. . . the story of a black female professor at the University of Dalhousie
By Mercy Hill
Continued from last edition
So, do you have any Mentors right now?
At this stage I do have “mentors” though not in the light people see it. There are people who have been professors for twenty, thirty years and I am super young. People have been professors even before I was born. So even in my professorship status, I have people I look up to, who have lived it. When I have issues, I tend to ask them to advise me on what to do, even how to channel stuffs with my career pursuit. They apparently tell me to do it this way or that way and most times you see their words as something you wouldn’t even have thought about.
This thing called age is not a joke. It comes with a lot of experiences. So I do still seek insight from them. If you are a mentee, you need to have an explicit goal of what you want from your mentor. Ask the right questions so that person will know the path you want to thread and give you the right directions you can take. Most mentors are always busy and in a very scarce supply. So, when you get their attention, make sure you ask them the right questions. Each time you encounter your mentors, it should be a defining moment for you because you are ready and prepared.
What do you value most in your life and in others?
I kind of value a lot of things in my life. But first is my relationship with God. God means a lot to me. I have this relationship with God that I treasure so much and it has gone to a level that we negotiate things. I can’t talk about me without God.
I also treasure my family. I couldn’t have achieved what I am now without my family. The thing is that I can’t take any decision that my family is against. Like I told you, we are closely knitted, and I find my strength in them. My elder sisters paused their education to support me through school. They only started when I was done. They have sacrificed a lot for my success and I cannot take that for granted. For me, I don’t take no for an answer, I fight for whatever I believe in to the end.
And for others, I like people. When I see people, I see positivity in them. I like people who are reliable, trusting and have integrity.
How would you define success and What do you regard as your greatest achievement in life?
People would tell you a lot about me. I have won major awards internationally and I have broken a lot of records academically and otherwise. I have really done a lot. I have gone to over forty countries and did presentations in the United Nations and a lot of things. But for me, I think my greatest achievement is the number of people that I have been able to touch their lives. You see, I am not the regular professor you see out there. Even in Canada you don’t get them that young.
Over there in Canada, in my faculty, we have well over fifty professors and I am the only black amongst them and probably the youngest. Apart from that, tracing from my family background to where I am, this is not the usual route of professors. Professors are usually Daddy Professors, Mummy Professors and probably kids from affluent and rich homes. Mine isn’t like that. I passed through uncommon routes to get to where I am. So that basically means I have uncommon experiences. My desire is to help people, especially those that think they don’t have any hope, to see that there is hope. And over time, either directly or indirectly, I think I have achieved that. Ranging from people who hear my story and think their situations are even better off and not as bad. When I see lives that seemed hopeless and after they contact or get direct help from me, come back on track, it gives me a lot of joy. So, I count my achievement in line with that. I have so many Nigerians under my scholarship working in my Lab, and these are people from very lowly backgrounds. So when I look at them, I am happy because at least the person would be a light in his family.
Do you have any regrets in life?
Not at all. Bring me back to life again and I will live the same life all over. I think I am happy to a very good extent, because amidst all the struggles of life, I was able to remain disciplined. I got into the Charismatic Renewal even before I was ten years and that helped me a lot. There were things I couldn’t do. I won’t do something if it wasn’t a good virtue. I don’t have a lot of regrets because God captured me so early in life.
Let’s talk about writing and speaking, which do you prefer?
I would say, I am naturally a talker. I could talk easily. Writing never used to be my thing, I am more of a mathematician. I could express myself with figures. Even back then in school, I wished we could only write in figures. But when I decided to be a professor, I had to start navigating because most things were in writing. Since, I could not run away from it, I had to consciously work on it and now people say I write well. I actually worked on that to become my passion.
So, what do you write about?
Everything,I am a very dynamic person and I write about so many things, from politics, religion, secular life etc. In most of my writings I don’t even write much about what I studied, I know little about everything. I write about my experiences on life too.
Of course, I am a professor, so I have up to a hundred publications. In the western world, you write highly cited publications and I am always invited to talk about my work, of course that is why I have travelled to over forty different countries.
How does your research in human-computer interaction impact on people’s lives, especially women?
My research tries to do what we call persuasive computing. We try to design interactive system more like computer games, mobile applications, to empower people and promote health and wellness. Presently my student is working on a research on HIV/STDs in Africa. We are developing an application to help youths know how to learn about these diseases and avoid them through games. I am also working with women to develop an application on maternal and infant health. I try to help them know how to avoid pregnancy related diseases. It is more like a mobile medicine. So we do a lot of things that really touch on areas that are somehow abandoned, especially those related to women. Some are based on mental health. Presently, you hear of suicidal cases, so ours basically, are on strategic issues especially when they relate to health. That goes in line with my passion for empowering women like I told you earlier.
