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

(The Root) — Whenever northern Nigeria has been in the news in recent months, the stories are usually about killings and kidnappings by Boko Haram — a radical Islamist insurgency group that has killed some 2,000 people and kidnapped others in the region since its emergence in 2002. The slayings included several people killed during a bank robbery in Yola, a tiny village in the region.

The group's aim is to create an Islamic state. Nigeria's president, Goodluck Jonathan, has just declared a state of emergency there and in two other areas, and the Nigerian military has met violence with violence, drawing criticisms for what some see as unnecessary brutality. This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there were “credible allegations” of human-rights violations committed by Nigerian security forces.

Boko Haram means "Western education is sacrilege," so when I was invited to come to Yola to give the graduation address at the American University of Nigeria, or AUN, it was with some trepidation that I considered whether or not to accept, even though there have been no attacks on Westerners or Western interests, except for one suicide bombing of the United Nations compound in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

Although I had been to Nigeria many times over the years on various reporting assignments, I had never heard of Yola or the American University. I had heard of Boko Haram.

Prepping Nigeria's Future Leaders

But the invitation came with a brief five-year history of the university and its goals: arming future leaders of Nigeria with the kind of education that will enable them to contribute to the development of the country. And it was the belief of the founder, Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy Nigerian who grew up in Yola, that the best preparation for achieving those goals was a Western-style education that grounded students in the liberal arts.

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He has explained that his commitment to that kind of education arose from his own education under the British system at the dawn of Nigerian independence, when he had British teachers who always said, "Repeat after me" and slapped his hand when he didn't. Later he came in contact with U.S. Peace Corps teachers who asked his opinion and showed him the value of critical thinking. (The Peace Corps honored him in 2011 for starting AUN. The plaque says that he has done more than any other businessman to support higher education. He also just endowed a Peace Corps speakers series.)

The university board — whose members come from the United States, Nigeria and other countries — helps guide the institution and its three schools: Arts and Sciences, Business and Entrepreneurship, and Information Technology & Communications.

Community Service a Key Priority

In its five years of existence, AUN has graduated some 1,250 students from around the continent, most having been on some degree of financial aid, since many are from poor families and are the first in their families to go to college. Those under age 30 who graduate must do a year of community service.

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The university has also launched other projects, including free secondary education and information technology instruction, as well as programs that teach teenagers how to farm — in order to stress the importance of preserving the environment — and teach local people how to recycle waste into useful economy bricks for building walls. They are literally building a new Nigeria. A new initiative involves a peace council aimed at fostering peace and harmony in the strife-torn region.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Halima Olajumoke Sogbesan, whose major is communications and multimedia studies, was the valedictorian. She spoke of the impact that the university's motto — "Quality, integrity and style" — had on her: It " … made me dream of an AUN that would prepare me for a successful career in print journalism. I dreamt that from AUN, I would learn to write compelling leads, conduct intensive investigations and grow to become an award-winning journalist. I also dreamt that in the process of getting my college degree, I was going to develop an American accent. I was a student of the American University of Nigeria, after all. As is quite evident, that didn't really work out the way I thought."

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Then she spoke of the extracurricular activities that had broadened her understanding beyond AUN:

Through my experiences while serving as treasurer and secretary of the AUN Honors Society, vice president of the Women's Leadership Council, secretary of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria and a member of the AUN Academic integrity Council, I have come to realize it is difficult to induce change in organizations, no matter how small they are. These experiences have honed my knowledge of the delicate intricacies of the world.

She concluded with words that further affirmed my decision to travel to Yola for this graduation:

It is very wonderful to know that the next time we check our banner records, our heartbeats will be regulated. We are free! About to go into the world, to be agents of change, to glow in the dark and to stand up for what is right.

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Then it was my turn to give the graduation address, although, as I told the students, I felt it was a little redundant after listening to their wise words. But my essential message was that I was there to affirm them and their important goals. I recalled the students of the American civil rights movement — who were their age — who did, in fact, achieve the change that they believed in and fought for, and I said that, having listened to and observed them over the past 24 hours, I believed they were capable of achieving this in their own countries.

Soon I was shaking 250 hands as the students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. I heard their names and majors, which included petroleum engineering, economics, information systems, computer science, the arts and, of course, journalism and communications.

Within a few more hours, I was on a plane for the long ride back to the United States. Despite all of Nigeria's, and the continent's, ongoing problems, I was returning more hopeful than ever about an African renaissance.

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Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co.