INTERVIEW: The world’s next Bill Gates is in Yola, says AUN President

Ms. Ensign believes Nigeria must adequately train its young people so they can compete well with their peers anywhere in the world.

The President of American University of Nigeria, Yola, Margee Ensign, visited PREMIUM TIMES office in Abuja recently. During the brief visit, she graciously answered a few questions from our team of editors. She spoke passionately about Nigerian educational system and how her university is trying to make a difference.

What’s your assessment of the media in Nigeria?

It’s my pleasure to visit you today. I read every paper, but you (PREMIUM TIMES) are very clear and honest. I personally appreciate what you’re doing. As the head of a university, good writing and accurate reporting is so critical for your country, especially at this moment.

That is why I keep telling my students to read this paper. The need for understanding is great. People need to understand what is going on. I think the responsibility is huge, to Nigeria and democracy, it is so important. It’s a big responsibility that you have. I’m sure it’s not easy. I congratulate you for your good work.

What is AUN doing differently to impact education in Nigeria?

At AUN, we are trying our best. We are built on the solid foundation of accountability and transparency. We have just finished the largest building in this part of the world. We gave everybody the chance to bid for the job. All the bids were opened in a transparent manner, and we chose the best quality and the lowest price. It’s been interesting trying to lay down those markers in every way. It is important that everyone has to be accountable. That’s the way we do every other thing in our system.

We have a code of conduct that every of our students signs. We have just finished the pledge ceremony, where we pledged honesty and integrity to each other.

We are really trying to change what we do everyday, and it’s working; and that’s what is encouraging. That is what the young people want. They want to work in an environment where everyone is accountable to so much standard when we come together. It’s not easy, but it can happen. I have worked in other countries and continents, and I have seen how things work.

Like Rwanda, where I worked for several years, there was so much corruption and genocide that was devastating the economy at a time. Now, the, authorities are leading the way in transparency and international ranking.

In situations like that, the worst you can do with each other is to come back and see how you can deal with it and lead in economic growth and transformation. And it has to happen in Nigeria, because of the position it occupies in Africa.

I tell my students that in less than ten years you will be the leaders of the third largest country in the world. India and China slipped and are coming back. So, this is the moment where the press, and the young leaders, should begin to make positive changes and contributions to Nigeria. So, it’s an honour to be with you; to encourage you to keep up the good work.

How is AUN coping with challenges of running its kind of educational system in Nigeria?

First of all, it is important that the press gives the security situation in the region a peace reign. Nobody ventures to see that the place is one of peace and harmony. Yes, some parts of the Northern part of the country are in trouble. I am tired of reading press reports from Lagos and Abuja about the situation in the region. The basic principle should be to go and see before reporting.

When I came to Yola three years ago, and I met some of the most beautiful people I have ever met in my life – the Muslim and Christian leaders, the Ibo traders and everybody. The University funds something called the Adamawa Peace Council.

When there was the fuel subsidy strike in 2012 and we began to check round and say: “Wow, what’s going on, there is so much tension in our community.” The major Muslim leaders, the Christian Bishops and the Ibo traders, we all came together and decided to work together to make Yola a safe place. That was how the Adamawa Peace Council was born. Quite extraordinary!

We have a TV show. Whenever there is a threat, we get together to see how we can nip it in the bud. Several months ago, there was such a threat one Friday after prayers. You could feel the tension in the community. So, I called these guys in the Council to meet me at the TV station for us to talk about the differences between a Christian and a Jihad. The show set the whole community watching, and the tension came down almost immediately. For me, it was the most fascinating discussion ever, and the reaction of the people was amazing.

So, the Council is a rapid response group. If there is a threat to security, we go in the media, TV or radio and try to find solutions to it, and its working. The goal is to identify vulnerable youths, train them and give them education. We train more than 1000 vulnerable youths in the community through the Peace Council.

How it works is that the Council members would come with names of kids they are worried about, and the University would take over and offer them IT training. Now, we are turning that into business training model, so that when they finish the IT training, they can start a business. That is why what we are doing in AUN is different.

How other ways does AUN impact its immediate community?

