In a department where it is relatively uncommon to make first class, Uchechukwu Agbo graduated with first class from the Department of English and Literary Studies, Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo (Now Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo), Ebonyi State, in the 2016/2017 academic session. He made 4.54 CGPA. He speaks on his success and plans for the future in this interview with TUNDE AJAJA of Punch.
Making first class in English and Literature is seen as somewhat rare. How easy was it for you?
As much as I wouldn’t say that it was all struggles and pain, it also would be deceptive to make anyone believe that it was all rosy. It required lots of sacrifices, diligence and commitment. Perhaps, the only simple part of it was the resolve and the decision to make first class and the spirit of God in me made excellence a norm for me.
What attracted you to the course?
When my father learnt that I scored 283 in the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, he recommended that I change from English and Literary Studies, my most preferred course, to Law, but I declined. When I got to school, the then officer in charge of our registration saw that I scored 300 in post-UTME and she wondered why I hadn’t opted for a more “professional” course than ELT. But I was convinced about what I wanted. Only English and Literary Studies has what it takes to make me the kind of man I want to become. I had read about the late Chinua Achebe, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emecheta, Adimora-Ezeigbo and Irobi; those valiant fathers and mothers of our profession. These inspired my decision to go for English and Literary Studies. I feel bad that I could not meet some of them before they died, but Achebe did not leave me without a consolation. I was awarded the Achebe Prize during my convocation. For Prof. Soyinka, God will keep him alive for me. I still have several things to learn from him in person.
Was there anything about your growing up that made you love literature?
I grew up witnessing various shades of violence, impoverishment and lack, and it was an area prone to cultism, drug, theft and prostitution. It was a typical ghetto. Poverty was not a word we learnt from the classroom; it was a daily experience for several families around. Most of us were quite brilliant but nothing around us encouraged us to aspire to greater heights. God taught me it could be better, so as a child, I dreamt of lending a helping hand to people like me. I dreamt of leading as many ghetto children as possible out of the poverty into what Martin Luther King Jnr. called the buoyancy of hope and it now goes beyond my neighbourhood in Abakaliki to the country as a whole because poverty is really a shared experience across the country. To achieve these, I looked and still look forward to joining the administrative bench of my society someday. That, perhaps, explains why I was active in leadership throughout my undergraduate days till now. And sometimes, the future is sometimes scary, anytime I remember an experience I had as a child. Government had declared free education, yet our teachers would tell us to bring brooms or money, in the name of handiwork, even though government had said we shouldn’t pay for anything. Anytime inspectors came around, the teachers would tell us to tell them we didn’t pay for the handiwork, but we did. Till today, I still feel sad for those moments of self-betrayal because teachers are more or less the mirror through which children see life.
What bothers you most about Nigeria?
A prominent one is the inadequate incentives for education. I feel youths are given very little reasons that could make them feel inclined to study. Some schools in Nigeria reward their best graduating students with nothing more than N10,000. Others are not even that benevolent. Now, the tragedy is that quite many of these institutions know how to attract firms who would readily give out N200,000 and other prizes to winners of beauty pageants in their school. And you want the students to take academics seriously? At the national level, how many intellectual competitions give up to N100,000 reward? Yet, few weeks ago, the winner of the Big Brother Nigeria contest was rewarded with millions of naira. We mustn’t do everything that is obtainable in the western world. We must give our youths reasons to learn. Nigeria has over 80 million youths. This is a demographic advantage, but their minds must be redirected towards nation building, otherwise, our children will grow up to lament over the very same challenges that we face today. This is a job for the government, corporate and private bodies and individuals.
What are the job prospects of your course?
English and Literary Studies open you up to a world of limitless possibilities. It exposes you to career path that cuts across the academia, media, entertainment industry, hospitals, embassies and so on. The list is endless. So, I think it boils down to what the individual chooses to become.
Where would you like to work?
I love different aspects of the course for different reasons, but in no particular order, I think I have the most passion for the academia, governance, journalism, development works and scripting.
How would you have felt if you didn’t make first class?
