When she was in Primary Six, two visitors came calling at Immaculata Onuigbo’s school in Enugu. They were from the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Abuja.
“My school was one of the schools they came to and I was lucky to have been chosen for the exams,” Ms. Onuigbo recalled.
“So, I went for the exams, the first one was a written exam, the second one was an oral interview. I was lucky to emerge as one of the winners of the scholarship from my state. That was how I won my first scholarship to secondary school.”
It was a visit that set in motion Ms. Onuigbo’s journey of emerging the best graduating student at the American University of Nigeria, Yola – with the highest ever Cumulative Grade Point Average score in the school’s history.
After her secondary school, she had gotten another scholarship into the university.
On Friday night, she bagged six awards including the Afrinvest (West Africa) Award for Academic Excellence that includes a paid internship at any of the company’s subsidiaries.
But the valedictorian’s journey to the zenith of academic excellence did not come without challenges.
She recalls the days in secondary school when she’d be left in tears while watching the retreating back of her parents, in Abuja, back to Enugu, while she continued on her way back to Yola.
“The first challenge was language barrier,” she said.
“Prior to coming here, it was only English and Igbo that I normally hear, but I came here and almost everyone was speaking Hausa, so I heard to adapt to hearing people speak Hausa, and I eventually learnt how to speak Hausa.
“Another thing was the journey; the road trip was always very stressful but then it was always worth it coming back to school.
“For academic challenges… I had great teachers in my secondary school. Whenever I needed help, I always asked for one and they were always willing to help, so it made it very easy to excel academically. I didn’t have much problem academically.”
The American University of Nigeria was established in 2003 by former vice president Atiku Abubakar as Africa’s first ‘development university.’
The student membership cuts across several African countries, including Uganda, Cameroon, and South Africa.
The university is home to several students’ associations such as the American University of Nigeria Honors Society, an association of distinguished and exemplary students created to foster academic and ethical excellence.
“Being a member (of the Honors Society), the minimum CGPA to be a member is 3.5. So, if you want to maintain your membership, you have to work hard to at least be above that 3.5. So, it helped me to keep my grades in check,” Ms. Onuigbo said.
“Also, the scholarship programme that we do, we organize jazz nights, we sell tickets and then the money we get from the ticket sales we use it go give scholarships to primary school children. So, it really helped me build my community service skills. I served as secretary.”
Ms. Onuigbo says she also participated in the school’s Feed and Read programme, a project designed to teach basic literacy and numeracy to Almajiri boys but later expanded to include children orphaned by the Boko Haram insurgency.
“We go there and teach the children how to read and how to count,” she said.
On what she did differently to achieve her academic prowess, Ms. Onuigbo said she chose a course that she enjoyed.
“I would say that I was lucky to have chosen something that I enjoy doing.
“Because you know, one thing is that no matter what studying is actually hard. What makes it easier is if you are enjoying, then you feel the pain less. So, I enjoyed what I read, and I love learning, learning new things. Every day I learn a new thing. That was what helped me.”
Her days in the university were, however, not focused on only academic activities.
Her classmates said she was “really good” at football, and was always the first to report to the pitch at 4 p.m.
“One major part of my life in campus is sports, I play volleyball and soccer,” Ms. Onuigbo said.
“I believe that it’s good to keep both the intellectual part of you and the physical part of you intact. Sports always helped me to relieve stress, so that’s one of the best part of AUN. I use it to balance my academic life. My spiritual life, I’m a Catholic, I’m in the choir. Whenever I sing, I enjoy it. It makes me feel really good.”
The AUN uses the American grading system where 4.0 is the highest possible Cumulative Grade Points Average (CGPA). To finish Summa Cum Laude (the equivalent of the Nigerian First Class: 4.50 – 5.00), a student has to score between 3.9 and 4.0.
Ms. Onuigbo scored 3.98.
She said her ambition is to be a university professor.
“For a while, I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do after university but like I said before, Honours Society helps students that are academically challenged and all.
“I participated in the tutorial services and actually came to see that while I teach people, I actually learn more. It gives me a special kind of happiness when I know that someone knows something because I actually helped that person. I think that was when I started thinking of venturing into the education world.
“I also have wonderful professors. The female ones, they are really worth looking up to. I admire them and I think it’s something I can actually do and would love doing. I know the work is an everyday thing and you may tend to get tired of it, but because I will be learning every day by doing that, I think I will be okay being a professor at a university.”
On Friday night, Ms. Onuigbo’s parents watched quietly, inside the university’s expansive Commencement Hall, as their daughter was called up-stage a record six times for an award, each award coming with a prize money.
“I am overwhelmed because I (didn’t) expect such miracles, but everything is from God,” said Christopher Onuigbo, an Enugu-based engineer.
“I thank God, I also thank the Yar’Adua Centre because without the Yar’Adua Centre, I don’t know whether such good will come across to me or reach me. The Foundation is the pillar of this little girl.”
Her mother, Victoria, described Ms. Onuigbo as “just naturally gifted.”
“Because as from Primary Four, she used to write letters. If I am out now, she wants to tell me something, she will put it in writing, when I read it, I’ll just laugh and say ‘this girl has sharp brain,’” said Mrs. Onuigbo, a nurse.
“They are three boys and three girls, God has blessed us and crowned us with this Onyinyechukwu,” she turned and pointed to her daughter, “She goes with her name, ‘Gift from God’.”