Colin Powell, the former United States of America Secretary of State, once said, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” The experiences of four first-class graduates from both public and private Nigerian universities, interviewed by BusinessDay for this story, seem to validate this assertion.
These first-class graduates shared insights on their study habits, lifestyle and the secret sauce that helped them achieve the academic laurel. They also commented on how acquiring a first-class degree has impacted their life and career choices.
Oluwatoyin Chukwuemeka, a first-class and best graduating student at the University of Ibadan (UI) eight years ago and now a Ph.D. scholarship student in STEM education at Tufts University, Boston USA, attributes her success largely to studying strategically.
“What I probably did differently was to leverage my strengths. I was not just reading, I was reading strategically,” Oluwatoyin said.
Ajilore-Chukwuemeka discovered an aversion to reading in the general library. “A few times I went to the general library to read, I knew I was never going to come back here to read because everybody seem to be so serious, they were talking in hushed tones, like, oh! we’re serious here, and I’m the kind of person that would like to have fun in the midst of seriousness.
“I’m claustrophobic, and don’t like reading in confined places, so, first I had to discover myself and know what worked for me.
She discovered she could study profitably for two hours rather than spending the entire night studying. She seized on chunks of study time, adapted study to daily activities, often reading in the kitchen and in transit.
Her advice, find out what works for you.
Femi Onwubolu, a 2017 first-class graduating student from the Accounting Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka attributed his success largely to discipline.
“I was disciplined, making sure that I followed my timetable no matter where I was, and the stress. I made sure that I didn’t sleep without trying to open one page or chapter of my book in a day working with my timetable,” he said.
It’s not enough to set up a study routine, discipline is required to follow through. Discipline is required to cut back on social media use and time away from television, music, games and other social activities young people engage in school to focus on their studies.
Priortise attending classes
Omowunmi Agunsoye, graduated top of her class at the University of Ibadan with a CGPA of 5.6/7.0 said hard and prioritising attendance at classes helped.
“I prioritise attending classes and God strengthened me. I usually maximise study time because I had a few hours of study due to my many extracurricular activities.”
Educators promote classroom learning as essential in stimulating collaborative learning. Collaborative learning increases a student’s self-awareness about how other students learn and enables them to learn more easily and effectively, transforming them into keen learners inside and beyond the classroom.
It also enhances students’ critical thinking skills as it generates live discussions and builds organisational skills and the physical presence of a teacher keeps students stimulated through the interactive and interesting activities. This enables students to retain more from what they have learned during a session.
For Paul Maijeh, a first-class graduate, with a CGPA of 5.0 at Covenant University, 2021 post-graduate set in Economics, leveraging technology to achieve a deeper understanding of the subject contributed to his success.
“I followed my normal routine, with a twist to how I approached my undergraduate studies. I wanted to demonstrate a deeper understanding of my programme, and I was not focused on passing, but understanding the first principles of my key functional areas,” he said.
Apart from studying textbooks, he listened to podcasts, watched YouTube videos to learn from industry experts, and leveraged LinkedIn to reach out to them for more insights.
According to him, “I normally turn assignments in and properly do them, to get a very good continuous assessment score, aimed not less than 25/30, and demonstrate my understanding in exams, without pressure.”
Does a First Class degree matter?
Rita Adebayo, a first class Sociology graduate from Covenant University, who recently completed the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme and only entering the job market says a First-Class degree gives an edge even if it does not guarantee success.
Some of the first class graduates interviewed for this story said acquiring an internship or voluntary work experience has been invaluable. A first class degree has paved the way for some to win scholarships to pursue higher degrees.
“ I got a scholarship from the Pan African University – African Union Commission for my M.Sc. and later Ph.D. in Petroleum Geosciences as the best graduating student in 2018 on the basis of my first class degree,” said Amodu-Agunsoye.
Maijeh said when he applied for a job, he wasn’t sure his grade was a deciding factor. However, he said believed his grade helped him get selected at the initial recruitment stage. While on the job, he discovered that one needs much more than a high academic grade to succeed in the workplace.
“You need to demonstrate that you understand what you studied, and can apply it to projects that will be useful for organisational goals.
“My result got me through the door, got them to probably notice me, but my ability to demonstrate a good understanding of my functional area and education helped me compete for the job,” he said.
Chukwuemeka reiterated that making first class does not necessarily mean the world would drop at one’s lap.
“It wasn’t the first class that actually helped me to succeed. However, it opened doors for me to see the formula cum process that works for me.
“I told myself after my first degree, “You have to sort of reinvent yourself in your new face of life. You have to create success all over again,” she said.
Femi buttressed the fact that making first class comes with its challenges as he reflected on the unnecessary attention paid to him in his workplace simply because he made first class.
Besides, Onwubolu disclosed that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) insistent strikes affected him during his undergraduate days, but that he was able to navigate his way through the challenges and came out with flying colours.
“I was affected by the ASUU strike. Yes, during the strike I was working to make some money because I knew that when school resumes; I would have to pay my school fees and other necessary bills.
“I actually faced some difficult moments because I was working, and also reading. But I found it easy then because I was having more time to myself working and reading,” he noted.
Too many first class degree holders?
However, some are concerned that fallen academic standards could be leading to a proliferation of graduates with first class degrees.
Olunifesi Suraj, a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos attributed this to the rising numbers of private universities with the attendant commercialisation, low standard of education, and the need to burnish the academic performance of its students to attract more patronage.
“In those days first class used to be actually first class because they worked for it. The system produced the first class in the real sense of the first class. Something has gone wrong with the system. First class is now a commercial advert instrument where people will say, “If you come to our university, you will make first class,” he said.
However, the experiences highlighted show that regardless of whether it is a private or public institution, achieving a first class degree is a function of hard work. Educators say the availability of a conducive environment for learning, modern teaching facilities, better motivated instructors as well as absence of disruption by striking lecturers accounted for better academic performance by private universities.