Oluwateniola Shyllon, 19, graduated with first class honours in Economics from Babcock University at 18. She speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about how she achieved that feat as a teenager and her aspirations of a better Nigeria
You graduated at age 18 with first class honours in Economics from Babcock University. How does this make you feel?
I feel great! The experience still feels new to me. I feel relieved as well. The journey was so tough and I am glad to be moving on to the next phase of my life. Most importantly, I feel grateful; grateful to God for bringing me this far, and grateful to my family, friends, and mentors for being by my side. The acknowledgements for my project ran through over five pages (laughs). That is how excited and grateful I am to everyone who has been a part of my journey, one way or the other till date.
Have you had people look down on you because of your age?
Oh! Of course. When I tell people my age, there are typically two responses: ‘ageism’ and ‘awe’. Ageism in the sense that they begin to discriminate against me, or form prejudices and try to stereotype me. For example, if there was mutual respect between us, they begin to say things like, “I have a junior one like you at home so you better watch yourself.” Things like that. Their behaviour reflects that as well, and they get unnecessarily disrespectful. In cases like that, I either address it, or I ignore it, depending on the situation. I do not let it get to me either, because I genuinely could not be bothered. The other response is awe. They are fascinated by how mature and logical I am at such a young age, and they want to get to know me more, to know what experiences shaped my growth.
There are also instances where I have not been able to apply for internships because of the age limit. For example, at 16 and 17, I was already actively looking out for internships, but quite a lot of them had 18 and above as the age requirement.
But I am very proud of my age. I used to feel insecure about it before, because I had self-limiting beliefs that I created by myself, that I could not achieve certain things because of my age. However, when I look at certain people like Adaora Lumina, who have achieved so much at a relatively young age, I am inspired to keep being myself and doing better. Moreover, in the long run, my age is an advantage because now that I have got my undergraduate education out of the way, I have more time to evolve, learn, solve problems and create value for the world. I am very excited about my age, and very proud of myself for all I have achieved, by God’s grace.
How would you describe your parents?
My parents are God’s blessings to me. My father, Mr Ademisiku Ibukunoluwa Shyllon, and my mother, Mrs Olufunke Shyllon, are genuinely wonderful people. In two words, I would describe them as intentional and nurturing. My parents were, and still are, very intentional about the way they brought us up. My dad works as a business analyst in a telecommunications company here in Nigeria and he’s very analytical, expressive, creative, and process-driven, while my mum works with the Lagos State Government on women affairs. She is emotionally-intelligent, nurturing, intuitive and naturally, a leader.
Whose idea was it for you to study Economics?
I think it was my mum’s. She suggested it.
What do you think she saw in you that made her do that, or was Economics your best subject in secondary school?
No, not really. My favorite subject was Literature. I love storytelling and I am very expressive, so it was good for me. I was dominantly a ‘Commercial’ student, but I was taking Further Mathematics, Biology, Literature and Photography. Eventually, we reached the compromise on Economics, which was a subject I excelled in, in secondary school. From it, I discovered my love for data.
Would you say you have always been an A student?
Not at all. Contrary to this, I never used to read till I got to Senior Secondary School. I went to Wellspring College, Omole, which was very focused on excellence, and in Junior Secondary School when my mum chided me about being unserious, I always used to tell her, “Everyone cannot be in the first position in class, Mummy.” I strongly believed that, and I was comfortable floating in the mid range. I did not read either; I just listened in classes, and somehow stayed afloat. But when I got to Senior Secondary School, I made a friend, Francesca, who inspired me to do better. Francesca is very intelligent and hard-working, and spent a lot of time studying, and also had an eidetic memory. So, naturally, she topped the class. Since we were close, this motivated me to do better, read better, and put in the effort, till it got to the point where we kept tying in subjects, or passing each other by a few marks. I was glad I pushed myself.
How would you describe your stay at Babcock?
In one word, I would say it was fulfilling. I left Babcock with no regrets, and experienced everything I wanted to experience. I had a really good time, I had fun with good friends, I discovered God more from fellowships, I made mistakes and learnt from them, and I grew and evolved as a person. In one word, I would say my experience was fulfilling. It was utterly fulfilling and I am so glad I did all that I did authentically, and left with no regrets.
Do you share in that sentiment that people who attend private school lack some basic survival experiences and may need more to be employable as opposed to public varsity graduates?
I get so angry when I hear this statement. Survival experience? Are we in a jungle? I believe that it is because of the failure in our system, the educational system, that students, particularly those in public universities, have been so traumatised. Incompetent leadership and all-round inefficiencies have made the society believe the journey has to be rough and hard, full of barriers and suffering, to be fulfilling or worthwhile to achieve your academic feat. It is unfortunate that young, brilliant and hard-working Nigerians have to suffer for it.
There are massive uncertainties in public universities, especially with the constant strike actions amid so many other frustrating situations. In countries that are soaring with technology and innovations, do they have these basic survival experiences you mentioned? I sincerely do not think so. So, why exactly is it romanticised in this part of the world? The truth is that it is not normal. It is abuse of young adults in many ways. In the same vein, I believe those that look down on private university students are not well-informed. I am going to speak for myself, and for my undergraduate university, Babcock University. Our ‘‘A’’ grade starts from “80”, not ‘’70’’, unlike many other Nigerian universities. There is so much that happens in terms of protocols and sheer amount of work, that it is only by the grace of God that you can even graduate. So, why look down on private university graduates?
How was the attention from the male sex in school and how were you able to handle them?
The attention was there, but it was not something I focused on very much. I was committed to discovering myself better and adding value in many ways, so I did not put too much focus on the attention.
