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.

Graduates at the May 11 commencement ceremony at the American University of Nigeria (Facebook)

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Margee Ensign, a diminutive, highly energetic American from California who is the president of AUN, sent me a few statements from this year’s graduating class so that I could get some sense of the caliber of her students.

Malabo Williams wrote:

At AUN, I learned to believe in myself and the power of the idea. The endless readings and discussions with professors and students in class have ensured me that I can make my own story.

Chidi Francis Ahanonu wrote:

I remember my first day here, I was a shy person who could not open up to people and let my voice be heard. I could not stand in front of the crowd and give a speech or a presentation. However, as I progressed, I learned how to efficiently and effectively get my message across in my presentation, in my services to the community, and in every leadership capacity I find myself.

What Manifah K. Arabi wrote was the final kicker for me because it reminded me of myself at an early age when I dreamed of becoming a journalist in a segregated world where that possibility was far from being a reality. “I came to realize,” he wrote, “that we only have a chance to achieve our dreams if we are confident and truly believe in them. AUN taught me to be innovative and courageous, never to be afraid of what others think about our dreams.”

That did it for me, despite the fact that even longtime Nigerian friends whom I consulted about the trip always ended our conversation with, “Well, just be careful.”

A Warm Reception

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.