. . . the story a black female professor at the University of Dalhousie
By Mercy Hill
There is a saying that greatness in man is not just measured by the height he has attained, but by the depths from which he came. A soul, determined to achieve success in any area of endeavour will always succeed if he squarely faces any challenges life will throw at him, and ride on to success. There is hardly any great man who has not fought and conquered in a life battle. And as some would say, the fiercer the battle, the sweeter the victory.
Here is a story of a woman from a very humble background. She faced poverty in her early days. Her educational pursuits were severally threatened due to lack of funding and her dreams of being a professor seemed bleak. But eyes on the ball, she ignored all the noise and distractions around and pushed through to the top.
Today, she is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Dalhousie. In this interview with Fides Reporter Mercy Hill, Prof. Rita Orji shares the story of her struggles and victories in life.
Good Morning, can you please introduce yourself?
My name is Rita Orji, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Dalhousie. I am also a Nigerian born Canadian. Basically, I am originally from a town called Owerre in Enugu state Nigeria and right now, I am also from a town called Agbo.
How was your growing up like – your background, education, family etc?
I grew up in a very loving and close-knit family of nine children with my mum and dad. We are five girls and four guys and we are so close, doing things together. My late parents were neither educated nor rich. They were into farming and there was not that abundance of wealth. We basically had very tight budget to survive on, so, it was not that easy for them to afford our education. Being able to go to school was due to external support from my uncles and well-wishers from my community.
Poverty aside, one thing I know about my parents is their habit of instilling in us the virtue of hardwork and contentment and trusting in ourselves. One thing I know I took from my parents is that they are contented, hardworking, honest and dedicated. They worked so hard as farmers and sometimes, there was little output from their efforts.
Amidst all our struggles then, I remember telling my friends that happenings around me were just a transition stage for me. I always had this big dream of being a professor, right from my early days. And even then there was no clue of when and how that would materialise, because in my village there were no professors. I am the first and only female professor presently. So my dream to become a professor, coupled with my desire to change the story of poverty in my family made me to follow my educational pursuits with determination.
Eventually, I started my educational pursuits, finished from secondary school and with help from people, I got into the University, that’s Nnamdi Azikwe University, Awka. That was where the magic started. After my first year in the University, I kind of discovered that with my little knowledge of computers I could do a lot of magic. I got admission into the University to study Computer Sciences without having used computers for the first time in my life. And when I got into the university, you know somehow I felt intimidated coming from a small village with little or no exposure and meeting people who had a lot of good secondary school education. Initially, it was a bit intimidating, but I got to figure out that I had to learn not bothering who was there or not, I didn’t care about the clothes, I remember vividly that I didn’t have up to four clothes and two pairs of shoes when I was in the University. But I didn’t care at all, I was so comfortable with what I had. I participated in everything I wanted. I was a Charismatic, played my part in school politics and then I gained employment as a teacher and I started making money. So, I felt it was going to be a good ride, but I had to support my family because some of my siblings were not yet in school that point. I also got a federal government scholarship after my year one because I was amongst the best students in my class and that made things easy for me then.
From my second year in school, I started using the money I earned to visit the cybercafé to browse, seeking for scholarships abroad, and in my third year, I got admission to pursue my Masters and PhD abroad, because I was not going to do my National Youth Service in Nigeria .But then I was denied visa, so I didn’t go to the US again as planned. I had to stay and serve in Nigeria. But I kept seeking for scholarships abroad. I got admitted into Oxford and some other top universities abroad. At a time I could count up to hundred universities I gained admission into, because I made a good result in my first degree, that’s a First-class Honours. But as I told you, I came from a background is not that of affluence and riches, so I sought for not just admission but scholarship that paid for everything including my flight fee from here to where I was going to.
So, for those admission that came with no scholarship it was an automatic “no” from me. For those with partial scholarship, it was still “no”, because I couldn’t afford it. After that I gained a number of scholarships out of which I picked Turkey for my Masters after that I got another admission to Canada for my PhD and right now, I am a professor of Computer science with my own Lab and everything.
One trait that kept me in all these countries I schooled was that zeal of wanting to learn, never giving up and not bothering what the environmental distraction was. God was and is still with me. It was a lot more challenging than you think. I remember at a point when I was pursuing my Masters, I told God its better I die than to fail, and that urged me to keep reading. It was so difficult because most times I was the only black in my class, and it became a thing of mockery.And then you find it quite difficult making friends, navigating around,because the academic environment was quite different from what we have here. At a time, I did contemplate quitting, I would call my family to tell them that I would quit, but my sisters kept asking me to give it my best and stay.To me, I was like, which best? There was a time I could not differentiate between night and day, I would sit, study and work for 48 hours and it was as if things were not working at all. But guess what, they were! With God, hardwork, persistence and character, anyone can succeed. I said character because, when you are climbing up the ladder, its not only about hardwork, but your personality and how you relate with people around you that helps you, because its people that will push you there. You must create presence and make an impact in your environment.
