We are establishing a global centre to cater for out-of-school children – AUN President

Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola, Adamawa State, in this interview with Education Editors, highlighted the institution’s contributions to training globally competitive students and the efforts of the university to promote community development, using technology. She also spoke on other important issues bordering on education sector in Nigeria and the institution’s plans for the growing number of out-of-school children in the North. Kelechi Ewuzie was there for BusinessDay. Excerpts:

What should the AUN community expect in your second coming as the president?

In my first stint as President of AUN, 2010 to 2017, the university lived through challenging times with the situation in the North East, the challenge of Boko Haram among other things. During that period, AUN was able to feed 300,000 people, educated 22,000 out-of-school children with the help of the university students, faculty, and staff.

We established the Adamawa Peace Initiative, which comprises religious, community leaders, business leaders coming together to really take care of a lot of people. Through this, AUN lived its development mission. We are a different kind of university in Nigeria, and in the world.

We are the only university with a primary goal to make sure students are ready to live, work and solve problems not only in Nigeria but in the world. We are creating global leaders. During those challenging years, it was young Nigerian students who were doing the feeding; we are taking care of people because, through this process, the students learn to solve very big problems.

When I look at Nigeria, I see a country with the potential of being the third-largest country in the world in 25 years. Right now, it is China, India, and the USA. In about 2045, it will be India and China, Nigeria. So, I believe very strongly in this country.

In AUN, we are creating the future leaders of Nigeria and I consider it an enormous opportunity and responsibility to come back to AUN to make sure these young people are ready because Nigeria has a great opportunity and also big challenges.

My coming back to AUN as the president is to bring back some new ideas and the ability to propel the university into that new world. The university has established a lot of graduate programmes. We focus on research to understand how to solve, for instance, the issue of food insecurity in Nigeria with her population, doubling every 21 years.

Nigeria needs to grow enough food rather than import because it has the potential to do it here. Nigeria needs to make sure she grows enough food for the population, solve issues of her health sector challenges because the country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

AUN students are stunned when they look at the maternal mortality rate data. The university is working to establish a public health programme in conjunction with World Health Organisation (WHO). They are eager to work with us in the North East, where public health is needed. In summary, I am back here at AUN to make my little contribution.

Take us through some of the changes you hope to make in the AUN system in this your second coming?

The first one step is to address the issue of public health. It is critically important that we have a major public health presence in the North East. We are expanding the work that we do in the community through the Atiku Institute of International Development. Every student at the American University of Nigeria is required to be in a course called Community Development Course (CDC). By doing this, we want to make sure every graduating student would have had practical experience, not just in the classroom, but out in the community working.

We are expanding these projects, looking at other academic programmes over time, not immediately. We will do medicine and build a hospital, we are doing new programmes, expanding our work in the community and making sure we educate as many young people as we can in American style education, which is a bit different now.

You are coming back at a time when the political atmosphere is a little bit different. There are agitations from different sections of the country to be on their own. Here you are with the message that there’s lot of potential in Nigeria; how do you hope to convince people to buy into this?

The current situation doesn’t relate just to Nigeria; look at the United States of America where there are also political divisions. It is a time of great challenge in the world, this generation that is coming up will have to deal with unprecedented issues, starting with climate change. They need leaders who are focused not on their personal self-interest, but on the common good. I really believe if leaders focus on bringing people together to work on these issues, then the issue would be resolved. This approach is what I find really wonderful with our students.

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As an American, I shouldn’t be saying anything about politics in Nigeria, because the USA also has its own huge democratic challenges. However, I believe if Nigeria has leaders who are selfless, not self-interested, then things will work. I think Nigeria has the opportunity to propel forward.

The growing incidence of abduction of students has made people feel unsafe in schools. What do you think should be done to make school safe?

Like I have said in many fora, we need to rally round and demand that the security personnel in the country protect young people in schools. They need to know that education is not just intellectual, it is social, emotional, about learning how to be with other people, grow and learn.

So, allowing schools to be unsafe is completely unacceptable.Kidnapping is unacceptable. The bottom line is instead of opting for the easy way out which is to close the schools, why don’t the government just protect them?

Nigeria needs to understand that these young people are her future. There should be a national call for keeping children in the school to be safe. Keeping school safe is a question of priority. Does education matter? Do these kids matter? I am not trying to be critical of the government; it just that is really upsetting as an educator to see that happening.

A recent statement by UNICEF indicated that over a million students in the North East are afraid of going back to school because of the unsafe school environment. As an Administrator, what needs to be done to remedy this?

