Paula-Peace Onyinyechi James-Okoro is from Abia State, she had her secondary school education at the International School, University of Lagos. She graduated with a BSc degree in Biochemistry from Covenant University, Class of 2020 with a CGPA of 4.98/5.00, emerging as the Best Graduating Student. In this rare interview with franktalknow.com, she shares the secrets behind her accomplishment.
FT: From the beginning of your academic years to this point, describe yourself
Right from my primary school days, I have excelled academically. In school, I am often tagged a bookworm. For as long as I can remember, I have always been very focused and goal-driven when it comes to school work. I dedicated most of my time to my books, though I also participated in some social and extra-curricular activities. While others were playing or whiling away time, I would often be found reading or doing assignments or projects I had. This reflected in my results as I often took between the 1st and 4th position in class, from primary school to secondary school. During prize giving days, my name would be among those called the most number of times. The case was no different during my university days. I am grateful to have always been among the best academic performers in school.
FT: You are the Best Graduating Student of Covenant University, Class of 2020, with a 4.98 CGPA which is very impressive. Can you, in summary, tell us how you accomplished this feat?
First, I would like to acknowledge God, who started and completed this good work in me. He gave me the grace to excel academically right from time.
Now, to how I accomplished it. In my 100 level, first semester, I set a goal for myself – I wanted to graduate as the best, not just from my department, but from my set. This would mean me aiming for the perfect 5.0 GPA every semester. This seemed like a daunting goal, but I was up to the task.
At the beginning of every semester, I wrote down what I wanted my results to look like and took it to God in prayer. I paid attention in class, spent long hours reading my lecture notes and put in extra effort in answering assignment, test and exam questions. At the end of 100 level, 1st semester I didn’t attain the perfect 5.0 GPA and that was not the desired start for me. But I didn’t let it dissuade me. I kept the goal in mind and reflected on my performance to see how I could improve. I realized strategies that worked for me when it came to reading and assimilating and I applied it consequently. The next semester, I got my desired grade (5.0) and from then on I continued to get all A’s.
In all, with hard work, relentlessness, words of encouragement from my support system and dependence on God, I was able to accomplish this feat.
FT: Did you set out to study Biochemistry or was it a course you were forced to pick for other reasons – employability, better opportunities, and so on?
No, I did not set out to study Biochemistry. I always desired to be a medical doctor for as long as I can remember. So, upon getting to the stage of writing UTME and applying to university I had medicine and surgery in mind as the course of study I was aiming for, and UNILAG as my first choice of university. However, that year, 2016, there were some unfortunate inconsistencies with JAMB results. I got 237/400 and considering how competitive medicine is, I knew my chances of getting in at UNILAG were pretty slim. So we started to look for alternatives even before UNILAG admission form was out. Covenant University came and I applied. But CU doesn’t have medicine. I picked computer science as first choice, industrial chemistry as second, Biochemistry as third. But I didn’t do maths in UTME because of my subject combination which was aimed for medicine. So I was given biochemistry as the first two course choices require maths. I wasn’t very happy about this but my parents compelled me and made me see reason to go for biochemistry in CU, one of them being that I can pursue medicine afterwards. And that was how I ended up studying Biochemistry. I’m actually glad I did.
FT: Many people seem to look down on courses like yours, especially those who initially intended to study pharmacy or something medicine related. Now that you are here, what would you describe as the main attraction for your course?
Biochemistry is basically the backbone of medicine and pharmacy. It deals with the in-depth study of biological and chemical processes and reactions from the cellular to the systemic level. It helps us understand the chemistry of all biological systems in and around us, from human to unicellular organisms to the environment.
A pharmacist and medical doctor has to have good standing in Biochemistry to truly understand some other key concepts. When it comes to diseases and disorders in the body, biochemistry explains it to the level of what goes wrong in biological pathways resulting in that disease. Without understanding this, a pharmacist or doctor cannot come up with a therapy or drug to that disease. Biochemistry is needed for the development of immunization vaccines and therapeutic medications.
Biochemistry is also a broad course. It has vast applications, a person with a degree in Biochemistry can work in different fields, including medical, food, environmental, agriculture, biotechnology, pharmaceutical and so on.
FT: Ladies in Nigerian universities are often judged to be less interested in studying STEM-related courses, particularly in terms of Engineering and ICT. Most who hold this view cite the smaller number of female students seen in these departments in comparison to the number of women in Art-related courses. Have you noticed that discrepancy as well? And what do you think is the reason for it?
I have noticed this discrepancy. This may be due to societal norms. There is a social bias that STEM-related courses are more for male students than female students perhaps because they are more technical and time consuming. Women who go into STEM are often stereotyped as less capable and this affects women’s motivation and enthusiasm to go into the field, even when they may have an interest in it.
There may also be a lack of role models and mentors with success stories to encourage other female students to go into STEM. Some women also face sexism when they end up in this career path. These reasons and others may discourage female students.
