School a Beacon of Hope in Nigeria

At a university in Yola, graduates offer a glimpse of a promising future in a strife-torn region.

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Then the day came when my plane touched down in the tiny airport in Yola and I, along with U.S. Ambassador Terence McCulley and Rwandan Ambassador Joseph Habineza, was welcomed by officials from the university. Their warmth and ease helped dispel the little bit of concern that still occupied some space in a corner of my mind.

But there was no time to dwell on unease. As we rode the short distance from the airport, the reason for the university's emphasis on development unfolded before our eyes: a landscape filled with tumbledown shacks and littered with the detritus of poverty, scenes similar to ones I have witnessed all over the continent.

Within an hour of arriving at a newly built, university-sponsored hotel and with just barely time to change, we were in a gigantic hall filled with flowing thin, white cloth hanging from the ceiling in graceful waves and some 200 tables set for dining. As is always the case in Nigeria, women and men turned out in some of the most beautiful long gowns and robes I've ever seen.

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It was awards night for the graduating seniors. Local officials, parents and students were joined by other ambassadors from the European Union. It was here that I learned that half the student body is Muslim, the other half Christian, and they live together on the grounds of this 500-acre campus. It is a model of interfaith cooperation that the country sorely needs in the face of the ongoing religious and ethnic violence.

I was delighted to see that two of the main three speakers were young women, who also spoke of how they had grown since coming to AUN. One of them, Shalom Otuene, said that after years of responding to every question with "I don't know," she has now permanently deleted the phrase from her vocabulary. Her major is internal and comparative politics.

It seemed as if in no time, the following day dawned when I -- along with members of the faculty from Africa, the United States and other parts of the world -- was outfitted in a long, bright-red robe to march down the aisle of that same hall. The tables were now gone and replaced by 4,000 chairs for the parents, loved ones and supporters of the graduating class.

When I whispered to President Ensign how impressive the room looked, now filled with the 250 members of the graduating class who were also wearing red caps and gowns, she laughed quietly and told me of the 2011 graduation, which was supposed to be held in a huge tent, except that one of the area's frequent sandstorms had come roaring in just as the graduating seniors were assembling and had blown it down.

But that didn't stop the proceedings. Ensign told me, "We worked through the night to get our community hall ready and rented a few small tents from town -- no one slept for 24 hours -- and it ended up being a very beautiful graduation!"

Soon, in this cavernous new hall, the ceremony was opened with two prayers, one from an imam and one from a Protestant minister. In another part of this enormous country of some 160 million people, guests at an awards ceremony had recently protested the singing of the United States' national anthem before the Nigerian one, but there was no dissent in this hall, and the few who knew both joined in the singing. Then it was time for the top graduating seniors to speak -- both of them young, composed women, who spoke inspiringly, with confidence and humor.