INTERVIEW: Why every Nigerian child should have a smartphone — AUN President

Margee Ensign

On November 19, the American University of Nigeria marked its 11th Founder’s Day – a celebration of its founding, development, and progress – event in Yola. In this interview with journalists, the AUN President, Margee Ensign, speaks about how Nigerian universities can meet world-class standards, studying in the midst of Boko Haram insurgency, and the Chibok girls studying in the institution.

Question: What are we expecting at the Founder’s Day today?

Answer: Today, our speakers, the people we honour, we start with our honours, students, excellence and integrity. We give a number of awards to staff, and we give the community service awards for the group that stand the most in the community. Today we have a very special for all of you.

We’ve lived through a hard time here with this insurgency. It has receded, I will say. When they left, when the insurgency ended, they left behind tens of thousands of young children alone. First, it was the boys that we noticed, and then last year the girls.

For a year this university has been feeding and teaching how to read (to) about 450 children, in addition to all of our other work. And it’s been done on a shoe-string, with contributions certainly from His Excellency (Atiku Abubakar) but mainly people at the AUN. The teachers have been teaching without a salary. Students have been tutoring without a salary.

Something miraculous happened this week. Almost 400 of them were tested, just to see how we are doing. And many of them… 185 of them are going on to school, some as far as Grade 4. So what’s been happening is just amazing in this community. And so, in essence, we graduate them today from feed and read, and it will be a pretty emotional moment. Because these are very poor children, most of them orphaned. They are here today, they already have their certificates, but the women who make our bags, creating… and waste to wealth, they’ll get one of those… we’ve raised enough to get them school fees to move on.

So for us, that kind of represent what a development university is supposed to do. And we can’t think of a better way to honour His Excellency who at one point in his life probably was like one of those children on the streets. And look how far he’s come. We did a food distribution this week, we did three of them, for 50,000 hungry people. And at one point he grabbed a child and said ‘You can be anything, you can do anything.’ And so he believes that and we believe it too. Expect a few tears today (laughs).

Founder’s Day is always a special moment and I think this one may be the most because if you look at the data for philanthropy and higher education he’s in the top 10 around the world. He doesn’t talk about is, he doesn’t brag, he doesn’t run commercials on TV saying ‘I’m doing all these,’ but behind the scenes he is one of the major philanthropers, contributors to higher education in the world. So today we honour him in any way we can and thank him.

Question: Do you have any other programmes ongoing like the Feed and Read project?

Answer: We have so many. We have TELA – Technology Enhanced Learning for All, which is reaching 22,000 out of school children. Not these poorest of the poor in Feed and Read, but children who are still not able to return to school yet because of the insurgency. We have Peace Through Sports, that’s reached almost 10,000 youth not just in Yola, in Ruby, in Michika, all over Adamawa. That’s how we’ve kept youth together, Christian and Muslim children play together on unity teams. So football, basketball, volleyball. We have so many different projects going on in the community, many funded now. Feed and Read started with the Irish government, TELA is my government, the US government. So slowly external donors are coming in to support some of our works.

Question: Talking about you experiencing life here in Adamawa and at AUN and especially the interactions you’ve had with the Adamawa Peace Initiatives. What impressions do you have now about what you use to think about Adamawa, the insurgency that has been in the north, and what you have seen to be the real nature of the people here?

Answer: You know, I have always found this community to be one of the most generous and welcoming places I’ve ever lived. And I’ve lived all over the place. I’ve lived on the continent, I’ve lived all over America, and from the day I got off that plane six and half years ago, I have felt so welcomed. So I’m not surprised that this community found a way to stay together during the insurgency. I’m not surprised that the members of the Adamawa Peace Initiative are the most visionary, generous people I’ve worked with.

So despite the problem this country is facing, underneath it are people of great wealth, of great generosity even if they themselves don’t have much. I see the future of Adamawa and Nigeria as being very bright. What was missing, that we felt we could help with is education. If you can’t read you can’t participate much in society. So that’s why we have these mass literacy programmes because we believe once people can read in a world where the world’s knowledge is here, on your phones, on your tablets, if we can get people reading, they themselves can continue to learn. So that’s what I think we’ve contributed but… I’ll be sad when I leave here because the people have been so wonderful and welcoming to this crazy lady from America. It’s been great. Thank you.

Question: The founder last week openly commended your work at the AUN community. How have you been able to achieve the success?

Answer: We have a wonderful team out here. We have the vision that was set by His Excellency: build a Development University. What a wonderful charge he gave us. And the people who are here believe in that vision, they work extremely hard and so that’s what makes for success, just having the right people who have the right attitude and who wanna be here making a difference.

Question: The Law Department has taken off, and you spoke very passionately about it before the take-off. What is next on the agenda?

Answer: First, let me talk about the Law school. Our founder met with the 50 pioneer law students and they had really good questions. And it made me realise it’s begun. They realise how important law and justice are in society. So it was really heartwarming to hear their questions and, of course, his answers. He really engaged with them for about 45 minutes. We have our Board’s approval now to begin what we call the accreditation process for Engineering. So next year, expect Engineering here at the AUN. We already have Software Engineering, with approval, like teleccommunications, electronics, all of those types of engineering programmes. The next in line once the funding is there is Medicine and things like Public Health. I would like everyone to know we just entered our largest class in four years. So those challenging semesters when we didn’t have the big classes that I’d hoped because of what was happening here but it’s all turned around.