I am passionate about STEM, that is Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; how to empower more women to pursue careers in Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, which are historically known as men dominated fields. So, I use myself as example to do a lot of advocacy in that aspect.
What do you say to young girls about setting their life goals aright?
The only thing I have for young girls is that they should see themselves as individuals capable of existing independently. We have a lot of talents as women. When I talk to people, I tell them that I am a woman and I can combine ten things and keep them all by the side, but men cannot do that. We have so much ability in us. We set goals and achieve them. But I think that one of the problems we have here is that, in this part of the world, women tend to think that, they can’t exist without men. I personally support relationship and marriage but, you have the capability to achieve whatever you want to, independent of your husband. So, I think life becomes better if a woman has a defined goal, set on pursuing them, before even getting into a marriage. Men also admire that too, though the goal may have to change a bit to blend with your husband’s, he will admire that a lot.
I do encourage young girls to have a goal, pursue it as if nobody is coming to help, you cannot imagine the kind of power we have to change a lot of things that are not being used because women are bottling it up or the society is pushing it down. We cannot grow if half of the society (women) are not developing their potentials. There is no way we can develop. Everyone should get to work, men and women alike. That is what I preach.
Looking at your social media platforms it’s obvious you follow the trend of events in Nigeria. What do you see and what are your words to Nigerians?
I feel so passionate about Nigeria, because anywhere I go, I see myself as a Nigerian. So, I am looking at a Nigeria that, is so powerful and can utilize her youthful potentials. Over Sixty percent of our population are youths and more than half are not employed. I tell Nigerians that they are sitting on a time bomb if they don’t care. When most people are not employed, how do you think they are going to develop.
I just want to tell my country that help doesn’t come from outside, it comes from within. What we are looking for outside is with us. We cannot succeed without creating a platform for youths to use their power. Those in authority should create platforms for youths and women to succeed. I personally, believe in Nigeria. I am a Nigerian youth living abroad and I am doing a lot and I do return to contribute my quota. Most youths who fail in Nigeria, when taken abroad become the best over there. Those countries provide platforms, therefore Nigeria should imbibe that too.
You will spend some weeks in Nigeria before you go back to Canada. When you get back and the Canadians and Nigerians there ask you about Nigeria, what will you say to them?
People over there tell me Nigeria is not a safe place to go, please we don’t want anything to happen to you and all that. But I do tell them Nigeria has more promising future than its problems. My praises about Nigeria continues. I acknowledge that we have challenges, but I don’t agree that those challenges overweigh our goods. In as much as I bash Nigeria at times, I tell them about our good sides too.
Looking at your tight schedule, your travels around the world, one tends to ask if you have time for leisure?
Fun for people is relative, but for me, it is doing what I like doing and for my type of job that is so demanding, I steal out time to do unconventional things that could keep me out of it.
Paint a picture of life in Canada as against that in Nigeria, especially in respect to opportunities for young people?
People tend to say that Canada is a place of opportunities, I agree with that but not without struggles. There are still people in Canada who are unemployed. We still have homeless people too. It’s a home of opportunities when you have something to offer. If you are determined and intelligent you will get what to do. Over there also, there is dignity in labour. Whether you are a cleaner, cook, whatever you do, do it professionally, irrespective of what you do. You must work to earn your money. You do not play with your jobs.
But in Nigeria, people go to work and do nothing from morning till night; what I tell people is that, if we all invest in dedication and discipline to what you do, we will get this country working.
Any advice for young people?
I have always looked out for this opportunity to talk to youths like myself and tell them that standing here is an evidence that a woman can be successful. I am an evidence that background does not define you, an evidence that Nigerian youths are capable, smart, intelligent and smart to move mountains and that the world awaits our explosion. The unique thing about Nigerian youths is that we are resilient and strong, so when we combine that strength with our intelligence, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
Your condition may have been more different from mine, but it does not define you. See it as a transition and you will amaze yourself. Just get to work, use your inner strength and find solutions to make this country work.
For the women, we are even stronger mentally, we can set goals and achieve them, but the problem is that, we often underplay ourselves and capabilities, we have never given ourselves the opportunity to explore who we are. That is why I am giving women the encouragement to know they are powerful, and they should use it.
Don’t give into wrong things because of your condition. Condition is temporary but whatever you commit that is not in line with your value will be permanent. Problems come and go but a strong woman will outlive that and come out on top and have the courage to tell her story.
Thank you very much Prof Rita.