Hardship in school was a blessing —Nigerian who emerged best graduating student at Lincoln University, US

Nigeria’s Perewari Victor Pere, last week, delivered the valedictory at the 158th Graduation Ceremony of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, US. In this interview, the computer scientist speaks with NAZA OKOLI of the unlikely incidents that led to his success at a school whose alumni include Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah.

News of your success was celebrated widely here. How does that make you feel?

First, I just want to say a big thank you to everyone. I believe this news is great not only for Bayelsa, but for the nation as well. It’s obvious news of my academic success has rung a loud bell and I think it’s a fine thing. I’ve been doing my best in responding to messages and calls. In truth, I feel very awkward. This is the first time I’ve had my name out there, and I am not one who likes so much attention. I like staying low when doing things. As beautiful as this story, I sincerely didn’t expect the attention. It’s a new experience for me, and it’s one I believe I should manage well. I believe it’s offering me an opportunity to really do what I intend to do in Nigeria, so I hope to channel this properly as much as possible to that goal.

How did the journey start — the journey to Lincoln?

Well, I heard about a scholarship being offered by the Bayelsa State Government. I was on the phone with a friend when he told me about it and the application for the program was ending that day. I panicked and tried to get mine in before it closed for the day. Well, I managed to do that and then went for the exam.

We took the English test and then went home. The news was all over the radio and in a few days or maybe a week later, the results were published. I got the news that my name was top of my local government. I couldn’t believe it. It’s been a long time since I last topped anything. I believe the Bayelsa State Scholarship Board received up to or more than 6,000 applications. After the English test, the number was cut down to 100. These 100 students including myself were invited for a math test. By this time, a couple of professors from Lincoln University had flown in to partake in invigilating the exams.

After the exam, we were told our names would be called over the radio. Well, my name was mentioned again and I was so excited. 40 students had been selected for a final round, and this would be an interview. We went to the venue for this interview. I had no idea what to study, but for some reasons, I decided to check out the school. I read the whole Wikipedia page on Lincoln University and since it was fun, I kept reading more articles about Lincoln University. When I went in for my interview, I was asked what I knew about Lincoln University. You can imagine, right? It was hilarious because I felt like I was asked 1 + 1. I told them everything they could find online, including the population of the school, who the president was, when it was founded, the initial name of the school, I mean almost everything. When I finished, everyone in the room started laughing. Well, the results took a while but then I got the message. I was among 21 selected students to study at the prestigious university in the United States.

Was it always your ambition to become the best graduate?

Technically, No! It was my ambition to have a perfect GPA. Well, that means I cannot be anything less, which is why it’s technical (laughs)… I wanted to have a perfect GPA, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I would’ve graduated as the best student. But the least would’ve been me finishing as co-best graduating student. That would’ve happened though. I had a friend on 4.0 GPA right from freshman year up until this semester where she got an A-. That was the difference for both of us. Beyond that, I never thought of it that way, but apparently, it seemed that was what I was working towards.

 

What is the next step for you?

That’s the question of the year. Hey Pere, what next? And it’s never easy to answer this. Well, the next step is to come back to Nigeria and start up a software company with my friends. We came here and we saw why a lot of people think education here is easier than it is in Nigeria. Well, I’ve done my part to correct that. Education in the United States is not easy, but then the goal of education is not to be hard. For students here, we are provided with the resources needed to enhance our academic and professional experience. We have Wi-Fi connected computers 24/7 and a library that doesn’t close. Educational materials and software are available always. If these are available, then it’s easy to focus on what really matters. So, seeing these, myself and 5 others decided to build our own software, even more powerful than what exists here in the United States. This software is called Afridash Learning Management System.

 

Are there a lot of Nigerians there? Your union president is a Nigerian too.

Nigerians are pretty much everywhere (laughs)… If I’m to take a guess, I would say there are about 30 Nigerians here, excluding the Bayelsa 21 group. But Nigerians come into Lincoln every year, so I guess that number might slightly keep increasing.Also, the president of the Student Union is a Nigerian. I told you, we are everywhere (laughs).

It was reported that you often faced some financial difficulties. How did you cope?

I think that came as a blessing in disguise. Financial difficulty isn’t cool when not at home. We indeed faced that but we got through it. We often supported ourselves. I can’t go into details because though we all faced it, the impact was different for each person. I think the government on their part did a fine job. Yes, there were times they handled things in unfashionable manners, but with all of it, we survived. It happens, but in all, we are still grateful for the opportunity. Why I said it’s a blessing in disguise was because I felt pushed.

What are your thoughts on the system and quality of education in Nigeria?

One sentence: Lack of vision and understanding. For us to have a system that works, we first must know what we want to work. We must first decide what the goal is. It’s not just setting objectives, but rather where are we heading with these objectives. We need visionary people with understanding of the impact of education in a nation. A lot of countries understand this and they are funding programs in their schools. The quality of our system is in disarray and we know it. While it will most definitely be unfair to compare it with that of the United States, we have to consider everything involved in making this system work. Education needs other sectors to survive and while it’s failing on its own, others are failing with it. Lack of vision and understanding is why education is still suffering in Nigeria.

I’ll give you a fine example. In schools back home, a lecturer could choose not to come to class for weeks, and that’ll be all right. If you complain, they might hinder you from graduating. It’s so lawless and painful. Most people in positions, irrespective of how small or great feel like kings and queens while they should actually be looking for ways to improve. We are not educated to see the bigger picture. A lecturer could feel like a demi-god. He/she could pass or fail students at will. That’s so archaic and funny, but painful to those who go through it. But it begins from the top. That’s the truth. That shouldn’t be the case. I mean while a lot of international instructors are spending hours in the lab, looking for ways to improve what they already have, we here do more of recycling. Dust the note and prepare for the next semester. There’s just too much pride in the system, and it’s so funny that we only have little yet so proud that we miss growing up.

What inspired your decision to study computer science?

I always liked robots. My first gift was a remote-controlled toy car. I always wondered why it worked. That curiosity was a thing I held closely. When I got a little acquainted with programming in Nigeria, I loved it so much. I always dreamt of schooling here because I believed I would have a better opportunity at exploring this. I initially wanted to go for robotics, but programming stole my heart, so I got into Computer Science.

A number of computer geniuses were college dropouts. Is there something about genius that doesn’t agree with formal education?

There is. That is well understood by a few schools even here in the United States. They now have startup professors and funding process for students looking to go into entrepreneurship and explore ideas that have nothing to do with their curriculum. Schools like Stanford, MIT, Harvard and so on have resources in place to help students explore their entrepreneurship side. There are organizations willing to fund dropouts with startup ideas that can take the world. This thing about dropping out is also somewhat overrated. Being a dropout doesn’t mean one won’t be successful, but if that dream requires such pursuit, then go for it. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out, so did Bill Gates. So did Steve Jobs and many others. They didn’t drop out because it was a cool story, but because they couldn’t sleep and wake up the next morning not working on that brilliant idea. If your dream is that strong, then go for it.

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