It is not just pupils who are afraid to go back to school, Nigeria, unfortunately, have the distinction of having more children out-of-school than any country in the world. This situation is partly because of the rapid population growth; Nigeria’s population is doubling every 21 years. The figure from UNICEF indicates that Nigeria has about 13 million out-of-school children. This figure is very much understated because in the North East and North West with most out-of-school children, there is no data collection.

When we lived through that Boko Haram period, we started a big project called Technology Enhanced Learning for All (TELA). Our students and faculty developed radio programmes and applications for laptops. Those kids had no classrooms. We had 22,000 children in Yola who were not in school. We discovered that through technology children can be educated anywhere.

Technology is the solution to all these educational problems in Nigeria. It is ideal to get all these kids who are out of school and those who are afraid to go back to school and use the TELA alternative. Using the TELA approach, AUN used students because as a development University, we made students and faculty understand that these children have to be in school, and have to be learning. I am obviously really passionate about this because those little kids need education. Nigeria should understand that there are solutions for out-of-school children

AUN is trying to establish a global centre for out-of-school children because we have the expertise. We do a programme called Feed and Read. This programme makes sure children on the street get one meal a day. These are children who have never been to school, we identify them, get our secondary school teachers to work with them, they get one meal a day and all they want to do is learn.

So, my message to the government and other stakeholders is that there are solutions, there are ways to make sure children are learning and have an opportunity to learn because who knows these little kids also have the potential to be leaders in Nigeria.

All that is required is for the government to give children basic things such as the right to go to school; right to have food. Nobody should get discouraged because there are ways to solve all of these problems.

You talked about the programme for the Chibok girls; would you say such investment is justified if you look at the outcome of the programme?

The investment in that programme is totally justified. Who would question it? The Chibok girls deserve education also, and they are extraordinarily strong women ready to do amazing things. Three of them are going to be accountants, so they can stop corruption. One is going to be a lawyer so she makes sure everybody has justice. They know they are very fortunate to have this education. They know, unlike other kids who are kidnapped, we have two psychologists all the time in case they need help. They showed the world that every child no matter what they have been through need education to change everything.

The best resource in Nigeria is not the oil, it’s her people. So, we have to invest in them to make sure they know they are prepared.

For an American-styled university, how do courses such as Law and Engineering help shape students’ perspectives in Nigeria?

At AUN, we follow all the NUC and the Centre for Legal Education guidelines. What is different is the way we teach. What American-style education means is that it challenges young people to come up with solutions. All of those Law and Engineering students also are required to do community development work. So, our law students are working with prisoners to make sure they have representation. All of our students are required to be involved in these programmes that give them a different mindset.

We have a law and engineering faculties and now we are starting public health, as soon as we get the approval, we will follow the guidelines, but it’s a different way of teaching, a different way of learning and a different way of preparing leaders.

What advice do you have on how to improve the Nigerian university system?

I don’t think I should be giving advice to public sector education seeing that I am an American. I am a product of the American educational system, which basically allows students to question everything, make sure they can come up with their own argument; make sure they look at the evidence and ensure they can write well.

Critical and independent thinking is very vital. It is important to have very small classes, which is hard in most public schools in Nigeria. Small classes are ideal, so that faculty members know their students and can do research with them.

This is so difficult to apply to public universities because their numbers are so big, but I think that approach is still possible. To make sure you are creating independent critical thinkers who can write, understand what Nigeria is going to look like in their lifetime.

Nigeria is going to be fundamentally different in 20 years; so, the students in schools need to be ready for all those big challenges that are coming.

In what ways has AUN achieved its ambition of being a development university in over a decade of operation?

One of the ways to gauge our achievement is through our alumni because they are doing extraordinary things in Nigeria. This is the evidence of any university that its alumni are doing extraordinarily well. As a university, if you are doing well, the products of your education are doing well.

Sexual harassment is another challenge in the nation’s education system. What are your thoughts on that?

AUN is part of a new initiative in collaboration with three other universities in Nigeria that have taken part in a safeguarding initiative where students can report anonymously any act of sexual harassment. As an institution, we have an extremely strict code. It is not just about sexual harassment, bullying, intimidation or money for grades. As a university, we have absolutely zero tolerance for such action because anybody found guilty of that is shown the way out.

Any form of sexual harassment is a big issue, but for AUN, it is not because everybody knows the expectations. We also do a pledge ceremony for students, faculty and staff. It is a ceremony where all concerned pledge honesty, and integrity to service.

This action is what I am recommending for all public and private universities. It doesn’t cost anything. It is a commitment to the right behaviour, morals and right character.

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