We see our role not only as educating growing kids we have, but making sure the community is also coming up. In the last graduation, I remember forever a 93 year old man who completed the basic training programme. Then, there was a 12 year old boy, and I asked him: “What are you doing here? You are supposed to be in school.” And he said: “Why would I go to school? We have no materials; we have nothing.”

We have 24/7 power supply and Internet. We are a Google university. After Google showed up last year, bright light was coming from Northern Nigeria. Today, we have the largest Google traffic in Nigeria.

So, we are blessed with the technology, and we are trying to figure out how we can use this technology effectively, not only to make sure our students get all the e-mailing resources, but the community too.

We decided to come together as a community and decide that we are writing our own peace curriculum for the community. So, every AUN student has to do a three credit course with the American model focusing on one of our major development projects, which is literacy, both for adult learners and women in areas that are not easy to locate. Our students are writing computer applications on Samsung tablets and we print everything in a book and take them out into the community.

One of the projects one of our students is proposing is to write a children’s book for the community on peace. We will print that out through our printing press for the community. When one connects the dots and say: “If the communities could do this around Nigeria, we can begin to bring the children up and get rid of the despair, which is partly the cause of the Boko Haram situation in the country.

That’s our working approach. There is no security incidence since then, because we have a very strong security force. I take it very seriously, because it is my responsibility.

How does AUN give back to the larger society?

In AUN, we have schools from kindergarten to secondary school. We have a very large boarding school. We also have about 1000 undergraduates and a couple of 100s in the graduate schools. We have a security force of about 400. We are running an operation that is American standard security. We take people from the community, train them, make them AUN employees and pay them living wages. Many of them are also taking our courses.

Our operation is like the American operation. We are looking for the best and the brightest, whether or not they can pay. We have two scholarships for each of the 36 states every year.

In Nigeria, unlike America, if one gives a scholarship, one cannot give it partial, because the beneficiaries cannot afford books, clothes and food. So, these scholarships are full. Every year between 10 and 18 per cent of our income goes back to the community. That’s American model.

The man that founded our University was honoured by the American Peace Corps last year with the first global award at the 50th anniversary of the corps, because the history of our university is that he had his learning under British teachers and American Peace Corps, and they made a profound impact on his life. And at the 50th anniversary of the Corps, he got the first global award. In that ceremony, the Americans, not Nigerians, said: “There is no one in the world giving more to higher education.” I know how much he gives, because this AUN project is so wholesome.

I have to pay U.S. salary to attract the best out of people. We charge one-fourth of what people are paying in the U.S. There are many schools in Abuja that charge more than AUN. We are trying to teach these beautiful young kids. I stay with them and I interact with them, and they have a different burden though, and you know them better than I do. I send them all over the world to something called model United Nations, the Growth Programme.

I will never forget the first time they got back from the programme. When they were to report to us how it went, they put their heads down and said to me: “No one would talk to us.” I said why? And they said: “they said we were from Nigeria.” Then we started performing like rock stars.

Last year, the programme was in New York, and our kids were invited to represent Nigeria. They went to the Security Council and the General Assembly and other such places. They did exceptionally well, because they carried the extra burden we had to equip them with. We gave them the tools that would make the country reach that level of achievement.

How is AUN doing to help change the situation in Nigeria’s educational syste?

This is absolutely important. We don’t talk much about demography in Nigeria, and that’s what is driving growth and the problems in the country. Nigeria is about the fastest growing country in the world, doubling about every 30 or 35 years. Think about it! So, in 30 years, Nigeria will be about 360million. There is no way the country’s higher education sector can build enough buildings to house these kids. It’s got to be technology. And that’s where the AUN is leading the way.

We just won the American Library Association award from three universities in the whole world that were chosen. That’s the solution to education here, and it’s not just higher education. All the researches show that if you do it well and increase content even to smart phones, you can educate people and make them independent thinkers. You don’t need this British ‘repeat after me’ approach, because the world is changing. The world needs independent thinkers. We are not big, but we want to lead the way in the country through how we use these resources to educate, not just the students, but the community. That’s what we hope to offer.