FT: Many students would be curious to know how you made it. What sort of student were you (hip, playful, quiet, jovial or what)? What sort of friends did you keep, and was that a but my name was always in people’s mouths when tests or exam results were out?
I can be playful though, mostly around people I’m comfortable with. But I was a calm student though in school. My friends were mostly calm and also spent a lot of their time reading their books. We attended classes together and also read together. To be honest, all my friends shared similar academic goals as me, so we took similar steps to make the goal a reality. I was very deliberate about the friends I kept close to me in school. Of course, as they say, show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are. I knew if I didn’t keep friends that wanted to excel academically, the chances are that I wouldn’t. So I carefully chose my friends and we all helped each other during the journey to reach out goals.
FT: Emerging the best graduating student from your course in a prestigious university as CU is something to be proud of. Has your circle of friends increased since your convocation? For instance, new admirers, friend requests on social media, etc.
FT: What has been your reaction to them?
Well I’ve been getting lots of new admirers and friend requests, to be honest. Lots of people have asked for tips on how I did it, academic advice and so on. I try to reply all of them because I love to help people, in the way I can, to help them excel in their academics too. The friend requests are a lot, so I’m not accepting all of them. 😂. But I’ve tried to reply as many people as have congratulated me and even prayed for me. There are few occasions when the conversation with these ‘new friends’ has continued. And of course people I haven’t seen or talked to in years have somehow found their way back.
FT: Often, people assume that brilliant students are unrelenting, boxed-in readers with very little time for play. What do you have to say about that? For instance, How often did you use the library while in school? What were your study habits? What did your social life in school look like?
To be honest, I didn’t give myself so much time for play during school session. I left that for the holidays. I did have a social life in school. Had quite a number of friends I hung out with from time to time. But I spent most of my time on my books, reading, doing assignments and the likes. From the third week of resumption of any semester, the library became like my “second home” after the hostel. I spent a lot of my free time there because I needed to avoid distractions when reading. I tend to spend longer hours reading articles in a way that I can easily recall than other people do. So because of this I had to dedicate more time to reading. I also like to go over my topics at least three times before tests and exams so I can be confident that I’ll answer the questions well.
For these reasons, I frequented the library, at least 4 times a week.
If something is important to you, you’d spend more time on it. So I guess it’s not a surprise that people said brilliant students are unrelenting.
FT: Could you describe your parents/guardians role in your academic success? Also, were they insistent on excellence, or that was just something you picked up yourself?
Whenever there was an issue or whenever I needed elderly advice. I can’t overestimate how supportive they were to me on this journey. They always had words of encouragement that cheered me up whenever I felt I hadn’t done well enough on a test or exam or whenever I felt the workload was just too much. They were always praying for me and with me. They made sure I had everything I needed so I wouldn’t have to struggle with anything and face my books squarely. I am more than grateful to them, because without them I don’t think I’d be here today celebrating this success. They were truly my support system.
I picked up excellence myself, from a tender age. My parents are actually goal-driven people who have that attitude of excellence so I’d say I may have picked it up from them. But they never had to insist so much for me to have that excellent spirit.
FT: Have you always been an A student? What was your performance like academically in primary and secondary schools?
Yes I have always been an A student. In primary and secondary school, I always topped my class. During prize giving days, I collected a lot of prizes and represented the schools in competitions. I excelled in my academics from a tender age.
FT: Although it is a little early to know exactly what you will be doing for the rest of your working life, what are your plans career-wise? Do you plan to foray into scholastic endeavours (e.g. obtaining higher degrees and lecturing), where will you like to work? Tell us the reason for your choice.
I intend to further my studies and obtain a higher degree. I am aiming for a PhD in Biomedical Science. In the long run, I would like to work for a reputable pharmaceutical or biomedical research institute or firm. This is because I am fascinated by the way biological processes and systems work and how diseases are treated with drugs. I would love to carry out industrial research that would bring about novel and improved therapeutics and solutions to the emerging diseases in today’s world and in turn improve the quality of health and life.
FT: The opportunities that a course like yours provides, career-wise, doesn’t seem to be well understood by the public. What opportunities do you think that your course can provide? Also, suppose you were likely to go in the direction of a career outside of academics. What would you say is your favourite sector to focus on? Why this choice?
As mentioned earlier, biochemistry is a vast course with a wide range of opportunities.
Biochemistry graduates can pursue careers in breweries; agricultural, industrial and medical research institutes; hospitals; and pharmaceutical companies; educational institutions, environmental sciences and so on.
FT: What has the ‘reward’ situation been like in CU? Were you just given cups or plaques? Did you receive any job offers, monetary prizes or scholarship opportunities?
CU does well when it comes to rewards. I received monetary prizes, gifts and plaques. I have not received job offers and scholarships yet, though I am still expecting.
