Like a giant masquerade in the market place, all eyes were on 20-year-old Nigerian, Merrilyn Akpapuna, two Saturdays ago at the Dillard University, New Orleans, United States.
The Psychology graduate not only obtained the highest academic honour Summa Cum Laude (first class), she also emerged the best graduating student in the ivory tower. As the institution’s valedictorian, she was on the same podium with the wife of the President, Michelle Obama, during its convocation.
Interestingly, three other Nigerians joined Akpapuna in the league of the best graduating students at the university. The three salutatorians are Victor Ogburie, Stephen Igwe, and Emole Anyadimgba. They also made a first class in their chosen disciplines.
Besides, Akpapuna won two other awards for highest academic achievements for the College of Arts and Sciences and College of General Studies.
In an online interview with our correspondent, the youngster says her success in the 155-year-old ivory tower was not without some challenges.
She notes, “When I first got to Dillard, I had to learn the differences in the spelling of certain words and adjust to a new metric system. These constituted challenges but I was able to overcome them by putting in extra time to study. I also faced some difficulties due to the difference in the education system. In Nigeria, the teaching system follows the British pattern, which is different from the system in the United States.
“However, despite these challenges, my cumulative grade point average is 4.0/4.0. In other words, I made an A in every course I took during my four years study in the university.”
But her stay in the US and particularly in the university was not all about academic work. She participated not just in student politics but also in other activities that affected humanity positively.
She adds, “My stay in the university was not all about studying. I took time out for my social life and made a great effort to ensure that my spiritual life did not suffer. I was also a student activist and a leader. I was the President of the African World Network Organisation and Lead Fellow of the Melton Foundation.
“At Dillard also, some of my awards and recognitions include the Daniel C. Thompson/Samuel Dubois Cook Honours Programme, Phi Eta Sigma Freshman Honour Society, Dean’s List of Scholars, 1st Place for exceptional work in Algebra Relay, National Institute of Science, Beta Kappa Chi Honour Society, Alpha Kappa Mu national Honour Society, and Psi Chi National Honour Society.”
Again, for the youngster, her Dillard accomplishment is not just by a mere stroke of fortune. Excellence seems to be her middle name. Indeed, following her success at the Management Education Training, Ikeja where she took tutorials on Scholastic Aptitude Test, she received full scholarship to study in the university.
Before then, the third daughter of a dental surgeon, Emmanuel Akpapuna, had excelled in the West African Secondary School Certificate Examination, coming tops of her class at the Reagan Memorial Baptist Girls Secondary School, Yaba, Lagos.
The Delta State-born psychologist enthuses, “Upon graduating from secondary school, I took SAT classes in Management Education Training in Ikeja. I decided to come to the United States after I had received full scholarship offer for my tuition, room and board. In fact, I had scholarship all my four years in college.”
But being a female student, did she experience any case of sexual harassment from her lecturers and fellow students? Akpapuna, who says she wants to proceed immediately to the Western Michigan University for her graduate programme, says there was nothing of sort.
“Men did not disturb me on campus and no lecturer ever asked me for sexual favours. Again, let me tell you, the factors that brought about my success would have remained the same even in Nigeria. So, I believe I would have excelled in the same way if I had stayed in Nigeria,” she says.
Advising younger Nigerians who might want to follow her footsteps, she says, “Be ambitious and go for what you want and do not let anything stop you. Realise that there is time for everything. Set priorities and live by them.”
Appraising the case of the Chibok pupils abducted by the Boko Haram, Akpapuna describes the insurgents’ action as crazy.
“So, imagine 276 girls being abducted from a school in the city you’re living. How crazy is that? How is it that even after all this time, the government is still not able to make a concrete and accurate public declaration of what is being done to find the girls? This is very sad. Nigeria is my home but I would be just as enraged if this happened in any other part of the world.
“The terrorist organisation holding these girls has been committing several horrifying acts, especially in the Northern part of Nigeria, and nothing major has been done to stop them. These acts by the Boko Haram have been done to ostensibly stop western education, which is said to oppose Islamic tradition.
“We may not be able to physically save these girls but what we can do is talk. Our voice is our power and if everyone is talking about this, we increase the likelihood that something will be done about it,” she adds.
For 27-year-old Emole, who also obtained a first class with a cumulative grade point average of 4.0, the Dillard authorities also provided him full scholarship throughout his stay in the university.
According to the Computer Science graduate, he balanced his schooling with extra-curricular activities and participation in collegiate organisations such as the Rotaract Club and National Society of Black Engineers.
He adds, “I served in various leadership roles in the organisations, and through these student organisations, I learnt about community service and have been afforded the opportunity to participate in many community service projects. I also participated in some undergraduate research projects, which I presented to the school during my undergraduate research competition. I emerged the first place.”
On why he chose to study Computer Science in the US instead of Nigeria, Emole says there is no way one can compare the academic environments of the two countries.
He says, “Nigerian universities offer Computer Science but it cannot be compared to what obtains in American universities, which is why I decided to come to the United States. Again, I came to the US on the platform of a scholarship that covered my tuition, room and board.”
The US First Lady, during the convocation, urged the 226 graduands of the university to contribute to producing future geniuses.
“Imagine the impact you will make. You have no excuses to stand on the sidelines. Education is still the key to real and lasting freedom. It is up to us to cultivate that hunger for education in those coming after us.
“We got here today because of so many people who toiled and sweated and bled and died for us; people who never dreamt of getting a college education for themselves but who worked and saved and sacrificed so that we could be here today. We owe them. We owe them. And the only way to pay back that debt is by making those same kinds of sacrifices and investments for the next generation,” Obama, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the university, said.
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