My story is that of ‘nothing is impossible’. If you just conceive your ideas and put in your best via hard work and with God by your side, you will excel.
Many young graduates are worried, even afraid of the years after graduation. How did you manage yours?
Yea, it’s a moment every graduate comes with that question, what’s next? Because in school you are protected from a lot of things, but after graduating, people kind of believe that you should be helping not wanting to be helped. At the time I graduated, several things happened, though with a good grade but I knew it was more than that, because we are in Nigeria. I can remember one of my classmates telling me it was not about grade and that with my first class and his third class or second class lower he would employ me. I didn’t answer him. I went home but the statement made a lot of meaning to me. I then went to the Blessed Sacrament and said my prayers, but later, I came back to him and told him that can never happen. It didn’t stop there. When I couldn’t make it abroad after my initial attempt, I started praying and working. I started asking myself what it takes to get a job, it’s not only your result, here, you must go for interview, write an aptitude test. By the time I went for youth service, I worked in the aspect of studying more. I read ten series of GMAT, ten years back. I started reading everything to get myself set for any kind of exams. I made sure that when I am called for an exam, I would be sure to be pass and that if anyone was going to be chosen, it was going to be me. I knew I got the result, but I had to do the other one. So, any test I went for I passed it and I got a lot of job offers. More so, I had to network with people, because many opportunities that may come would be through who could tell you of one opportunity or the other. You don’t stay in your house and expect opportunities to come meet you, you network. So my network of friends coupled with the fact that I had a good result, helped me a lot. I won’t discount what my good results did for me, because anywhere I applied, they called me, aside the Nigerian factor which may affect you during the interview and you may not get employed, but as for the calls, I always got called. Because of the fact I had a good result too, I was super young, I networked with people and I was always ready to learn.
So, what I advice people is to take it as a game. This is another stage of the game of life. You have conquered the education, now conquer the world.
There are two ways to succeed: first is an understanding of how the world works. There is an intelligence of how the world works, that is the ability to understand the time. What is it right now? It is a time of technology. The second is the understanding of who you are. People tell you what you are supposed to do based on their understanding of who you are, but what you are is only understood by you alone. And one of the downfalls of a man is placing a round hole in a square peg. You will be in wrong career all your life that you will be unable to understand where you are until you are lost. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, most people study courses that are not actually what they want to practise or what they are good at. The good news is that after graduation you can retrieve back and decide. Most times, your first degree does not say who you are. Its only a door opener that says this person has a capability to learn but it does not define a career path for you. First degree is not meant to create a specialist out of you, rather it is meant to create somebody who has a knowledge base, who now knows what to learn and can learn new things. I tend to believe that, even if your first degree does not match your dreams, you can likely navigate to your dream course. You must have to find out what your strength is and what you can do. People do well when what they do falls in line with their passion and strength.
A moment of truth is the moment of graduation where you are no longer being pampered by your parents, you must sit down and say this is my reality here and I must realise myself. Block out the noise out there of what people think you need and start networking with people who can help you gain those opportunities. Inasmuch as there are no jobs try to get one that is in alignment with where you are going.
Another thing is that you should not focus on money, though very important, but what is more important is making a career. You might take a job that pays you half of what another job would offer but it will channel you to the right direction and position you for the future big thing.
This is a time to build yourself for the big future, at graduation you don’t need too much money to survive, all you need is to build and position yourself for that future you visualize. By the time you will be needing that big money, you are already built for it. Keep an open mind to life and know exactly where you are going to.
Mentoring and success are two words one hears often today. What do you have to say about this in relation to your life?
Mentoring is very important. I tell people that I have not seen a lot of people take the path I took when I was doing what I was doing. Because like I told you, I am the first female to have a PhD from my place. I had a lot of difficulties because I did a lot of things without proper guidance. Most of the steps I took were trials and errors. That means things that would have taken a shorter time, took a longer time for me to accomplish. But when I mentor people these days, I tell you the things that work because I have passed through them. I have lived it and I have experimented it. A journey of forty days can be shorter with a mentor because you will live off their experiences, so you need not start from scratch. It’s more like living using a user’s manual that is more orchestrated and done step by step. If you don’t have a mentor, you might eventually succeed but it may take longer. Mentorship is a very good ingredient to success. If you have it, you get old age insight from a seasoned person who has lived through same experience.
to be continued in the next edition