(Laughs) When a farmer sows, he or she looks forward to harvest. When the harvest comes, the farmer smiles home, but if the crops fail, he or she returns home sad, but resolved to plant come next season. So, if I didn’t make first class in my BA, I would have been sad, but I would have still dusted my tools and prepare for Master’s. What makes people fall is not failing, but failing to rise again after a fall.
Were there things you did differently from others to make first class?
Yes and no (laughs). I read like every other student, perhaps a little more than a few. But I think the actual difference is God. Christ in me the hope of glory. The only thing I did differently was that I acknowledged God in all my ways and I understood that I had no power of my own. Since I relied on God, I abstained from examination malpractice in any form. I remember submitting a near-empty script once during a particular test for which I was unprepared. I was ready to fail than to compromise. So, it was God.
How many of you made first class in your class?
In English and Literary Studies, I was the only one who made first class.
Did you have any difficulty in securing admission into the university?
Yes. I secured admission into the university, three years after my first WASSCE attempt. I needed to work for a while before furthering my education. God used that period to prune my life into becoming a better person.
How would you describe your performance as a first year student?
I would say it was not very encouraging. Resuming few weeks after lectures had started meant that I had missed some vital introductory lectures and assignments. Also, I had entered for a creative writing competition powered by Ugreen Foundation few weeks before my admission. Towards the middle of the semester, the result was announced and I was one of the winners, so I had to travel for a full week. My CGPA after the first semester was 4.33, but I made sure that was the least I ever had till I graduated and I entered first class grade in my second year.
As a child, what were the things your parents did that shaped your academic journey?
My father would always tell us stories of how he used to be the best in his class during his school days. This made us to see ourselves as brilliant pupils. After all, we were children of a very brilliant man (laughs). I also remember my mother insisting that my handwriting be as beautiful as possible even when I was just in primary school. So, good parenting and God saw me through. I remember they always congratulated me each time I returned home with an excellent result and sometimes, like when I made first class, they would kill a chicken for us to celebrate.
What was your reading schedule like?
I actually slept for about eight hours daily, but for studying, that was a luxury I could not afford every day. I had other pertinent leadership and work engagements, both within and outside the campus, which made it almost impossible for me to study every day. But, whenever I had the time, I could study for many hours without stopping. My appetite for studying in my first and second year was incredible that I even read materials for courses in higher levels such that when I got to third year, it was easier.
Were there friends who saw you as too serious?
Yes, although not just because of academics. I remember being called a nerd on two different occasions; one was when I served as the Chief Judge for a public speaking contest organised by National Association of Students of English and Literary Studies and we were to be entertained afterwards. The place became too noisy for me and someone told me that. The second time was from a classmate of mine who thought I was being too serious with life. However, it is important we know that excellence comes at a prize.
What were your other engagements in school?
My school emphasises pragmatic education. As a student, I was involved in several other school activities and I served in different leadership capacities such as the President, Creative Writers Association of the school, President of our branch of NASELS, the General Coordinator, Chapel of Restoration, the Chief Editor, CORE Epistula, a student magazine, and so on. I also represented my school in national and state debate championships during which time we won the school trophies and N1,000,000 once. I remember organising a national creative writing contest when I was the president of the school creative writers association and the school has adopted the competition to run annually.
Did you face any challenge in school?
Yes, I had some challenges with finances, but God saw me through. By God’s grace, I got scholarships after my first year. Now I think it is particularly important to point out that it was about God. I relied on Him as a father and He took care of me as His son.
How did you use your leisure?
I love historical movies and documentaries and watched whenever I was free to do so. I equally engaged my friends in focused conversations and I took pride in the kind of friends I kept in school.
What were your most memorable moments?
It will be difficult to peg the answer to this question to just one date. Two particular instances appear to stand out. One should be the days I contributed to helping fellow students pay their school fees. The joy on their faces lit up my world. The other one was June 2, 2017 when we had the grand finale of the first edition of the nationwide creative writing competition that I mentioned earlier. We invited some prominent guests such as the former Governor of Anambara State, Mr. Peter Obi, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo and a former Secretary to Ebonyi State Government, Prof. Benard Odo and they showed up. I was quite happy. Well, I would want to believe that my saddest day as a student was the day we attended the burial of a fellow student.