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I didn’t plan to be the Overall Best Graduating Student, I just wanted to be among the top 10 students in my class — Ismail, UNILORIN best graduate

After four years of seeking admission and living on N30 per day, 24-year-old Saka Ismail gained admission into the University of Ilorin to study Statistics and he graduated with 4.90 CGPA to emerge as the best graduating student of his set; 2014/2015 academic session. In this interview with TUNDE AJAJA, he talks about the issues he contended with to succeed

It’s a while since you graduated, what have you been doing?

Five days after my convocation, I proceeded to the orientation camp for the National Youth Service Corps programme in Paiko, Niger State and I had the opportunity of serving at the Federal University of Technology, Minna as a graduate research and teaching assistant. That was when I won the prestigious $25,000 Next Einstein Initiative scholarship to study at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences for Master’s degree in mathematical sciences.

How did you win the scholarship?

The Next Einstein Initiative is a scholarship proposed by South African physicist, Prof. Neil Turok and the President/CEO of African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Mr. Thierry Zomahoun. The scholarship is in partnership with Mastercard, Canada, Germany and some African countries to help discover the next Albert Einstein in Africa. They named the school African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, with centres in South Africa, Rwanda, Senegal, Ghana, Tanzania and Cameroon. They select up to 250 African students from fields related to mathematical science, such as Physics, Actuarial Science, Maths, Computer and Engineering, and I was shortlisted. So, the $25,000 is the total worth of the scholarship and it covers transportation, feeding, laundry, tuition and others and everything is free here, including pen.

There is usually a huge difference between what people were taught in school and the experience outside. How much difference have you seen?

I agree totally, even in some advanced countries, whereby not much of application is taught at undergraduate level. But aside what has been taught in school, it is the responsibility of the student to not only search but know how to apply what has been taught in the real world.

To have 4.90 CGPA would seem like a product of a concrete plan, did you plan for it from the outset?

I didn’t plan towards it; all I planned for was to be among the top 10 out of 216 in my class, not knowing that would be sufficient to be the overall best. It is never easy to have first class and in today’s world, being a first-class graduate doesn’t translate to being able to get a job easily. Most times, it requires luck and prayers. However, having good grades is good; it opens doors of opportunities, just as I’m presently studying on scholarship outside Nigeria. Apart from the respect and opportunities that it has brought my way, having a first class has evidently been a blessing for me as it has changed my life and that of my family. I went to the university with nothing but left with a lot; academically, financially, socially and in all other spheres of life.

By saying you entered the university with nothing; does it mean you had financial challenges in school?

I lost my dad when I was 15; I was in JSS3 then and my mum was not able to cater for my needs. I lived with my guardian, Alhaji and Mrs. Animashaun who tried their best to make me complete my secondary education. I used to trek many kilometres to school every day. Life then was triangular for me; from school to the house and then to farm or to cassava flour factory. Without making cassava flour (Garri) daily, things might not go smoothly that week. At a point, my uncle, Mr. Saka Rafiu, took it up. He paid my tuition and gave me the little he had for my stipend. So, in my first year, I had huge financial problem. There was never a day I had three square meals in school and sometimes my friends helped while my cousin’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Akinsanya also helped. I was going to classes in bad clothes and shoes, even my bag was bad, but those were not enough reasons not to hit my target. However, all those changed in my second year; thanks to UNILORIN’s Scholar Initiative, when the school offered N93,000 in scholarship to the best student in each department every session, provided the person’s CGPA did not fall below 4.00. The scholarship covered stationery, tuition and accommodation and such a person was entitled to be called ‘university scholar’. I enjoyed that till the end of my studies. I also enjoyed the Federal Government merit scholarship till the end of my studies. That was how self development and determination moved mountains. I think I got more than I planned to achieve or bargained for in my four years in school. God has been good to me.

What would you attribute your success to?

My success is a function of so many things, with the first being the willingness and the desire to learn. Another key factor is consistency and not losing focus. I knew what I wanted and I went all out for it.

People, especially students, would like to know what your reading schedule was like to have 4.90 CGPA. Could you share with us?