That is why we cannot just focus on traditional education. Everybody needs to be shaken up. This is a very creative and exciting time for education, because the traditional interest and everything has changed. That is where I think we can be one of the leaders – showing how we can use digital resources to gain access to education.

Would AUN be willing to grant more access to Nigerians interested in its online programmes?

We will gladly do it. There are people who study in Stanford University and MIT. We would want an African university. Once again, the world is sending stuff to you, rather than having your own content go out. So, they are very receptive to us on this move. Having finished the library project that won us the award, our auditorium is almost ready. We have a TV station that is transmitting from Northern Nigeria to the rest of the world. It does not have to be for profit. But, it will be great for that to happen in Nigeria. We have to figure out how to make sure people are being honest on the computer. We hope to work with other African universities. I still do work in Rwanda. We still have 20 fully sponsored students from Rwanda coming to study in AUN every year. They are basically telling us that our education here at AUN is cheaper and better than South Africa. That’s good news for Nigeria. There are students from South Africa for the Masters programme.

Here’s our vision in education: If we could be educating the future leaders from every country in the continent, imagine what this place would look like in the next 10,15, 20 years. Yes, we want to do that. We would not be sending our children to America. We want to do it here. But, somebody’s really got to start writing about the real problems in our education. All what I read about are the problems in our education. Rather than our mistakes, we should be focusing on how do we educate a country whose youth population will double in 30 years? The answer should start now.

We are monitoring carefully to see if what we are doing with technology in education is working. If we can get together and share the idea with people who have money, we really want to jump at it and jumpstart the development in education.

If we could have one section of our education system that is really doing well, and people can come and see that would be great.

Apart from the things I have mentioned we are doing in the community, we are also doing IT training and other programmes through the Peace Council. But, our third biggest programme is sustainability. This the one that students are most excited about. Through the programme, we recycle things like oil and vegetable oil containers into various useful items. We have no trash can anywhere on campus. All the used plastics are being recycled into beautiful items. We have about 80 women from the community who pick up the trash from all over place and we turn them into things like iPad or book covers. The local governments are training these people on how to pick up the trash. Small project, but people are made to think that they can create something of value or wealth out of waste.

AUN run 24/7 on diesel, which is horrible. So, we have got an application to the U.S. government for a loan for big systems on solar energy. PHCN, of course, is not enough for what we want to do. We used to get six to seven hours power supply a day from PHCN, we do not even get three now. So, we have to look for money to get that done. I want AUN to be a showcase of invention.

I am in my heartbreaks everyday when I drive by these ‘almajiri’ kids in the streets and I think about what we can do to get them off the streets. And as I walk out of my front door and I see those kids in school, and I tried not to allow what could be overwhelming problem to weigh me down, and just keep focusing on what little things we can do in the university to bring succour to the community.

AUN is the biggest employer in the state. Apart from those working in the university, whom we pay living wages, there are several others that depend indirectly on the university.

My job as the President is to try to find additional funding to carry the projects that we have. AUN has an amazing Board of Trustees made up of very credible Nigerians and outsiders, who are always pushing us.

Where do you see AUN in the next decade?

In so many ways, I see AUN moving forward to becoming a centre of excellence. We need to raise money to start an applied school of engineering. People should not have to leave Nigeria in search of best healthcare. The focus of our proprietor has always been helping the poor. He said: “Take care of the vulnerable youths; get them off the streets; educate them, and give them employment.”

My vision is that whatever our reach can be, it’s really working and there is no unemployment. We keep our learning differently. With technology, we can do a lot. The next Bill Gates is in Yola. We are looking for bicycle factories, factories to fix computers, etc.

At the moment, we are putting something together called the ‘Grand Alliance’, where Chambers of Commerce, private sector, non-governmental organizations and the educational sector commit to the generation of employment and education.

We will continue to be the cutting edge in e-learning, engineering, computer, medicine and other things the country needs, but also making sure our poor kids get what they need to compete. We can’t just compete any more internally. We should be competing with their peers in Mexico, Brazil, India and China, because oil will run out one day and you have got to have the skilled workforce and creative entrepreneurs to compete.

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