And I’ve had parents say to me we are sending them here because we want them to have an education, where they learn how to solve problems. You saw students out there teaching literacy, teaching entrepreneurship, and they really learn how to solve problems that way when they are out in a poor community that has challenges. So it’s really heartwarming to hear from Nigerian parents, that’s why we are sending them because you are the little laboratory out there. And the country is beginning to see our graduates taking leadership positions so I think now the future is really very bright for the university with the security improved, with new programmes being added and so on.

Question: You have said you’d be sad to leave here. But the founder has also said he won’t let the leading women in this institution go because they have performed wonderfully….

Answer: Well, I’m a pretty strong-willed woman and I have family in the U.S., you know? I’ve been here a long time, almost seven years. So at some point, I have to go home to my family. I’ll be very candid with you, I’m extremely worried about what’s happening in my country, I’m extremely worried about who’s coming to power, the things they’ve said, the extreme things they’ve said about religion, about minorities. So it’s probably not too long before it’s time for me to go home and see if I can do something there. Because I have deep worries about what’s unfolding in America, as do many people.

Question: How do you think some of the universities in Nigeria can meet up with the standards in AUN?

Answer: First of all, AUN’s successes would not be possible without the founder. There’s no way. He funds more than half the budget here. So we’re blessed, we know that, compared to other places. There’s no question. Most universities don’t have that. If you don’t have it, my message will be use technology. Because we live in a different time from when all of us went to school. And the research on using online education and technology is very persuasive, in terms of people learning. So in a country like yours, doubling every 26 years, thank God we have technology because there’s no other choice.

Every university, every primary school, every secondary school should figure out how do I use technology? There are curriculums all around the world now that are free. There are millions of free books. We have a programme called LOAF, Library On A Flash. At the last meeting of the Vice Chancellors from private universities with the new Executive Secretary, we offered everyone a LOAF. And I’m hearing every day from my fellow Vice Chancellors ‘I need Economics,’ ‘I need History,’… so we put together little libraries and send them off. So that can be our contribution. But there are so many free resources out there, the price of these things is coming down. $89 for a Kindle now.

So the solutions are there, let’s think outside the box, Nigeria move fast. Every kid on the street should have a smart phone, in between selling water or whatever they are doing they are reading a book. If that happened Nigeria will just, you know, go to the moon because you are so smart and so entrepreneurial. You’d not only lead thic continent, you’d lead a lot more. So I hope and pray, I love this new fella, head of the NUC, he gets it. But that should be a message from all of you. Education is the foundation of a society, you can do it. Nigeria can do it. So that’s my message: use technology as effectively as you can.

Question: Nigeria is passing through a very difficult time in terms of our economy. What kind of solution would you proffer on the way out of the recession?

Answer: I’d look at how other countries have handled both rapid population growth and recession and I would invest, as quickly as I could, in a sector where you can employ the most people, get them an income, and that’s agriculture. So you’ve got to do modern agriculture really quickly here. And as we have learned from China and East Asia. Here’s how China and East Asia did it, first of all they got everybody a job. So whether it’s in agriculture or infrastructure, people have to have an income. Massive free education. China did it. You guys can do it, easier and faster and cheaper. Free health care, you gotta improve your healthcare system.

If you put those three things in place: people have a stable income – you’re growing food, so forget the oil, you’ve become the bread basket of the continent, before long you’ve grown enough food for yourself, you are exporting, people have an income; they got an education; they’re healthy, this country will take off. I mean, it’s not me speaking, that’s what the research shows us from East Asia. That’s how the tigers became tigers. So there’s good research out there. I look at Rwanda, it’s a place I worked for many years and it’s near and dear to my heart. 22 years ago, they were devastated. Now they are one of the fastest growing, the country is entirely wired, the tolerance curriculum is amazing, we looked at it for the work that we were doing. So that little-teeny country.

Where was the climate change meeting held? In Kigali, the cleanest city in Africa. So you don’t have to re-invent everything, just look around. You guys are so smart. There’s lots of solutions but the leadership in this country can’t wait. They should be bringing in the smartest people in this country, in the continent, in the world to say ‘Help us solve this problem.’ Because you are sleeping and there’s no excuse now because there are ways out of this. I see the desperation in Yola, we all do. You see it more than I do, in Lagos, in Abuja, you know. If the economy keeps sliding you could face more social problems and there’s no need. There’s solutions to all these.

Question: The Chibok girls in AUN, are there special programmes organised to help in their rehabilitation? And are you planning something for the recently released ones?

Answer: First of all, we have 24 here. Six fully enrolled at the university, and 18 in the foundation programme. We’ve lent so much to that foundation programme, we call it the new foundation programme. It wasn’t cheap to put together. The founder helped. We’ve got a donor from the US. Those young women are in classes of five or six with two teachers, they are so determined. We’ve learnt from them what resilience is, what determination is, what it means to go through a horrible trauma and come out the other side even more determined.

We offered, when they were released, you saw my tweets. I said AUN would take these young women. I understand that the Executive branch still has them. I would appeal that they be released. I don’t know who they are talking to, I guess security is still talking to them. Let them go back to living their lives and maybe they have by now. But they deserve whatever this country can do, not just them, there are thousands of children kidnapped, thousands, folks. So where is the massive programme to get these kids back in school?

What we are doing at AUN Yola and in Yola… you know the children spoke about the farm and the dyke… we’re doing what we can with our resources in the community, but I will expect this government to step up and say ‘The children are the future of the society, we’re gonna do everything we can to educate them with the few resources.’ But there’s new ways to do it, and let’s look at how other countries have done it post-conflict. There’s a lot to learn from how other countries have come out of this.


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