With an A+ (first class), Joshua Alawode led others in his class; Department of Mechanical and Aerospace, at Carleton University in Canada in the 2016 academic session. Alawode, who also had several commendations from his lecturers for his outstanding performance, tells TUNDE AJAJA in this interview his experience learning in the foreign institution
What were your early days in school like?
I have some fond memories about my growing up but the one that stands out in this context was after my first term in JSS1 in Nigeria. After that first term, I didn’t really do well compared to my classmates. Out of about 30 students, I finished as the 21st. So, I came home expecting my parents to be very upset and scold me, but to my surprise, they did the exact opposite. They graciously smiled at me, and encouraged me by saying, “we know you can do better and by the grace of God you will do better next term.” I believe that was where it all started for me because after that term, my grades kept getting better each year. When I took the West African Senior School Certificate Examination and the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, they weren’t too difficult. I would say my performance was reasonably okay in both because I had my results in only one sitting. I thank God for that. The fact that my parents still believed in me when I was clearly at the bottom of the class encouraged me and gave me some confidence. They saw my potential far before it manifested. For this and many other reasons, I’m always grateful to God Almighty for my parents.
At what point did you decide to travel?
I travelled basically for my university education. I wanted to have my university education outside Nigeria because of the diversity and the need to see the world from a different perspective. I thank God I didn’t have any delay in securing an admission into the university. I wouldn’t say it was exactly easy to acclimatise but it definitely wasn’t difficult either. In Canada, people from different cultural backgrounds are all around you and this makes the transition a lot better because you see that you are not necessarily the only foreigner around.
Students have always seen admission in Nigeria as difficult. What was the process like over there?
You would apply online through a platform, choose the programme you want and in about a month or two, you get your admission, if you are qualified. It was pretty straightforward. There is already a system in place so all you need to do is follow the guidelines.
How would you compare or contrast the teaching style in Nigeria and Carleton University in Canada?
Given that I attended secondary school in Nigeria and university in Canada (which are two different types of institution), I wouldn’t be able to give a fair assessment of the differences in teaching methods. But one thing I would say is that from my experience, Canadian schools have a lot of hands-on work incorporated into the educational system. This helps to facilitate student’s understanding of the concepts and prepares them for life after school. We did a lot of group projects and this is generally how the real world works. That is, no man is an island in the workforce and there is a lot of collaborative work. Also, these group projects will increase the student’s understanding of the concepts because they will be forced to apply their knowledge from the classroom to real life situations. I believe this is the easiest way to learn, and I think that is one area Nigeria needs to improve in her education system; more hands-on work and group projects should be incorporated into the system. This will not only help students to understand the concepts, it would also boost their self-esteem because they will not be intimidated by group projects when they get into the workforce.
What is your view on the saying that it is easier to have first class in foreign universities than in Nigeria?
I do not believe that statement is true. Firstly, you have to acclimatise yourself to the new system and that might take a while. Secondly, there was language barrier when we first arrived in Canada. Those two things alone could affect a student’s performance if care is not taken. Also, the grading system is totally different. In Nigeria, I believe a first class or an A starts from 70, in most cases. But in most Canadian schools, an A+ (first class) starts from 90 out of 100. Finally, like I said, group projects are great because they help to facilitate your understanding of the concepts, but when working in groups, you also run the risk of getting lower grades. This is so because your grade depends on your group’s performance. Not to mention, the projects really require a lot of work and most times you were not given any guidance because the professors wanted to train us to be independent.
How many of you had first class in your class?
There were a number of people in mechanical engineering that graduated with a first class. We had many smart people in my school. I didn’t see it coming that I would have a first class. It happened by the grace of God. And it was not even my decision to work towards that, I worked hard, prayed and it happened through the grace of God. I started having first class right from my first year and I made the Dean’s Honours list right from my first year. It is a yearly thing and I was on the list each year. I was able to be on the Dean’s list and finish as the best mechanical engineering student by prayers and hard work. They go hand in hand, you can never pray enough and you can never study enough.
