlines.
Furthermore, OAU has a history of activism in Nigeria. There is a political consciousness among the student body that you cannot find in any other institution in Nigeria. It is why the students are always clashing with the school’s management, and consequently having several shutdowns. Great Ife is synonymous with strike actions. Lecture boycotts are a regular occurrence. A fresher is often told that she would spend “4 + x” years for a four year course (where x = numbers of years lost as a result of forced shutdowns). OAU students are anti-management, and by extension, anti-government. They are known to always say the truth to those occupying the nation’s seat of power. As a result, they’ve had frictions with successive governments over the years. The positive is that the students are politically aware. One of the most interesting times to be in OAU is during elections of the Student Union Government. It is usually insightful, exciting, and entertaining; the dancing, the singing, the speeches, the lyrical taglines, the prostrating at Awo Hall, and the loyal supporters. The grand finale is the manifesto night at the amphitheatre where every contestant addresses the congress of students. Unarguably the purest form of politics you will find in Nigeria. It trumps the charade our politicians call politics, which is just disguised corruption. Great Ife is also known for its appreciation for the African culture. That is not surprising; giving that it is located at Ile Ife, the cradle of Yoruba land. In Yoruba mythology, life began at Ile Ife. Understandably, the school’s motto is “For Learning and Culture.” Another very important aspect of Great Ife is its religiosity. It is visible everywhere. There are devout Christians, Muslims, Traditional practitioners and those who don’t practice anything. The students are vibrantly active. The debate never ends at Great Ife. All of these combine to shape the students’ worldview, but are not captured in the certificate. They just see things differently.
While the certificate shows that you have fulfilled the requirement for the award of a B.Sc. or any other qualification, it does not say how. That is why focusing on the certificate is misleading. Every institution changes those who pass through it. The “you” that graduates is different from the “you” that gained admission. In Nigeria, great emphasis is placed on the certificate. It is why you find many people doing courses they do not like. They just want the certificate. Some are doing courses of their choice but only study to pass. They regurgitate what they have read onto answer sheets during exams. This is not good. Such people find it difficult to function once they are outside of their area of study – that is if they are even knowledgeable in their area of study. They believe once they present their certificate, doors will open. But then employers have known that a great certificate does not necessarily mean an effective staff. A certificate can get you through the door, but it cannot keep you there. There is more to it. A student must develop skills that are necessary for future career success. Knowing this will change how people view institutions of learning. They will strive to attain all-round development. The emphasis will be to acquire knowledge and skills to be able to assess and comprehend societal problems, and then proffer solutions. And most importantly, they learn the art of building relationships. This is the key to being effective in the future.
So yes, we were trained as engineers, and good ones at that. But that training provided us with the essentials – subject knowledge, problem-solving skills, and a capacity for future learning. We discovered ourselves in the process; the reason for our diverse extracurricular interests. We did not come out merely as mechanical engineers, though the certificate says so. We came out as problem solvers, with the ability to adapt, no matter where we find ourselves. That is more important than the certificate.
*: Oba Awon University l’awa. 1 Terabyte l’ogo wa!