Hard work, resilience, desire to learn are secret to my first class – Oluwaseun Akanbi


Oluwaseun Akanbi is a first class graduate of Chemical Engineering from the University of Lagos (Unilag) and currently a PhD student at the University of Michigan, USA. She speaks of her passion for a cleaner environment.

Why chemical engineering?

Growing up, my dream was to be a medical doctor because I love helping others, and it also happened to be one of the most popular professions for those that loved science. However, reality dawned on me when I was rounding off my secondary school education. I had to question if medicine was really for me, because I knew it would be torture studying a course that didn’t involve calculations.

I spent a lot of time researching possible career options for science students during this period and I eventually stumbled on chemical engineering. After having an idea of what it entails, I knew I had found the perfect course of study.

I finished my secondary school education in 2013 at 15 years old, and that meant I couldn’t gain admission into a federal university that year via UTME. Although I got in for the Unilag Foundation Programme to study chemical engineering that year, the same age limit was applied (only in 2013) and so my offer of admission was revoked. I applied via UTME the following year and was offered admission to study chemical engineering.

What does chemical engineering entail?

It entails providing solutions to man’s real-life problems using chemical, physical and biological principles in the most economical way. It is a very broad field, and as such chemical engineers can work in literally any company that converts raw materials to finished products as chemical plant operators, production engineers, quality control/assurance officers, petroleum and gas engineers, consultants, health safety and environment officers, mining engineers, to mention a few.

Tell us about your academic history?

As a kid, I believed it was impossible for me to be among the top students in my class, worse still, I didn’t even try until I was challenged. Although I naturally love mathematics (thanks to my mum’s genes), I was usually ranked between 50 to 80 per cent in my class.

My very first attempt at studying and trying to improve was in Primary 3.  The motivation came from my dad’s decision to relax his existing rule for all his female children to shave their hair under a condition.

After much pleas, he decided to allow anyone who came first, second or third plait their hair. Because I wanted to plait my hair so badly, I jumped on the challenge. That academic term was the first time I was ranked part of the first 10 students in my class; I came 9th out of 30 students! My grades began to improve gradually after then. Although I finally came 2nd when I was in JSS3, my dad said it was too late, so I didn’t plait my hair till I completed my secondary school education.

I was really heartbroken because I was usually teased for looking so much like a boy, especially with my round head. Regardless, I was determined not to relent because I realised I could have good grades simply by studying hard, I didn’t have to be “special”. I eventually finished as the valedictorian. It was with this mindset that I started my undergraduate programme at Unilag.

 What are you memorable undergraduate experiences?

Unilag is arguably one of the best universities in Nigeria; where a great balance between academic and social life is encouraged. There was usually at least one event everyday while I was on campus. I gained relevant knowledge, and sometimes connections from the few I attended. I also can’t forget the endless overnights and group projects in my final year. It was a bitter-sweet experience for me.

What is the secret of you making a first class?

Without mincing words, hard work, resilience, the constant desire to learn, and having great people in my circle, mentors and friends greatly affected my performance in the university. God’s grace made a huge difference as well.

Furthermore, I was conscious of discovering the method of study that worked best for me. Although it took a while, I realised that it was only realistic to read anywhere and everywhere that was relatively quiet because I didn’t have so much free time. I also studied better while listening to music.

Did you doubt making a first class at any point?

I actually doubted finishing with a first class towards the end of my programme. I had so many responsibilities from the organisations I volunteered in, and my courses became so tasking and seemingly difficult. My support system was really helpful during this period as I again gained the will to study hard afterwards.

What were your most challenging moments?

I was usually busy while I was in the university because of my involvement in a number of voluntary activities. I was seldom in my hostel during the day, 8-10pm being the usual time I got back to my room. To be honest, it wasn’t easy combining all the responsibilities at the time, but looking back now, I am glad I did. I’m undoubtedly a better person for it.

Do you agree with the notion that first class people have limited or no social life?

I am of the opinion that having good grades and being social are not mutually exclusive. It totally depends on the personality of an individual; if they can manage their time well. I didn’t attend many social events while in the university partly because of my tight schedule, and also because of my personality. My schedule as a student usually revolved around classes, fellowship, hostel and sometimes library.

 How many hours did you read in a day?

I didn’t have a fixed time for study. On some days, I studied for 30 minutes, 1 hour, 12 hours or even not at all, depending on how free I was. During exam periods, however, I minimised my involvement in other activities to have enough time to study.

What is your next plan?

I began a PhD programme in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, USA in the fall of 2021. My research area of interest is wastewater remediation. Afterwards, I plan to gain industry-based experience for about three to five years, and then go into academia fully; providing innovative solutions to the increasing global water pollution problems.

What is your advice to students who will like to make first class?

Success doesn’t come easy, while some are born geniuses, the majority of people aren’t, so you have to work very hard. It is important to understand the study method that works best for you. Also, the university is a great place to make lasting connections; choose your friends and mentors wisely. It is also helpful to engage in extracurricular activities if you can because at the end of the day, it is equally important to gain soft skills.

What is your most important takeaway from the university?

Beyond grades, I am excited to have come across amazing people, friends and mentors that have shaped me into who I am today. Unilag provided an environment to interact with people from the industries occasionally, thereby raising the consciousness that life as an undergrad was only transient, and that it was important to gain soft and hard skills that would help us navigate real life.

What advice do you have for students who wish to commence their PhD program in the US?

It is usually a long process from the point of preparing for the required exams (if any) to submitting your application. Relevant information can be found on platforms like Google, Education USA and LinkedIn. It is useful to note that application requirements vary for different schools, so it is advisable to also visit the websites of schools you’re interested in.

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Chidimma C. Okeke
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