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An Educational Success Story Amid Nigeria’s Violence

Following is a guest post by Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria.
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Students at the American U. of Nigeria working in the institution’s biology laboratory.

Recently it seems all the headlines concerning Nigeria are about violence. The Boko Haram terror group has put the West African nation on edge with its periodic attacks. But such incidents, while deplorable, should not overshadow the positive steps happening here to relieve inequity and expand access to education.

As the leader of the American University of Nigeria for the last two years, I’ve experienced the challenges—as well as opportunities—of working in Nigeria. The university is located in Yola, which is in the northeastern part of the country. It is in an impoverished region, and the lack of development leads many to have little hope of a more prosperous life. That lack of hope and economic development have fueled groups like Boko Haram.

The opportunities are not so easy to see at first, but they are abundant. They start with a basic principle that we instituted at the university: We need to become part of the larger community. We can’t be a walled-off fortress. We need to get the students out into the community to learn firsthand about the problems and to begin developing solutions.

As president of a university in a poor part of Africa—two-thirds of people in the Yola-Jimeta region live on less than $1 a day—I believe the university has a responsibility to help the community find long-term solutions to extreme poverty.

How do we do that? The university has become, in essence, a development institution.

Its mission is to foster the creation of new leaders committed to sustaining a democracy in which diverse people share in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Service learning is central to our identity as a development university.

The American University of Nigeria was founded less than a decade ago by a former vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar. Yola is near his hometown of Jada. Born during  British rule, Mr. Abubakar was orphaned at an early age and was taught first by traditional British teachers and then by American teachers in the Peace Corps. By the former, he recounts, he was taught to recite. By the latter, to think for himself.

With a lifetime of success in business and in politics, he now seeks to bring that same sort of education to the young people of the new Nigeria. The result is the first American-style university south of the Sahara. It is American in philosophy and in pedagogy. And in the tradition of American land-grant universities, it is actively engaged in creating new technologies and fostering economic change in its region.

Every student is required to take community-development courses designed to build skills and competency, as well as to learn the value of engaging with the community. In particular, the university has reached out to unemployed young people with literacy tutoring, information-technology training, sports activities, and programs that promote gender equality by fostering participation and leadership by women in projects.

Nothing is as heartening to me, as a university president, as hearing students talk about how much it means to them to teach reading to elementary-school students, or to teach young people computer skills so that they are more employable.

We plan to expand our efforts, not pull back, following the recent wave of violence in Nigeria as well as many other countries with large Muslim populations.

This is why: In working with women and young people, the university is building their skills for better jobs in the years ahead. We believe strongly that creating more jobs in conflict-threatened states increases the chances for a sustainable peace.

In all, the university has established 11 community-development projects that will have an impact on the wider community. They include business-plan training, microfinance, security and health for women, youth sports training, and tutoring at the Agricultural Entrepreneurship School, which was just established for those who want to go into agricultural production locally.

We also spearheaded the Adamawa Peace Council, which works with religious leaders, business people, and other educators with the goal of ensuring peace and stability in our region.

Let’s take just one of those programs—information- and communications-technology training, or ICT, in the community. That training is aimed at unemployed young people, unemployed graduates, teachers, school administrators, pupils, students, state-government employees, local businessmen, farmers, and community elders. Our “students” are recommended by members of the Adamawa Peace Council.

University students who work in the program earn credits for data gathering, designing curricula and developing content, and delivering the content. Students get the experience of teaching—and get college credits—while community members receive free ICT training.

The mission is partly to give students the best education possible. What we’ve learned is that the best education isn’t just within our classrooms; it’s also out in the community. The experience has enriched our students and members of the community. We are helping people get the skills to qualify them for good-paying jobs.

This is positive news in a city in northeastern Nigeria that is little known to the outside world except for periodic reports of conflict and strife. In Yola, that’s not the headline. The headline is that students and community members are jointly engaging in educational projects that are enriching everyone.

[Photo courtesy of the American University of Nigeria.]

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