Twenty-six-year-old Tommy Nteowo, who bagged first class honours in English Language from the University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, tells OPEYEMI ADEFEMI how he achieved the feat despite his poor academic foundation
Graduating with first class honours from a public university is seen as an uncommon achievement. How easy was it for you?
Without sugar-coating, it was very challenging for me. However, what was even more challenging was maintaining it for four years. I usually illustrate this with someone having to climb a pole. The efforts needed to stay at the apex of the pole for four hours or days will be more than that which is needed to climb it. Similarly, maintaining a Cumulative Grade Point Average of 5.0, for instance, requires double if not more effort than making it. That, of course, isn’t to scare anyone from undertaking the worthwhile and rewarding journey of excellence.
You studied English. What was the attraction for you?
Growing up, my father, after coming home from work, used to persuade me to sit and either listen to or watch news broadcast on the British Broadcasting Corporation. Even though this was tedious at first, I gradually developed an interest in it eventually. Though the content of the news was lost on me most of the time, the beautiful way words were used very differently from what I was used to hearing around me stirred my interest and gave me the nudging to consider studying English when the time came. Overall, I just wanted to speak and write differently and express myself in a simple but beautiful way. I decided that the easiest way to do this was by applying to study it (English) at the university.
What other things did your parents do to shape your academic journey?
My parents played an invaluable role in my academic journey. My father promised that for each ‘A’ I made, he would buy me a gift. In my first semester when I had five A’s, he fulfilled his promise by buying me a suitcase, a beautiful shirt, and sundry other items to reward me for my result. He is not the richest father in the world, but his relentless acts of appreciation and encouragement became valuable in my academic journey. My mother, on her part, when I told her about my intention to study English, said she could not have thought of a better course that was a great fit for me. Her strong conviction that I would do well in such a course made me resolve not to disappoint her. When I called to tell her about my results, her excitement and dance of joy brought tears to my eyes and invigorated me to do more.
Have you always been an outstanding student from primary school?
No, I was never a high-flyer. Honestly, I cannot remember ever taking the first position in any examination throughout my primary and secondary school years. The best I ever came was second — precisely in JSS1 and JSS2. The rest fell between third and 35th position, and between 20th and 30th at the primary level. In JSS1, the first time I took the second position, I went home with so much happiness to tell my parents about it. They were surprised and happy; I was served my favourite meal. But unfortunately, when I started JSS3 at a different school I got poorer results and didn’t come near the top of the class at all. It was horrible. Looking back, it is hilarious but it reminds me that I can achieve anything if I identify what I truly want and go for it.
Can you describe your experience while seeking admission into the university? Did you have any difficulty?
You are bringing back depressing memories with this question. Nigerian universities showed me shege (hell). In 2012, when I graduated from secondary school, I had a faint idea about studying at the university, but I did not know what exactly I wanted to study. Unlike many pupils who were certain about their future goals, I could only wish that I had a bit of an idea about what I wanted to study. I had thought that even though I did not know what I wanted to study, I was not going to be left behind. So, I bought a Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination form for university education. After two failed attempts at securing admission, I got frustrated and decided not to take the examination in 2014. It was in my third attempt in 2016, after careful preparation, that I finally got a congratulatory message. As you may imagine, I leapt for joy!
What specific challenges did you face as an undergraduate?
I did not have any major challenges at school other than the ones that came with my course of study. It was quite challenging to have to cover at least 20 literary works for one course alongside other materials and personal research within a short time frame. Again, my desire to pass excellently in all the courses I took, most times, did not allow me to take care of my health and physical appearance the way I would have loved to, especially during my sophomore and penultimate years. Although they were not a priority for me, I found it challenging to balance hard work and self-care.
What was your study schedule like?
I made it a goal to religiously follow my timetable, no matter what. My timetable stipulated that I gave two hours 10 times for every course I took. At the end of the semester, that meant that I gave 20 hours to each course and up to 140 hours in a semester that had seven courses to be taken. I made use of the school’s library, especially when we were either waiting for a lecturer or just not occupied with anything. But during the examination period, I usually did not continue with my normal reading timetable. I tweaked it to afford me more time to read and research. During that time, I used the library extensively, went for night classes (studied in lecture halls at night), and usually travelled back to seek some quiet ambience in my hometown. Meals and sleep were the prices I had to pay to earn academic excellence.
What do you mean?
I had a personal habit of staying away from hard meals after 4pm. This was because whenever I ate after 4pm, I usually struggled to stay up to read. So, I decided to avoid eating after that time and it worked for me.
