BY SAHARA REPORTERS, NEW YORK
While a 15 year old Nigerian, Ekene Franklin, is being denied admission into university in Nigeria despite obtaining the highest score in the country’s university admissions exam, another Nigerian, Danial Obaji, has been awarded a fully funded scholarship to a doctorate program at the New York University.
How old is your kid? At what age did Nigerian universities say a qualified student should be admitted into the university? Eighteen-year-old Nigerian prodigy, Daniel Obaji’s story should help the Nigerian government and the university to change a self-imposed policy.
Nigerian prodigy, Daniel Obaji, was one of 275 students from 75 countries presented with their degrees at New York University Abu Dhabi’s commencement ceremony last week. Daniel was listed among the Seven Inspiring Graduates Who Symbolize Hope for a Better World by NYU.
Daniel stood out not only because he broke NYU Abu Dhabi’s record to emerge as the youngest undergraduate degree recipient but because of his penchant for academic excellence. Daniel will be in New York this fall for his PhD in biology.
“I completed secondary school education at the age of 14,” he told SaharaReporters. “That was in 2014.”
“I have always been the youngest in my class. I got 8 ‘A’s and 1 ‘B’ in my West African Examination Council (WAEC) result. I recorded the only ‘B’ in English Language.”
“While in secondary school, I studied a lot for many hours daily. During ‘extension’ periods, we used to have mathematics and revision classes. I used to spend about eight hours every day studying, aside from classes and other class assignments.
“After meals, I always went back to my studies and returned to bed late. We also had good teachers. I actually did not set any goal to make ‘A’s. I basically studied just to excel. I ensured I covered the syllabus for each subject. I was happy to get the best result in my school.”
My dad is from Abia State while my mum is from Edo State in Nigeria. I grew up in a small town called Igarra, the headquarters of the Akoko Edo Local Government Area of Edo State in Nigeria. I travelled to Abu Dhabi in 2015, having got a scholarship to study at NYU Abu Dhabi.
My mum is a community health worker while my dad used to be a produce buyer. I have three siblings. I have an elder sister called Amarachi and two younger brothers, Izu and Ekene. My sister is studying nursing at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital while my brothers are still in secondary school.
GROWING UP IN IGARRA
It was a very low-key kind of upbringing. I went to a school called Gloryland and then attended the Federal Government Academy in Suleja, Niger State, Nigeria. I started school when I was two years old simply because my mother was attending a nursing school. So she enrolled me in kindergarten classes.
For as long as I remember, I have always been in the same class with friends who are much older than me. I completed secondary school at 14; that was 2014. I got 8’A’s and got 1B. The ‘B’ was in English. I was very excited about my performance.
My family would be categorised under the low-income bracket because there was always a struggle to pay my school fees. My parents did their very best to ensure we got quality education. I took a scholarship examination to enter the Federal Government Academy when I was in JSS3. I would not call my parents disciplinarians. They were very supportive and made us understand the value of education. They were not that strict.
I studied a lot for many hours. I took Mathematics, Further Mathematics and other science subjects. During extension periods, we used to have mathematics classes and revision classes. I used to spend about eight hours every day studying, aside from classes. After meals, I always went back to my studies and returned to bed late.
We also had teachers who had revision sessions. I actually did not set any goal to make ‘A’s. I basically studied just to excel. I ensured I covered the syllabus for each subject. I got the best result in my school. The school had students from all over Nigeria because it is a unity school. I participated in school sports as well.
The only subject I got a ‘B’ in my WASSCE was English. Everyone knew English was a different subject so I was not too disappointed when I got a ‘B’ because mastering English takes time.
I remember the day I saw my results. My dad went out to check the results at a cyber café and when he came back, there was joy all over his face. He was too excited to play pranks. I knew I was going to pass the entire subjects but I was not expecting that performance.
I applied to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and put in for the post-UTME also. Even if I gained admission into those schools, I might have not have been granted admission because of my age. I did not follow through with the application process because I had moved to Abuja to prepare for my SAT as I planned to leave Nigeria for further studies.
HOW I GAINED ADMISSION TO NYU
I enrolled for the Education USA program at the US Embassy in Abuja after I completed my secondary school education. I got access to advisory services at the US embassy. There was a mathematics teacher in our school who told me about the programme. I was in Igarra. The teacher called my parents and asked them to take me to Abuja. At Abuja, I prepared for the SAT in three months from August to October 2014.
I was living with a family friend in Abuja. I used to go to the US embassy every day to prepare and I also had a counselor there called Aunt Sade who was very passionate and kept advising me on the best places to apply. She mentored me on what to do and what scores to aim at. She gave me the information about NYU Abu Dhabi.