FT: What would you say is the most important piece of advice/skill/knowledge that you have acquired from your primary school days till now? It doesn’t have to be school-related at all.
It is always good to have a positive mindset. Set goals that will stretch you to reach your full potential. Desire to be your best, be disciplined and dedicated to those goals and persevere, and you will achieve those goals.
FT: What would you say you did differently from your peers to attain your success?
I denied myself of most of the “pleasures and distractions” of university days. I started reading my lecture notes very early in the semester. I spent much longer hours reading and didn’t give up on my goal even when my continuous assessment grades were not looking so good. When others were seen socializing or doing other activities, I was seen in the library reading. I also went the extra mile in assignments and tests so I could have maximum points in my CA, which would enable me to more easily get As. This is something most students overlook as they only begin to put in efforts when exams are drawing near.
FT: If you have to advise students on how to do better in their academics, what will your advice be?
You don’t experience what you don’t expect. First, desire and expect to excel academically. Have a positive mindset. Then be ready and willing to put in the hard work. Be ready to pay the price for success. Read your books and face your academics squarely. If you try to juggle so many things with your academics, it may affect your performance. The distractions will be there, but you have to discipline yourself to look away so you don’t regret at the end of the day. Remain focused on your goal and do not relent or give up. If you don’t perform to your expectation, don’t let it dissuade you. Learn from it, pick yourself up and try again.
Choose your friends wisely, don’t follow the bandwagon. If you want to excel academically, your group of friends should also have similar goals as you. Ladies, the guys will come along and may try to derail you, resist them. The right and responsible ones will come at the right time.
Put in your best and let God do the rest.
FT: What are your thoughts about Nigeria’s educational system? You’ve been to the pinnacle of learning, in some way. What can you say has helped in the system, and what would you call outdated or obsolete?
The Nigeria’s educational system has a number of positive sides. The education has helped people work better and opened the students and graduates to opportunities for economic growth and sustainable source of income. The major loopholes that may be seen are mostly due to lack of funding and implementation of policies, particularly in the public universities. This has resulted in the use of outdated teaching materials and research resources. But even with this, the educational system has still churned out valuable graduates who are blazing the trails and imparting the society in their respected fields.
FT: The Class of 2020 was peculiar with the outbreak of COVID-19 and its added impact on education with school closure and the rest. How will you describe the impact on you?
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted my academic activities. It pushed forward my graduation by almost a year. During the lockdown I had to adjust to having classes online and having to do house chores alongside assignments. There were times when it seemed like I was under pressure because the workload was much. Due to the time lost, we had to rush over the scheme and I had lots of assignments and classes to attend.
FT: What were your coping mechanisms?
What I did was that I set out time for academic work, so as to avoid distractions. I allocated specific time frames to every activity I had based on priority to enable me finish before the expected timeline. I burnt the midnight candle when exams were approaching and put in the extra effort. Immediately school resumed, I continued reading and did the necessary work.
FT: Do you think Nigerian scientists are doing enough in the area of research into COVID-19? What do you think they should be doing differently?
I think Nigerian scientists are doing their best with the available resources, knowledge and technology that they have.
They can collaborate and brainstorm with other scientists in Africa in their relevant fields. This will result in an exchange of ideas and knowledge that will close the gap in knowledge and thus provide a better solution to the problem. There should also be heavy investments into scientific research in Nigeria as this will help create the needed pool of talent and resources required to develop solutions to other problems too.
FT: What change would you like to see in Nigeria? Apart from insecurity and corruption, what are other things you notice in the system that you think might be hindering the progress of the nation?
Let there be policies that will bring about the economic advancement of the nation. This will help to create more job and career opportunities for youths so that as they graduate, there will be opportunities for them to either get jobs or create their own source of employment.
FT: If you were to choose between living in Nigeria and abroad, what would be your choice? What is the reason for your answer?
I would like to live in my home country. However, in Nigeria, there are not many opportunities for my career choice. For this reason, I’d choose living abroad because it will afford me a better chance of building a fulfilling career in my desired field.
I would come back to Nigeria later on to impact the society positively.
FT: Do you think Nigerians are taking the best approach towards advancement in the country?
There is need for a complete national reorientation, in which citizens should be made to be more patriotic towards the nation. But, the bulk still lies on the leaders. They have to take the first step because they are the policy formulators.
FT: Lastly, some people think CU is tough. What’s your take on this? Did you take to the school’s discipline methods like a fish to water, or did it come as a shock to you owing to your high-school experience?
To be honest, passing through CU was no walk in the park. The school’s discipline methods came as a big shock to me. It was not easy coping.
However, it was a training process. Nothing good comes easy. The graduates of CU are thriving in the outside world in different aspects of life. This is because of the training they were put through while in school, which helped them to become disciplined, responsible and problem-solving individuals, all of which are necessary to fly high.