How many of you were Nigerians in your class?
There were a number of Nigerians in engineering, being very large. But, in the mechanical engineering department, I was the only Nigerian.
Being the only Nigerian in your class, who also graduated as the best in the department, were there times you received special commendations from your lecturers?
Yes. For instance, on a few occasions, I received emails from my professors saying they were highly impressed with my result and that they had never seen such results in their classes before. My professors also wrote great reference letters on my behalf and other general commendation whenever I needed it. Also, the church I attended always tried to encourage Nigerian students doing excellently in school, by giving awards and some money.
We learnt the Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineers rewarded you as a gold medallist this year. Could you tell us more about that?
Every year, the Canadian Society for Mechanical Engineers recognises the top graduating mechanical engineering student from select schools and this student is awarded a student gold medal for his or her outstanding academic performance. This year, to the Glory of God, I was honoured with this award.
You must have done very different things to achieve that, what were they?
I can’t tell what I did differently from others; I can only tell you what I did. At a very early age, I realised that I was a very inquisitive child and I carried that over into my studies. I always want to learn new things and when I do not understand something, I read more and carry out a study on it. Also, I asked a lot of questions in school. I was never afraid of asking questions, even if some people would see them as ‘stupid’ questions. Personally, though, I do not believe there is anything like a ‘stupid’ question. On the other hand, people always alluded to how “impossible” it would be to finish with a first class in engineering, but “impossibility” is non-existent to me. I strongly believe that with God all things are possible.
Did you at some point miss being home?
There were a lot of things I missed, like home-cooked meals and many other things.
What was your typical day like as an undergraduate?
A typical school day for me as an undergraduate consisted of me going to the gym in the morning, going for my classes, going for my lab sessions, having group meetings to solve the projects (if I had any), completing my lab reports and other assignments I had and watching NBA games. I love playing and watching basketball and watching TV shows. I would say I slept for about six to seven hours a day. Talking of reading, I didn’t really have time to study every single day given that I was always working on a lab report, assignment or project. The good thing about working on my assignments was that it strengthened my understanding of the courses. However, I always made out time to study every week. I tried not to let a week go without reviewing what I did in class that week.
Were you the type who used the library regularly?
I used the library very often. Engineering is quite demanding. Therefore, I was at the library every day. I felt more comfortable doing my work in the library than in the comfort of my house. I understand myself and I knew if I was at home, I would get too comfortable and probably not do any work. Self-awareness is very important. Everyone is different and it is important for people to know their strengths and weaknesses and be very honest with themselves.
What was the idea behind the course you chose?
I chose mechanical engineering because I wanted the opportunity to touch on different aspects of engineering too. Mechanical engineering gives you that opportunity. In mechanical engineering, you also learn about electrical engineering, civil engineering, software engineering, computer science and even economics. This was the main reason I chose it.
How would you describe your social life in school?
I would say I had a decent social life, I had fun but I always had it in mind that I was there for a reason. This way, I did not get carried away. It is important to keep a healthy balance. I had my leisure, during which I went out with my friends from time to time, played basketball, went to the gym and attended different events on and off campus. I had a good balance, so I was not always reading. University is not just about studying books, it is also about building long-lasting relationships. I also had a great relationship with both Nigerians and foreigners. I have close friends from different countries, and that is fun on its own.
Were you involved in other school activities?
Yes, I was part of Nigerian Students Association, African Students Association, Engineering Students Association and a basketball club.
What have you been doing since you graduated?
I have been working in one of the best companies in the oil and gas industry in Canada since I graduated. I aspire to make a difference in the energy, technology and finance sectors.
Is there anything you would have loved to do as a student that you could not do?
I would have loved to build more relationships with people. I was able to meet a lot of people and become friends with a number of people in school. But, there is no such thing as networking ‘too much.’
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