After some financial problems, which led to going to school bare-footed and starving sometimes, Negedu Sunday graduated with a first class from the Department of Biochemistry, University of Lagos, with 4.70 CGPA in the 2013/2014 academic session.
In this interview with Punch's Tunde Ajaja, he speaks about his days in school
What was your growing up like?
As a child, life was tough. I grew up in Olodi-Apapa/Ajegunle area of Lagos. I’m the second out of seven children and my parents had deep love for education, even though they didn’t have much of it. My mum used to sell bean cake (akara) while my dad was a tailor. He had to take up another job as a housekeeper/store-keeper in a hotel. They worked so hard to care for us. Even though there were vices in the neighbourhood, like gambling, fighting and doing drugs, my parents were disciplinarians and they made sure we found reading attractive. And of course I won’t forget the deep financial hardship we went through; days I went to school bare-footed, which was quite common, because there was not enough money to spare for school sandals; days we bought bread on credit from a kind-hearted woman down the street, just to survive.
I also remember when I used to fetch water for people, staying awake to help my mum peel some more melons to increase her chance of making profits the following day, and many other things. Because of all those activities during the day, I often read in the night, and I started winning awards from primary one. So, thank God for where we are today; His mercy and grace made it possible and thank God my parents taught us in the way of the Lord, even if we had to go to church in bathroom slippers. God is faithful.
What inspired you to choose Biochemistry? Growing up, I had this dream to be a medical doctor and later to become a neurosurgeon. But 12 years after graduating from secondary school and after my sixth Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, choosing Biochemistry was the logical thing to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t pass the UTMEs, I did, but my admission suffered huge setbacks owing to lack of fund. At a point, I was somewhat persuaded that I needed to do a four-year course in order to graduate early (compared to the six years for medicine) so I could support my parents, siblings and others in need. A few of my teachers who knew my desire to study medicine were not so happy with that decision, they felt I would make an excellent doctor, but I had to do it and I enjoyed the course. I told myself that I had found something that transcends medicine because of its powerful relevance in basic science and application in addressing the problem of human diseases. I was deeply inspired by the knowledge of genes, DNA, RNA and their varied structural variants, proteins and the world of metabolism. Its application to everything, including nutrition, human physiology, drug development and design and human medicine strengthened my passion for the course.
Did you find the course a bit challenging like some people see it? Frankly, I never believed anything is difficult. I think it’s a very demanding course but intrinsically this is not peculiar to biochemistry. The course is unique and very deep. Of course, it was a lot of work to have a first class, but I wanted it badly; therefore, I consciously deployed everything necessary to achieve it. A day to my resumption in school, I prayed to God to help me to be excellent in character and academic performance. But beyond the prayer, I had the culture of targeting an ‘A’ in every course per semester and there was no time I aimed for a GPA less than 5.00. I never saw it as impossible, so I simply gave my best; drew a study plan and read every day in the semester. I gave up the pleasure of sleep and would read through the night. Nothing could distract me. So, graduating with a first class was not easy, but for me, there was no option. I have always led my class from primary school and I used to read so much that my father had to remark that it was too much for a boy of my age. I believe that excellence is a conscious thing.
When did you start having first class?
It was from my first semester.
Since you were desperate for it, how would you have felt if you didn’t make a first class? I often thought of it too. From experience, I would have felt unfulfilled for a brief moment. Yes, brief moment, because I don’t allow anything to bother my inner peace. The fact that I worked so hard for it and that I had acquired knowledge through painstaking study would be comforting. There were a few times I did not get the ‘A’ I so desired and worked hard for, but I stayed focused in spite of that. Over time, I have learned a secret of genuine success: finding peace, not giving any inch to disappointment and staying confident. That was my attitude to life’s dark moments.
Ultimately, I always wanted to inspire others through my story. Basically, all the challenges I had revolved round financial challenges. In my first year, I could not secure hostel accommodation, so I was coming to school from home (after Ajegunle). My mother would give me N500, which was virtually her profit from the sale of fried yam and ‘akara’ daily. My shoes were always worn out due to long trekking and I had polythene bag as school bag that I used to carry my heavy books around the school. My mum really sacrificed a lot. After my first semester, I tried joining the university’s work and study scheme, but I was advised not to, so it wouldn’t affect my performance. But God surrounded me with true friends and crowned my efforts.
