By Adesina Wahab
Few months ago, Dr Margee Ensign was reappointed as the President/Vice Chancellor of the American University of Nigeria, AUN, Yola, Adamawa State after her first stint that ended seven years ago. In this interview, she speaks on developments in the education sector and what her focus would be this time around.
This is your second stint at the President of the American University of Nigeria, what were some of your achievements in your first term?
We really achieved a lot during that period even in the face of enormous challenges. We were able to educate over 22,000 out-of-school children, OSC. We ran a feeding programme from which over 300,000 internally-displaced people benefitted.
The students, faculty and staff established the Adamawa Peace Initiative which involved religious leaders, community leaders, business people and we took care of a lot of people. It also led to development initiative.
We are a different kind of university that has as its primary goal, making sure that our students are ready to live and solve problems not only in Nigeria but the world over. So, we are moulding global leaders.
During those challenging years, it was young people, our Nigerian students who were taking care of the people.
So, after seven years of leaving, I am happy when I was asked to come back by the Founder. I have a great feeling for Nigeria and I know the country has great potential. In the next 25 years, you will be the third most populous country in the world after China and India.
Right now it is China, India and the United States. I believe strongly in this country and I believe in young people.
It is an enormous responsibility and opportunity to be part of those moulding the future leaders of this great country.
While Nigeria has great opportunity, it is also facing some challenges. I hope I am bringing back some new ideas and the ability to propel AUN to the global scene.
We have established a number of programmes both at undergraduate and graduate levels. We are not just teaching, we are doing research work too.
For instance, in Nigeria, there is need to work on how to grow enough food to feed the teeming population.
We also have the issue of health too. The country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. My students are stunned when they look into that data.
We are establishing a public health programme in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, WHO.
They are very excited about that and are looking forward to working with us in the Northeast and the country at large.
What changes do you intend to bring into the system this time around?
We hope to focus on public health. It is pretty important that we have a major public health presence in the Northeast region. We are expanding the work we do in the region and the country at large.
Every student in AUN is required to do Community Development Course, CDC. It is compulsory.
The students tackle development issues, have practical experience of how to handle such issues, not just in the classroom, but in the community working. We are also looking at other academic programmes and we are looking at Medicine and how to build our own hospital.
We are also going to ensure we educate more young ones in the American style of education which is different from what obtains here..
How can schools be safe with kidnapping here and there?
Closing down schools is not the solution. If your airport is not safe, will you close it down? No, we will rally round and make sure security personnel in this country protect young people.
We know that education is also social and emotional. Kidnapping is unacceptable. When I heard about the kidnapping of some young people in one university, I thought that would be it.
There is no need to close schools, just protect them. If a school doesn’t have wall or fence, erect one.
Let the security officers be well kitted. Install CCTV, deploy technology to protect students, faculty, staff and even the visitors.
Instead of going for the easy way out of closing the schools, just protect them. This is necessary because those young people are the nation’s future. There should be a national call for keeping children safe in schools.
It is also a question of priority. Does education matter? Do these kids matter? I am not being critical of your government, but as an educator it is upsetting seeing this happening.
UNICEF said recently that over one million Nigerian students are afraid of going back to school, what is your take?
I think the figure could be more than that and it is not only kids that are afraid of going back to school.
The figure of over 13 million out-of-school children could be termed an understatement considering the situation in the Northeast and Northwest and the huge population there.
The first question to ask is what kind of society is it that has such high figure of children out of school?
Where will the society be in the next 20 years? From our experience during the Boko Haram onslaught which we were able to weather with the assistance of my home government, we found out that there are solutions to the issue.
We started a big project called Technology Enhanced Learning for All (TELA). It was very simple. Our students and faculty developed radio programmes and applications for laptop.
Those kids had no classrooms and in Yola, we were able to cater for over 22,000 kids who were not in school. You can educate kids anywhere using technology. For me, that is the solution to this problem.
You not only have kids out of school, but kids who are afraid to go back to school, then find alternatives.
TELA is one alternative. We just have to reimagine school. It not all about classrooms. The world’s knowledge is right here on your phone. I am really disturbed about the issue. On my street, those kids are there selling water. Yes, we do give them money, but they need education as much as they need money. The message is, there are solutions to the issue of OSC.
We are trying to establish a global centre for OSC because we have the expertise. We do a programme called Feeding and Reading. It is for children who have never been to school and we give them a meal a day.
We identify them and they get a meal a day cooked by a woman who also gets income from doing that. And these kids, all they want to do is to learn.
They want to learn and be in every batch we select. My message is that don’t accept what is happening, there are solutions. Who knows, these kids have the potential to be the nation’s leaders tomorrow. It is the basic right for a child to go to school.
During your previous tenure, you had a programme for Chibok girls, would you say the investment is justified?
It is totally worth the effort and justified. Don’t even call them Chibok girls, they are now extraordinary women. They are strong women ready to do amazing things. I get in contact with them frequently.
Three of them are going to be accountants so that they can help fight corruption. One is going to be a lawyer so that she can help fight injustice. They are really ready and they know they are fortunate to get educated.
They showed the world that whatever a child goes through, education changes everything. Mary the first one graduated, though I wasn’t around to give her her degree in accounting and she is doing her national service.
Education changes people’s lives. Your best resource is not oil, but your people and you have to invest in them.
How was the issue relating to the introduction of law and engineering by your university resolved with the authorities?
First of all, we followed all the guidelines by the National Universities Commission, NUC, and other concerned bodies.
The difference is the way we teach. The American style of education is to challenge young people to come up with solutions to societal problems no matter the course you are studying.
Would you recommend the American style of teaching to Nigerian schools?
I am an American and a product of the American education system. Basically, it questions everything, makes sure you can come up with your own argument.
Makes sure you write well, if you can write well, it means you are thinking clearly, critical thinking, independent thinking. Faculty members know their students, they research with them and publish with them.
But in Nigerian public universties, it may be difficult to do so because of the huge number of students. But people need to do critical thinking. The kids in school now must be made ready for the challenges to come.
Tackling sexual harassment in schools
We have a strict code of conduct. The issue is more than sexual harassment. There are also bullying, intimidation etc. All these we have zero tolerance for at AUN. It is not a big issue for us because everybody knows the expectations.
We do a pledge ceremony involving the students, faculty and the staff. You pledge to honesty, integrity, service and everybody walks up and signs in the presence of all. It means you are committed to right behaviour.
No one can say they didn’t know. You sign a code of conduct and it doesn’t cost anything but commitment to right behaviour and can be applied in the public service too. Nobody can say he didn’t know, for we have the records.
There is a great political division now in the country unlike when you first came, how do you think Nigerians can keep faith in their country?
Political division is not only peculiar to Nigeria. Look at my country, look at the political division there.
This is a time of great challenge in the world. This generation that is coming up has to deal with unprecedented issues such as climate change. They must not focus on their personal self interest but on the common good. I believe if people come together and say let us work on an issue together, if you say that to people, they would want to contribute.
That is what I found out from working with our students and I think that would work on a larger scale. I should not be commenting on political issues in your country, we have our own challenges too.
If we have leaders who would say let us work on a common good, let us work on things that will bring us together as a country, leaders that are selfless, I think Nigeria has the opportunity to be greater.
How are your alumni doing?
They are doing well and doing extraordinary things in Nigeria and globally. That is the proof of the university. If you want to know if a university is successful, ask where are the alumni.
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