I realised that you don’t need to drain yourself to get a first class. You just need to be smart, ask questions when you are not clear, don’t just read to pass but to know all about the subject and read very well. I made sure I read at least one hour daily and I could read for six hours, if necessary, so I wouldn’t need to rush when exam was close. I also tried to relate every concept and theory to real life situations. On weekends, I read and reviewed all I learnt during the week. It’s important for individuals to know what works for them. I found that I understood things very fast when I read after sleeping, so I maximised that. I wasn’t a lover of library and I didn’t go there until my final year, and the times I went there were due to friends’ invitation or if I needed to use the internet there. The library was like a sleeping tablet for me. Also, I paid attention to little details, which helped a lot during quiz competitions and impromptu tests. I had free time, during which I used to surf the internet, learn about the world and its dynamics, play football and watch football matches.

Were you involved in social activities?

I wasn’t a triangular scholar, I was involved in many things, like doing inter-Faculty and inter-University quiz challenge; I was the treasurer of the UNILORIN quiz/debate club and some volunteering/political activities with Sustainable Development Goals (formerly MDG’s) through the United Nations Information Centre and Building Bridges. I also held several other positions at Muslim students bodies, like MSSN, and in my department and faculty. Many knew me as someone who was ready to reel out history about political, sports, life and style issues that had happened decades before I was born rather than the statistical Trojan. I wasn’t going to parties or clubs but I attended a couple of birthday ceremonies and some other functions. But students should not get carried away. For example, ‘October rush or October boom’ has shattered so many girls’ dream, such that some even return home pregnant after the session and their dreams impaired within the first eight -nine months in school. Focus is essential.

When did you start having first class?

I started leading my class from the first session and it was easy getting a first class because I was a classroom learner; I understand things very fast. That is why it is easier when you have passion for your course. Two of us had 5.00 at the end of first semester and I never knew, but my desire not to go down propelled me into repeating the same point for the second semester while my colleague tilted down. I maintained that top position till the end. It even became a mystery among students that a student could make such grade point in UNILORIN and that made me stronger and undeterred. I remember my lowest GPA was 4.80, and that was in first semester of my third year. I must say that the 5.00 GPA in that first semester was the game changer and that was my happiest moment.

Some people say Statistics is all about that aspect of mathematics, what made you like it?

As a young guy, I wanted to be a doctor, like many others then, but when I heard how expensive it was, I had to put an end to such dream, even without consultation. I knew I was strong in mathematics, hence I tilted towards the mathematical sciences like statistics, computer science, physics and mathematics. In the first UTME that I took, I chose computer and physics, but I later fell in love with Statistics, more so for its wide application and relevance. Between when I chose the course and now, that was the best decision I ever made. The course is a full dose. Right from my second year, I have been involved in thesis data analysis for postgraduate students and even undergraduate students, which was a source of income for me as a student. In this present age, the demand for a data scientist is rising like never before.

What was your performance like in your previous schools?

Passing the West African Senior School Certificate Examination was easy for me and I made my papers all in one sitting. After my secondary school education in 2007, I moved to Lagos to seek admission which never came until 2011. I was not so lucky with the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, which I took four times. One was cancelled; I did badly in another while two were good. I also did the remedial (pre-degree) programme in 2011 and I passed the two. I was almost giving up when I finally secured admission; that experience made me stronger.

What were you doing for the four years you were seeking admission?

During that period, I learnt to keep birds (poultry) and I still keep them till date. I was even consulting for poultry farmers in my neighbourhood. I also financed the business from the proceeds of my scholarship in my second year, and that helped my family in terms of finance. I also acquired some computer skills during that period.

Would you say Nigeria has been fair to its first-class graduates?

It has not been the best from the country. A first-class graduate is ‘on his own’ as they say, and I think the country should devise a means of extracting and benefiting from the huge knowledge of these scholars. There should be a sort of opening where they can bring to bear what they have learnt in terms of carrying out research meaningful for the development of the country and Africa at large.

What are your aspirations?

I am a data scientist and business analyst. Over the past eight months, I have delivered over 150 projects for clients covering 10 per cent of the world as a freelancer. I wish to pursue and continue in that line in a leading organisation and grow in this field after my Master’s programme next year. I thank God for where he has brought me. As of 2007, my breakfast and lunch allowance was N30, but in the university, things changed. I believe everybody was born great, we only need to develop good attitude, have a plan and work towards the plan. That was what did it for me.


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