A famous Hollywood star, Denzel Washington, in one of his speeches, said, “If you hang around a barbershop long enough, sooner or later, you are going to get a haircut”. This is one of my favourite quotes from him because it immediately suggests that there is no shortcut to success. One has to work for it; one has to persevere and be determined to succeed. First class honours can’t be achieved by cutting corners. One has to put in the work and be consistent. One has to sweat it out, sometimes cry but keep pushing. It requires that one disciplines oneself enough to study even when one does not feel like it. It also involves ignoring side talks or gossip and even gathering the courage to douse the fire of doubts and anxiety that will inevitably come from within yourself. Just like any kind of success, the path to achieving first class honours is riddled with obstacles that will test how much one wants to achieve it.
Were you deliberate about choosing your friends?
I kept very few good friends, but I was not too close to them to run the risk of ‘losing’ them. The only close friend I had was my roommate. Besides, my little circle of friends had the same zeal for academic excellence clearly written on their foreheads, so it made it fun and easy to create a synergy and get along with one another.
What is your response to those who claim that English is not a ‘serious’ course of study?
Well, everyone has a choice to make. In Nigeria, many people are persuaded and sometimes forced by their parents to pursue a career in medicine, engineering, accounting, and others. Still, some go for these courses because they believe that it is where money and prestige lie. While they are free to make these choices, it is faulty reasoning to think that a particular field of study is superior to another. Wole Soyinka, for instance, had a degree in English, an ‘unserious’ course, but went on to become the first and only Nigerian to win a Nobel Prize more than 30 years ago. So, again, it is about the individual and choice. I chose to study English because I love it and I am passionate about it. That, for me, towers above opinions regarding the professionalism or seriousness of any field of study.
What were your most memorable moments as an undergraduate?
There were some moments I will not forget in a hurry; moments when I won some amount of money from a lecturer for providing the correct answer to some question. I remember when I was acknowledged in front of my classmates by lecturers for performing well on an academic test and the moment when I was given the ‘Best Graduating Student’ award by my department. These were very special moments for me.
Many graduates had one or two courses they dreaded as undergraduates. Which course did you dread the most and why was it complex for you?
That must be HIS 321 (Foreign Policy Analysis), a course I took at the Department of History and International Relations. The course lecturer usually held his classes at the time when we had another departmental lecture and there was little we could do about it. Even when we tried to attend his class, the noisy environment where the class was held, coupled with the peculiar concepts in the course that came across as alien to me, meant that I was in for a rough ride. Because I did not fully understand the course, it was difficult to prepare well for the examination and that made me fearful.
What did you do to excel in that course?
I had to constantly remind myself of the mantra I lived by, which is that ‘every course was meant to be aced’. That gave me the right mentality to prepare for the examination. I can remember I had to read at a friend’s place the night before the examination. The conversations we had over the course helped to put me at ease and successfully answer the examination questions.
What can undergraduates in the Nigerian university system learn about self-motivation?
Self-motivation is everything. It is the least a student must possess in school, more so in the Nigerian university system. The unstable nature of the system can rob you of hope and passion, but self-motivation must be sustained. During the 2020 long break occasioned by the (COVID-19) pandemic and strike that spanned over nine months, I held an online discussion class with a few of my course mates every day for at least eight of those months. During that time, we studied together and shared nuggets that kept our academic spirit alive. It was very encouraging to see that we had not lost it to the dysfunctional educational system and our efforts showed in our final results. So, in the face of setbacks, such as the one we had and are still having, it is important to be resilient and protect our will from cooling off.
What other things contributed to your success that you want to talk about?
Apart from the peace of mind that comes from having the full support of my family members who were willing to sacrifice everything to ensure I lacked nothing, I was taught by the best teachers. My lecturers, such as Dr Happiness Uduk, Dr Garvey Ufot, Dr Bernard Dickson, and many others prompted me to study hard and aspire for excellent results. And ultimately, I had the backing of the Almighty God, Jehovah.
You mentioned that your passion for English motivated you to study it at the university. What are the limitations you see in the profession at the moment?
In Nigeria, studying English does not always guarantee that you graduate knowing how to speak and write well. This is because the course is structured to emphasise competence in grammar more than the actual practical activities that teach rhetoric. I think this can be fixed if some components of phonological and compositional courses are made to be more practical and learner-centred.
Do you consider yourself lucky that you graduated before the commencement of the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities?
Absolutely! After the 2020 protracted break, I did not wish to suffer any more breaks in my academic journey. It would have been very devastating if it had happened again, but I thank God it did not.
What do your friends who were caught in the web of the ongoing strike tell you?
Very unfortunately, I have friends who do not know for how much longer they will have to wait before the strike is called off. Many of them share their frustrations and tiredness over the sad situation. You know, when you listen to their concerns and consider the fact that the majority of them are stripped of the motivation to engage themselves rather than just sitting at home, you are moved to empathetically identify with their situation.
What do you currently do for a living?
Well, I am currently observing the compulsory national youth service.
Do you intend to teach at a university after national service?
Yes, I am passionate about teaching and mentoring. I would love a lecturing career, but that will be after my master’s and possibly, PhD by Jehovah’s grace.