In 2016, Saidat Abidemi emerged the overall best student at the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomoso after securing a Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of 4.88. The graduate of statistics repeated the same academic feat recently, graduating with an MBA degree from Wilkes University in the US, with a perfect GPA of 4.0, among several awards, research and journal publications.
Saidat will begin her Ph.D. at The University of Cincinnati Carl H., Lindner College of Business this fall. She shares her academic journey in the US with SaharaReporters
I come from a humble family of four kids. My mum works for the Federal Government while my dad works with the Lagos State Government. I am the first child and that came with a lot of responsibilities. Education was given prominence in my family. Being the first child, I helped my parents in taking care of my siblings. That really contributed to my upbringing and responsible for the level of independence and leadership that I have today.
I was admitted at Federal Government College in Sagamu, Ogun State at the age of 9. It was a boarding school. Leaving home for boarding school at 9 was scary, especially for my mum but my parents had all the confidence that I was going to do well.
Quest for Excellence
My parents highly encouraged studying, staying determined, and achieving excellence. They provided all the support needed and I knew that it had to be done. Although I was a smart kid, my parents and teachers foresaw my potential and helped develop it at an early age. My parents were willing to go the extra mile for me to the extent of hiring home tutors to teach me after school hours. I took the common entrance in class five. I was going to take it at class four based on my teachers’ recommendations, but my parents felt I was too young. I took the common entrance in primary five alongside my seniors who were in Primary 6.
The Hard Question
When I was in secondary school, I was sound academically but my high school, Federal Government Girls’ College Sagamu, Ogun State, was highly competitive. Leaving high school, I thought about why I wasn’t the best student in my class. So I began to ask questions like, 'Is it because some students were older?' 'Did they study differently or more than me?' When I gained admission into LAUTECH, I discovered myself more.
Preparing for LAUTECH
When I finished secondary school, I was 15. I had already taken the West African Examinations and my mates were preparing to take the UTME. I was supposed to take the UTME as well but my parents said no. At that time I wasn’t too happy with their decision, but afterward, I am glad they made that decision.
I did the WAEC and had a good result. It was hard to accept staying home but it changed my perspective about a lot of things. It was like a reality check for me. In that year, I learned a lot about prioritizing and determination. Upon graduation from secondary school at 15, I had more focus on the fun in college. But, in the year I stayed at home, I realized that college wasn’t just about the jamboree, it was staying dedicated, being focused and coming out as the best I could.
At that time, realities were setting in and I started to realize that the millions of graduates were unemployed or underemployed. I realized I needed to do something differently or put in a little bit of effort than others did. I had heard stories of people submitting CVs for jobs and been rejected. I began to think: what would set me aside and distinguished me from the crowd? In that one year, I wouldn’t say that I got the direct answer. The year off helped me to calm down and have a rethink before going to college. I scored 266 in the UTME. Fortunately, it was my first and last UTME.
When I applied to get into LAUTECH, I chose to study medicine. I wanted to be an ophthalmologist. But, I was admitted to study mathematics. In the first year at LAUTECH, every student takes the same courses.
You only start focusing solely on your major in your second year which gives you the opportunity of transferring into another major. All year one student are graded on the same platform. My parents would always tell me, you have to start well and finish well. That was my motto. They said “the first two years are the easiest in the university. “If you do well in your first year, when there are challenges in later years, there is a possibility that your excellent performance in your first year would still help you one way or the other”. I had that in mind and studied hard. I had a GPA of 4.61 (over 4.5) in the first semester.
In the second semester, I had a better GPA of 4.79. But when I was about getting the form to cross over to medicine, I started talking to my senior colleagues in the department of mathematics.
I realized that the department of mathematics had a major in statistics. So, I started attending statistics classes. As a nascent and undecided first-year undergraduate statistics major, I likened the probability theory to the shuffling of music on my media player while listening to my professor. This was my first class in probability theory and my moment of academic self-identification. I realized that statistics is a practical field which cuts across every discipline, a basic realization that defined my career path. Fortunately, I had my parent’s full support.
When I graduated, I really have to give kudos to my university. LAUTECH did a terrific job with publicity. I had always had self-confidence. I didn’t think it was going to be that hard securing a job because I believe so much in my abilities and what I could offer.
I had always wanted to obtain my master’s degree from a foreign school because I wanted a new experience; I wanted to learn and see the world so that I could make an impact in my home country and the society, as a whole. I wanted more exposure to be exact. Given the level of publicity that LAUTECH has, it became a little bit easier. I got a full-ride scholarship for my MBA at Wilkes University. The offer to the US was a good option to move to the next level of my career. If I had stayed back in Nigeria, it probably would not have been hard for me to get a job but it would have been me reaching out and searching vigorously for the job opportunities rather than employers reaching out to me, which is not something we would like to see in our society.
Differences Between Nigerian Schools and America
The American system of education encourages a lot of experiential learning and internships. Meanwhile, Nigerian students do internships/ industrial training (IT) once during a four- or five-year undergraduate study, but only a few get the proper placement. If you studied statistics, there is a high probability that you would do an internship with a firm that has nothing to do with analytics. How will such a student apply what they learn? Many students even fail to get placements. In my opinion, one internship during a four or five-year college experience is inadequate. The case is different in the American system of education.
