It was a difficult journey of sleepless nights, long days, loads of lab work – Keele varsity first class graduate


Twenty one-year-old Safinatu Ahmadu, better known as Safina, graduated from the University of Keele, England, in July, 2021, with a first class in biomedical science. In this interview, she speaks about her academic journey while inspiring young ones to aim for the sky.

What was growing up like?

My parents, Shehu and Fatima Ahmadu, were inspired by an influential activist in the late 90s and early 2000s, Safinatu Mohammed, who championed the cause of the less privileged and advocated a better society, and thus named me after her. I was born on the first day of the millennium; that was January 1, 2000.

My parents are from Maiha Local Government Area in Adamawa State, but moved to Lagos, which was where they had me and my three siblings (an older brother and two younger sisters). My parents are an inspiration to me; being born in a quaint village yet making it in a bustling city.

From a young age, they encouraged the importance of education to both my brother and we the girls. At the American International School, Lagos, I took after school classes to supplement my learning, as well as Islamiyah, swimming, basketball, tennis and volleyball – all which are vital to a wholesome upbringing. I was the type of child to be found perusing the school library for new books to read. In fact, I could not go to sleep without reading a few pages each night. My mum would always find me in the morning with a book falling from my hands. Because of this, they made me a huge bookshelf where I would store all my interesting novels.

At 13 my parents sent me to a girl’s boarding school, Badminton School, in Bristol, England, where I completed my IGCSEs and A levels. I learnt how to be independent and I would say I really grew mentally in those five years as the British schooling system was testing for me coming from the American system. Despite this, I was able to graduate with As and A*s. I was also the School Student Ambassador (equivalent to the head prefect in Nigeria).

What were your undergraduate days like?

My undergraduate days at Keele University were very interesting. I learned how to live on my own and care for myself in all ways. I made friends with good and focused people who I was able to live with which really helped me in the journey to receive my degree. I volunteered at Caudwell Children’s, a charity nearby focused on providing therapies for disabilities that children face such as autism, and this really supplemented my passion to become a doctor and help all those in need of care. My lecturers were on the whole active in providing us a good education and I was able to learn a lot from lectures to tutorials to our long three-hour labs. Sadly, my time on campus was cut short due to COVID-19, so about half of my degree was delivered online.

As a 16-year-old, I shadowed doctors at a few hospitals, but I will have to say my two weeks of experience at the maternity ward in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, was enlightening. I was moved by the confidence individuals had in the staff, highlighting the profound impact they have on patients. Such trust is essential to the patient-doctor relationship.

On one occasion, I was introduced to the ethical hurdles doctors face daily. A parturient patient was adamant on having a natural birth despite the complication of cephalopelvic disproportion which presented the risk of obstructed labour. I observed how the obstetrician was steadfast yet sensitive in explaining the Caesarean Section (CS) procedure. At the heart of medicine are doctors’ commitment to appreciate both the physical and emotional, which differentiates it from solely science. It was inspiring to watch how, assisted by the multidisciplinary team, they were resilient and showed effective communication and cooperation when caring for the patient.

I learned that although your beliefs might contradict decisions and beneficence of the patient, their autonomy should always be respected. Such conduct is crucial to everyday practice. This made me want to apply to medicine.

How then did you continue on this path?

I was faced with difficulties as medicine was extremely tough and competitive. I did not get in the first time, so I accepted an offer from Keele University, my alma mater, where I studied and graduated with a first class in biomedical science in July of 2021.

At Keele, I was the Vice President of the Nigerian Society where I was constantly learning leadership skills, collaboration and communication skills and how to manage my time. In the light of this pandemic, the committee and I had to find new ways of bringing the Nigerian culture to the university while respecting the guidelines in place. This improved my ability to adapt and rise to unforeseen challenges. I also wrote my dissertation, a systematic review on treatments for endometriosis, which is a significant reproductive disorder that some women face. It was a difficult journey filled with sleepless nights and long days and loads of lab work, but Alhamdullilah! I was able to push through the obstacles and graduate. Alongside this, I was applying to medical school and I am overjoyed to say that I got an offer so will be attending medical school to become a doctor this next school year.

