Being named a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellow holds immense significance for any scholar, and for Chijioke Onah, it represents both validation and a call for further contributions.
The Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Innovation Fellowship is a fellowship programme to support early-stage doctoral students pursuing innovative approaches to dissertation research in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. The fellowship comes with a $50,000 award, consisting of a $40,000 stipend for the fellowship year; $8,000 for project-related research, training, professional development, and travel expenses; and a $2,000 stipend to support external mentorship and advising that offers critical perspectives and expertise on the fellow’s project.
Chijioke Onah is currently a Ph.D. student in the Literatures in English Department, at Cornell University, specialising in Black Atlantic Literature, African Studies, Trauma and Memory Studies, and Environmental Humanities. He had his bachelor’s degree in Combined English and History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. For his master’s degree, he studied at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, with an Erasmus-funded exchange at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Before moving to Cornell, he spent a year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Onah speaks with Edugist on his accomplishments and the challenges facing Nigerian education.
Pursuing doctoral study at Cornell University
Onah’s decision to study at Cornell University was not clear cut. “My choice of Cornell was accidental and tragic,” he told Edugist.
“I came to the United States in August 2019 to work with the legendary Prof. Tejumola Olaniyan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Unfortunately, Prof. Olaniyan died tragically in November 2019. I knew for sure that I wouldn’t be able to continue at Madison. Confused, I decided to apply to Cornell where Prof. Olaniyan himself was trained. That was how I came to Cornell. I continue to remember Prof Olaniyan for the influence he had on my career, and for the paths he had cleared for me.”
Area of PhD research and impact on society beyond academia
The implications of Onah’s research extend far beyond academia. In a world saturated with various forms of toxicity, ranging from lead poisoning to industrial waste, the consequences disproportionately impact Black and minority communities. By exploring the connections between environmental justice and the current ecological crisis, Onah aims to articulate sustainable ways of existence within this toxic-laden world. His work addresses the social and environmental ramifications of harmful practices, contributing to a more equitable and sustainable future.
With a doctoral dissertation focused on the ecological violence of toxic waste and pollutants in African and Black communities globally, Onah discussed the significance of his research and how it caters to a broader audience. “Given the environmental and health implications of living in proximity to toxic waste and pollutants as many Black and minority groups do, my research shows how African and African-descendant people globally are conditioned to inhabit these toxic landscapes,” he said.
“This kind of violence is often not recognized, yet it is both pervasive and lethal. My research underscores these kinds of violence. But it also positions these communities as models of how to live ethically and sustainably in a toxic saturated world.”
When asked about the impact of his PhD research on society and the world more broadly, Onah revealed that his research stands to benefit Black and other minority groups around the world.
“We currently live in a world saturated with toxicity. Whether it is from lead poisoning, oil spills, electronic, nuclear, or industrial waste; there is no escaping toxicity. However, advanced countries routinely export these hazardous materials to countries of the global south, or cite these harmful matters within minority communities in the West. My research shows how these practices have enormous social and environmental consequences for Black and minority communities as well as for our collective planetary future. By placing environmental justice at the core of the current ecological crisis, I hope to articulate sustainable forms of living in this toxic saturated world.”
Onah’s PhD advisor being co-chairs Caroline Levine and Naminata Diabate, he expressed his gratitude for the recognition among extraordinary scholars and viewed it as an affirmation of his research endeavours and accomplishments thus far. He emphasised that the honour serves as a catalyst to strive for more rather than resting on past achievements. “It feels like a validation of my research and the various work I have done over the years,” Onah told Edugist.
“As a PhD student, our major funding often comes from teaching the First-year Writing Seminar (FWS),” Onah said of the funding model. “This fellowship offers me an extra year of funding without the demands of teaching. Even though I enjoy teaching, it is often time intensive and leaves little room for research. This is even worse for me as a student-parent. With this fellowship, I can devote my time completely to my dissertation and other research projects. With this freedom and the financial support of the fellowship and the graduate school, I will also be able to do extra fieldwork in Nigeria and Ghana.”
Giving back to the society
Beyond his academic pursuits, Onah has a strong commitment to giving back to society, particularly in his home country of Nigeria. His long-standing dedication to mentorship is evident right from his undergraduate studies through his passion for supporting underprivileged students and providing educational opportunities. This has led him to engage in various mentorship programmes.
Onah currently serves on the Enugu State Board of Mentors, which has successfully secured substantial scholarship funds for the indigenes of Enugu state. Looking to the future, Onah aspires to establish a scholarship programme for talented but financially disadvantaged students in their community, though they are actively seeking willing donors to make this vision a reality.
On the state of Nigerian education
When asked about his message to Nigerian authorities responsible for education management, Onah expressed deep concern for the current state of education, academic facilities, the quality of teachers, and the calibre of graduates produced by Nigerian universities.
“I would say that it is a pity that Nigeria is sacrificing its future. No country can reach its potential outside of education. The number of talents we lose every year to brain drain is alarming to any responsible government. We cannot continue like this. We must take the funding of education seriously. And we must treat our teachers and professors well.”
Onah emphasised the critical importance of prioritising education and allocating adequate funding to nurture talent within the country. He highlighted the need to compensate teachers and professors fairly, acknowledging the demanding journey required to attain such positions. By investing in quality education, he claimed that Nigeria can halt the brain drain of talented individuals and unlock its true potential. “As a scholar myself, I cannot imagine what professors are being paid in Nigeria, knowing what it takes to become one. It doesn’t inspire anyone to return to the country. It is imperative that we prioritise quality education in Nigeria.”
Outside of his academic pursuits, Onah finds joy and fulfilment in spending quality time with his family. Engaging in activities such as singing, dancing, and playful interactions with his wife and daughter brings immense happiness, according to him. “I also love spending time with friends, taking a walk, or discussing politics,” he added.