There is a lot of communication and presentation here as well as public speaking. The first time I had a major presentation as an undergraduate student in Nigeria was in my fourth year. The other time was after my final project.
I would say that in all my years at LAUTECH, I had only two major presentations which are contrary to what we have here. Here, when you take a class, in most cases there is at least one presentation in class or online, depending on the course format. This is advantageous because it is essential that you are able to communicate what you do in a concise and coherent manner. Many Nigerian students do not have those experiences at the university.
I believe that this impacts a lot of graduates in the job market. I have met a lot of people who are awesome but when it comes to interviews, they really cannot communicate with confidence and clarity. If schools incorporate presentations into the syllabus, it will better prepare the student's career-wise. Being here has enhanced my communication and public speaking skills. I wish I had more experience during my undergraduate years.
Experience as a Nigerian studying in the US
I think everyone that comes here or encounter a different culture would always experience a culture shock. I did have mine. I think the first thing I had to learn here was limiting the use of “sir” and “ma”. I had to start dropping that bit by bit. With my reading and talking to people, I realized that it is a different culture.
After speaking to elderly people in Nigeria, it common to say “yes sir” or “yes ma”. However, I had to start getting used to calling people by their first names in America; that was hard. Despite adapting to the culture, I remain true to my values. For instance, I never call my professors by their first names. I would say “Dr. this” or “Dr. that”. Honestly, it’s still a challenge calling older people by their first names. Well, it does not mean that when I get home, I would call elderly people by their first names. I know what to do when I get to Nigeria.
Another cultural change was looking at people in the eyes. It was not always easy. In Nigeria, I would look at my age mates in the eyes but I could not do that for elderly people. If for instance, my father was mad at me, I would not look at him in the eyes because it is disrespectful. Here it is different; in fact, we were even told this at the orientation that when you don’t look people in the eyes, it could be interpreted as you are hiding something or being untruthful.
My success secrets
I think the first thing for me was to set my priority right and to reflect on the opportunities in the country and how many people were competing for limited positions and resources. I quickly realized that it is important to be the best at what I do and strive to differentiate myself from others. I believe so much in people differentiating themselves from others.
You don’t necessarily have to be the best in your class, but always think about what would set you apart. As an undergrad, I would say to myself, 'This is a journey of five years, let me give it what it deserves and after five years, I can do whatever I want'. I did set goals. Usually, at the start of the semester, I would list the courses I was taking. I knew the structures, the test, and the exams. Usually, I had first, second and third goals.
After my tests, I would try to grade myself. If I didn’t do well in my test, then I made up my mind to put in more efforts for the examination. I never compared myself to other students. I was able to realize my style of studying. I don’t study like everybody else. I never studied for long hours. I don’t know how to do that. I cannot quantify the hours I put in but studying was done at intervals. I could pick up my notes in the morning and study while listening to music. In another twenty minutes, I have dropped the book. I prefer studying in a relaxed atmosphere. I also served as a tutor in college and the librarian of my department’s student association.
Opting for MBA
Because of my love for the application of theories and methods, I opted for the MBA. During my undergraduate study, I learnt programming, data analysis skills, and all that. Upon graduation, I felt the next thing was “how does this really work?” An MBA was going to broaden my career path and allow me to put into practice what I was learning, especially applying the analytical skills to business. That was the main reason why I chose an MBA.
I have always wanted to use data to tell stories, most especially where it could impact society or the people. Going to Wilkes University, everything worked out for me. At Wilkes University, I was the First Kirby International Scholar and worked at the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development where I engaged in several community-based, surveys, focus groups, data analysis, and publications in the areas of education, health, transportation, business, employment, policies, and laws, etc., to promote community development and provide data-based recommendations to stakeholders and members of the community. I intend to use these experiences and skills in contributing and fostering the socioeconomic development of my home country, Nigeria!
Meeting High Expectations
I was fortunate and stayed focus. I always say, 'If you can do it in Nigeria, I don’t know where you can’t'. This is because we are built with perseverance and tenacity even when in harsh situations and faced with challenges. When I came here, there were a lot of expectations. My colleagues would say, 'Oh she was first of 10,317 students?' 'How did she do it?' It was a lot of expectation. I always remember who I am and this kept me going. There were days when I needed someone to talk to someone who gets me. I missed my family a lot but I could only be with them virtually. I kept going because I understood my purpose for coming to America. One of the things that helped me was having a support system at Wilkes University. Even when you know your purpose and what to do, it is still a challenge studying away from home, in a foreign land.
I am getting my Ph.D. and the goal is to be a researcher and practitioner; to conduct original research in my field which is in operations, business analytics, and information systems. I would love to share my knowledge with and impart younger generations. I also intend to continue using my analytical skills, business knowledge, and experience in solving societal issues and promoting socio-economic development. I’d like to work with an international organization where I can further contribute actively in making our society much better.
I believe it is important for societies to offer opportunities to its people, especially the young folks. One thing Nigeria suffers from is the issue of brain drain. There should be more rewards for excellence which we don’t see a lot these days. We should be able to appreciate our own. It’s important for young people to stay true to their values. If you have to study, learn a trade or skill, try not to waste time. Do your best at it. There is competition everywhere, even outside the country!