How did you make it in a field dominated by males?

Surprisingly, with schooling in the UK, there were actually more females in our biomedical science cohort than males. Despite this, I attribute my passion for the sciences to my all-girls secondary school, Badminton School. Being in an environment with all girls, we were all encouraged to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and were often taught about brilliant women in science. I was even a part of a science outreach programme where we would learn several types of experiments after school and travel to primary schools all over the region to teach and encourage young girls. It is, therefore, evident that girls, like boys, are capable of pursuing a scientific career, and I would urge all parents to instill these values in female children along with males.

What were your challenges in school?

Primarily, being off campus for most of my final year due to COVID-19 was quite difficult, especially while constructing my dissertation. The usual facilities we would have had on campus such as the library and easy access to lecturers were missing; so it proved a hardship. Alongside this, our biomedical science degree demanded a lot of work. We were tasked with a mountain of course work throughout, and often I would have several due on the same day, so I really learned how to manage my time effectively.

We also had a lot of exams, so I had to work towards that as well. When faced with difficulties in schoolwork I would recommend taking a break often and going out with friends, as well as engaging in extracurricular activities to take your mind off of it and refresh ready to come back and tackle it with a clear mind. I can really say biomedical science tested my work ethic and as such is an excellent bridging course for the medical degree.

What would you do differently from what is done in the field in Nigeria, if given an opportunity?

Sorry I do not know about the biomedical science field in Nigeria, so I cannot speak on this.

Do you have any platform for engaging others to be relevant to their communities?

No; I currently do not, but I will definitely think about starting one. Thank you for the suggestion.

There are many Nigerians who would want to secure admission in foreign universities, can you share some tips?

I was already a secondary student in the UK at the time of my application. I applied through UCAS in October of the year before admission with the help of my school tutor and the headmistress. For your application to be strong, I would recommend having good grades, as well as various types of extracurricular and work experiences to show you are well versed on what that course may entail and are passionate to be an excellent student.

Particularly, have a form of sport, an academic extracurricular and one related with the arts to show you are a well-rounded student. Working in restaurants, hospices and charities will also add to your application and show you are a consistent and well organised student.

Is there a chance for youths to attain their dreams in present day Nigeria?

This is a good question that requires deep thought. Primarily, I believe to attain your dreams you have to first believe in yourself, have hope and be proactive in your pursuits. Having said this, I understand that many youths in Nigeria are faced with constant difficulties with many families barely earning up to the minimum wage, as well as overpopulation with almost half of the population being below the age of 15. As such this is creating an immense amount of competition for the limited amount of jobs available.

Many children therefore are out of school – especially secondary and tertiary; not saying that to be successful you have to go to school. For example, the successful Folorunsho Alakija revealed that she never attended university. However, in this day and age we live in, having a bachelor’s degree and more recently a masters is usually an expectation from recruiters. It is also important to also note that being successful can be characterised differently for varying individuals, so it is necessary to be confident in yourself and to never compare your journey to anyone else’s. Despite all of these hardships, I believe that the Nigerian youths can rise to these challenges and work hard for a better future.

What is your advice to youths, many of who are still unemployed?

I am still just a student at the moment, so I am not really versed on what it takes to be part of the Nigerian workforce. However, if I was to advise any unemployed person, I would say to keep finding ways to improve your application, whether that involves going back to school (no matter what your age may be) and supplementing it with skills needed by the employers you are targeting such as computing skills.

Additionally, YouTube has many educational videos on job interviews and how to stand out as a candidate. I used them myself for my medical school interview and they definitely were very useful. Beware of your presentation, your speech, mannerism and make sure to maintain eye contact. Lastly, make sure you SMILE!

Anwar Kabir
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