What was your most memorable moment in school? It was when I received an award as the best biochemistry student in my first year. A professor of biochemistry and head of the department presented the award to me. Another memorable moment was when I invited my parents to grace the occasion of the MTN Science Foundation award at Muson Centre in Lagos. I also must mention that I won’t forget the semester I got 5.00 GPA. I had no embarrassing moment. I cannot think of any, maybe because I looked for the good in everything that happened to me and cast all my disappointments on God. I never felt embarrassed by anyone or anything.
Could you tell us more about the scholarship and the impact it had on you? When I gained admission, my former vice principal in my secondary school sent me a link for the scholarship. On following the link, I saw that I had to wait till the following year when I would have a CGPA. In my second year, a friend told me about the scholarship and gave me the link. I filled the form online and through a very inspiring and true story about myself, I described how important the scholarship was to my study. I presented my very best. I prayed and trusted God to have His way. I followed up with constant checks on my email. I was overjoyed when I got a mail from the MTNSSF team notifying me of my selection for the scholarship test. I took the test and I felt strongly that I did well but remained humble in my heart, looking to God for mercy.
The message of my success in the test and qualification for the award left me in wonder and excitement. I told my friends, parents and siblings. They were so proud and they rejoiced with me. I was so happy and thankful to God. The scholarship did quite a lot and I felt honoured to be a beneficiary of that prestigious award. With the scholarship, I was able to get study materials including a personal computer and support my parents and siblings and a few friends. It became the major source of financial sponsorship for my study and support at home. It also helped with the funding of my final year B.Sc. project. I enjoyed it for three years; from second year to fourth year. The scholarship was an invaluable support to realising my goal and made life beautiful in those trying moments.
Did you enjoy any other scholarship apart from that? University of Lagos supports its scholars (first-class students) with an endowment fund of N50,000 each academic year as long as the scholar maintains the first class. I benefited from this all through, and I’m so grateful for that.
Since it was either first class or nothing else, how long did you read to maintain your grade? I had a study plan, I prioritised my courses and studied very well. Beyond these, I prayed about everything, took responsibility for myself and actions, studied hard, remained focused and I learnt from others. I won a number of awards in school, including the HOD of Science Prize and the prestigious Professor Akinrimisi Prize of Excellence in Biochemistry. I believe some students fail due to lack of commitment, indiscipline, not identifying what works for them, seeking help late or not seeking help at all and lack of confidence. These issues can be tackled by any willing mind.
Do you believe in having mentors? I believe in mentoring. There were a few persons I admire from a distance. Some of them I came close to and I was encouraged by their confidence and sincere criticism.
How did you use your leisure? I spent my limited free time meditating, listening to godly songs, reading books or having discussions with friends. I could take some time to sleep or take a walk.
Did you have a relationship? I have a different approach to certain things. I was not in any relationship, not because I feared distraction, but I just didn’t think of being in one. There is time for everything under the sun as long as our creator allows it.
What are your aspirations in the short and long run? I just completed my M.Sc. in Biochemistry Tuesday last week, and in the short run, I would make effort for a Ph.D scholarship position in one of the best universities in the world. In the long run, I aspire to work in a world-class academic and research institution of my dream and to join in the fight against cancer through scientific enquiry or translational research. My hope is to be able to support the indigent and vulnerable in our society. I want to contribute to the good of people.
We learnt you are now a graduate assistant at UNILAG, would you like to remain in teaching or you have other interests? I love to teach and advise students, even though my passion is to be a molecular/biomedical researcher. I want to do more than just teach. My other interests are in volunteering and writing.
Or do you still have interest in Medicine, since that was your initial target? A few of my colleagues who were aware of my original passion for medicine often ask me this question. I think I’m fulfilled with biochemistry.
How best can students have excellence in their academics? They should desire academic excellence. That is very important. They should study hard, be diligent and remain resolute about their decision for excellence. Also of importance is for them to set high goals and give no room for mediocrity. Positivity and possibility attitude is also important. They should have faith in God. For me, I demonstrated a unique attitude of self-confidence and independence in my academic work from primary one and what I stood for was evident to all just as my football skills. That is also important.
For those 12 years that you were ay home, what were you doing? Immediately after my WASSCE, the principal of the school told me the plan of the school to retain me as an auxiliary teacher for the sciences and maths. Even though I was being paid N600, I was happy that I was adding value to the students, and I had a sense of indebtedness to the school. Even when the funding (by the PTA) stopped, I continued, voluntarily and the school appreciated it. After that, I went to a private school, and I was happy sharing good moments with the pupils. My teachers and the school owner were proud of me and they were kind to me.