In January 2015, I got a call for an interview at NYU Abu Dhabi and I travelled out of Nigeria for the first time from Feb 5 to 9. On February 21, I got accepted on a full scholarship to the school.
TRAVELLING OUT FOR THE FIRST TIME
My parents were not apprehensive about me leaving Nigeria at that tender age. I had been in boarding school and had always been away from my parents. They were very happy for me to leave Nigeria. They simply advised me not to forget my values and be serious out there.
It was quite exciting travelling out of Nigeria for the first time in a plane.
I arrived at Abu Dhabi, admiring the tall buildings. The campuses were amazing because of the unique architecture. I met people from all over the world for the first time.
The past few years in the country have been eventful. The main attraction was the resources and facilities here. I experienced culture shock as well. Religion takes a central spot there just like Nigeria.
Education at Abu Dhabi is great. I got internships and research experience. The standard of education is also great. My class had students from over 200 countries. The diversity was also a great advantage. It stimulates learning.
WHY I DID NOT GO TO THE US OR UK
I heard from NYU Abu Dhabi before other schools that I applied to and when I travelled to the Emirates, I was happy to see that they have good facilities. There were so many opportunities and it was so promising.
I accepted the offer immediately. I simply cancelled my applications to other schools.
WHY I OPTED FOR BIOLOGY
I opted for biology because of some reasons. I wanted to study medicine but I changed my mind in my second year. Medical schools, especially in the US, are very expensive. The schools are also pretty difficult to get into, especially for international students. Getting funding is usually very difficult. I could not convince myself to go for medicine. I met some professors at NYU and saw a couple of researches which further fuelled my interest in biology. NYU was also very attractive and there are a lot of resources for students to excel. They make life easier for you.
HOW I GOT SCHOLARSHIP FOR DOCTORATE
I applied to the PhD program at NYU after reading about the school. I attended an interview with some professors in New York in February and I got the offer a couple of weeks afterwards. The professors were interested in what kind of research I had done and why I was applying to the program and why NYU specifically. The offer is a fully funded opportunity.
WHY I DID NOT APPLY FOR MASTER’S DEGREE BEFORE DOCTORATE
A lot of United States’ PhD program allow students to apply straight from undergraduates so far you are interested in a definite area of research and have some experience. When I was researching PhD and master’s programs, I was happy I didn’t have to get a master’s degree before doing a PhD. My PhD focus is computational biology. That is what I am planning to do.
My goal is to get deeply into science research and work more or less independently. I have not thought about where I am heading after my doctorate. The doctorate is between five and six years so I should be done at the age of 24 or 25. I am excited about the opportunity and thankful to my parents, teachers and advisers for their support.
RETHINKING AGE LIMIT FOR UNIVERSITY ADMISSION
Many Nigerians on social media have continued to congratulate Daniel on his academic feat. The prodigy’s story has also drawn attention to certain barriers to university education in Nigeria.
Some universities in Nigeria have a strict rule that stipulates that no person under the age of 16 years will be admitted as a student. Daniel’s feat would have been hard to achieve in Nigeria because of his age.
There have been growing concerns about the fate of 15-year-old Ekene Franklin from Imo State, another promising student like Daniel, who got the highest score in the 2019 University Matriculation Examination.
Franklin cannot be accepted into the University of Lagos because of his age.
The Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Foreign Relations and Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, was among those who congratulated Daniel on his academic feat.
She wrote on Twitter, “At 18, Daniel Obaji is the New York University Abu Dhabi’s youngest ever graduate. Daniel will enrol for his PhD in biology in New York this September, focusing on computational biology, which is a combination of computer studies and biology.”
Dabiri-Erewa’s tweet was a good opportunity for some Nigerians to advise the Federal Government to revisit the age limit for university admission in Nigeria.
Responding directly to Dabiri-Erewa’s tweet, a Nigerian, identified as Ope Owotumi, wrote, “Meanwhile, here in Nigeria, we’re busy telling the boy who scored the highest in UTME (or whatever it’s called now) that he’s too young to get into university. Even if he gets in today and escapes strikes and internal crises, he’ll be older than Daniel when he graduates.”
Another Nigerian, identified as Odubayo Muyiwa, said, “Congratulations to Daniel. However, this calls for us to rethink the threshold for university admission in Nigeria. Daniel(Obaji) wouldn’t have graduated at 18 and be celebrated today if he was made to sit at home till he clocks 16 years.”
Responding to the issue also, Balogun stated, “The policy preventing that 15-year-old best UTME student from getting admitted to the university will make this impossible. We must adjust our policies to accommodate 21st-century thinking so that we can be progressive. I urge our universities to also stop ‘You will die here’ PhD system.”