How will you describe your study pattern?
I have a terribly short attention span, and I am also short-sighted, so I knew I had no business sitting at the back. I always used to sit in front, because I knew that once I paid attention in class, listened to the lecturer, and actively participated, 80 per cent of my assimilation was complete. So, in instances where there were pop-up quizzes, residual knowledge really helped me. So, that was my style. I also enjoyed reading with friends. I understand better when I am able to converse with someone about it, so I engaged in that a lot as well. I would say I was shameless, terribly shameless, when it comes to asking for help to gain knowledge. I was recognised as the girl on the class group chat, and even in class, that asked so many questions. I also asked those that understood the courses better to explain to me, or to guide me or to teach me. My lecturers were always very warm, welcoming, and supportive, especially to those they saw putting in so much effort in their education. Lastly, I avoided reading at night as much as possible. I knew it did not work for me most of the time, and I always slept off (laughs). So, it is important to know and understand what works for you.
What were your best courses in school?
I enjoyed Principles of Management the most, I think. The lecturer was amazing and supportive, and I liked the course a lot. I also liked my research project. It was on the socioeconomic determinants of household energy demand in Nigeria, and I got to learn so much in the process. I worked with Stata, with a binomial multivariate logistic nonlinear regression estimation, which was not widely used in my department, so I had to seek help, and in the process, learnt so much.
Who are your mentors in your chosen path of career?
That’s a tough question, because I only recently got interested in data analytics; however, my lecturers in Babcock University definitely contributed to my interest in data analytics, and I learnt a lot from them. I also love Joy Buolamwini. She is an amazing data scientist, who is actively pushing for data fairness and equity, with the Algorithmic Justice League movement. There is also my aunty, Dr Funke Alaba, who lectures in the University of Cape Town. She is a researcher, whom I think is utterly brilliant and she inspires me so much as well. There are other Nigerian women who have shattered the glass ceilings, including FemCo, Dr Ibukun Awosika, Miriam Olusanya, Yemisi Edun, Nneka Onyeali-Ikpe, and so many more.
Was there a time you felt like giving up in school?
Oh yes, of course; many times. School was very hard, which is why, once again, I am offended when people look down on private university graduates.
What was it about?
My project was focused on the socioeconomic determinants of household energy demand in Nigeria, using the Stata software to analyze data obtained from the 2018 Nigeria Demographic Survey on 42, 000 Nigerian households. My model was estimated with a binomial multivariate nonlinear logistic regression model. It was especially tough for me because most of my lecturers considered my project topic as PhD level, with the type of software and estimation technique I used. I was asked, “Shyllon, why must you do this topic? Why can’t you choose something for your level?” But I was committed, because I really wanted to prove to myself that I could accomplish what I set my mind to. My supervisor was so supportive, and she pushed me to be excellent. I also got help from my mentors. Looking back now, I am proud and glad, but then, it was the hardest part of my undergraduate journey. So, I was very exhausted, mentally, emotionally and physically. It was very tough for me. But I had a lot of support, and God kept me going.
You have entered for a Master’s programme in Business Analytics at University College, London, and you are only 19. What keeps you moving?
God, my family, friends, mentors, and my aspirations.
How do your parents feel about your choices?
I would like to think they feel good about my choices. They are very affectionate, so they have expressed, multiple times, how proud of me they are.
What awards were you given on graduating?
Some of the awards I have over my undergraduate journey include: Personality of the Year by Economics Students Association 2021, Award of Service as President of Babcock Finance Society, Award of Service as Founding Executive: Sub-lead, Learning and Development, Babcock Finance Society Awards of Academic Excellence and Outstanding Academic Performance for years 2018, 2019 and 2020. There is also my first class honours award.
Were you a member of some social and academic groups in schools?
Yes, I was. I was President of the Babcock Finance Society, a student-led society where I led a team of 18 executives, and we trained over 150 students in key employability skills, finance concepts, and careers taking over the 21st century. I also worked at the school’s radio station, and it was an amazing experience for me. I worked on an anonymous student advisory column “Teni Talks,’’ in collaboration with the school’s magazine. I enjoy acting, so I was also part of the school’s literary arts society. I was active in church as well, and school fellowships.
What would be the Nigeria of your dreams?
I’d really love a Nigeria that actually cares for its citizens.
Where do you see Nigeria in the next 10 years following the recent course of events?
I have tried to remain optimistic about Nigeria, and so blindly, I would say that if efficient and effective leaders are in power, the country will be in a better place.
If you are made President for a day, what is that one thing you would change?
I do not actively think about politics, perhaps as I grow up I may be interested. Sadly, there are just so many problems. I think the issue of social protection is the most prevalent and the one that I would love to solve. There are actually so many problems, it’s hard.
You seem very passionate about feminism. Why is that?
For many centuries, women have been on the receiving end of prejudice, discrimination, and lack of access to opportunities. I do not understand how we got to the point where feminism has been belittled, and reduced to misandry. Feminism is not misandry. Feminism is rooted in the ‘power of choice’, that women have the choice to do whatever makes them happy, as long as it is not violating the human rights of anyone else, and conforms to ethics. Nigeria, especially, is not favourable to women. From culture, to misinterpretation of religion, to the societal patriarchy, women are on the losing end in many ways. That is why I would continue to root for women, support women, help women, and build up women, till our voices are loud and clear. I think my mum, especially, also contributed a lot to my passion for women, as she organises a lot of women empowerment programmes and training, with the Lagos State Government.
Where would you like to start your career?
I’d like to begin with data analytics. I desire to know more about it, and to harness it, to solve societal problems.
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