Vanguard (Lagos)

Nigeria: We're Trying to Be a Varsity Without Walls - - Margee Ensign

interview

Photo: Isiyaku Ahmed
Facilitator Hasiya Mohammed presents geography lessons at City Women's Center in Kano.

Yola, Adamawa State based American University of Nigeria (AUN) played host to people from all walks of life between November 29 and 30, 2013 on the occasion of its 8th Founder's Day during which the founder and Nigeria's former Vice-President, His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar was celebrated for his immense contributions to education.

Addressing journalists Friday, the President of the institution, Professor Margee Ensign spoke on why AUN which started in 2004, is different from other universities in Nigeria.

American-style school:

Describing AUN as an American-style university, Ensign stated that what they are trying to do differently is to be a development university. "This means that all of our students are required to work in one of our community development projects. Community service is a key feature here.

It is a graduation requirement for all students regardless of their major. We are really trying to be a university that teaches students to understand Nigeria's challenges. We are trying to be a university without walls. As Nigeria's population doubles every 35 years, we cannot build enough schools so we are trying to build a model for Nigeria."

Enumerating some of the key programmes that set AUN apart, Ensign said they include the Adamawa Peace Initiative set up to ensure peace in its environs, Sustainability Initiative which aims to spur local economic development by providing hands-on training for local people while at the same time protecting and enhancing the natural environment; STEM, STELLAR and ICT projects.

Adamawa Peace Initiative:

"This place (venue of the Press conference) is the Peace Room. In January 2012 during the fuel subsidy strike, it was pretty tense here, people were not talking to one another and I was wondering if we will re-open. The then Board Chairman, Ahmed Joda and I called on Moslem and Christian leaders, Igbo traders etc., and everyone sat for hours on campus and we thought we better do what we can to make sure we maintain peace.

Today, we are celebrating our third Yola Annual Peace Day," said Ensign. About 3,000 people including 1,000 children took part in the event which featured Yola Peace Run, a fundraiser. You run or sponsor somebody with N1,000 and the money goes into our projects. So this is one of the things I am proud of; working hard to ensure that even with the state of emergency, this part of Adamawa stays peaceful.

"We have a television show and whenever we get a message that something is happening, we race up to the station and have a discussion. I have to say that as an American and an outsider to your culture, I learn more from our Peace Council meetings in this room than from anything else I do," she said.

Sustainability Initiative:

"In our sustainability project, we are working with 20 secondary school students in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programme. There is also the STudents Empowered through Language, Literacy and Arithmetic (STELLAR) project to raise the academic achievement of primary school students in Adamawa State. The children are given pre-loaded tablet computers with English and math for content.

"We have trained about 80 women in the waste-to- wealth programme so you will not see any waste plastic around this part of town because the women pick them up and turn them into plastic yarns and weave them into beautiful items for sale. They make enough income to sustain them and their families.

In the ICT project, we have trained 1,200 vulnerable youths. The founder, Atiku Abubakar said a big part of his vision is to get these children off the streets and give them something so we are doing IT and entrepreneurship training for about 1,600 people so far. We have helped over 500 unemployed youths with their own football teams. In the last three weeks, every night, we have two games going on on campus and it has been touching for me to meet these young men and women in their 20s and 30s and for them, it is a big deal to come to campus and be welcomed and get a t-shirt. This is the population we are trying to reach."

On the guest speaker, Professor Gilbert Bukenya, former Ugandan Vice-President and a medical doctor, Ensign said he was chosen because "he is the kind of what we hope our AUN students will become. He introduced a whole version of upland rice in Uganda which reduced poverty and malnutrition. He is an extraordinary man." Bukenya in his speech noted that "education is important to development and must be an engine for research. It must be a tool for social change at the community, national and international levels."

Fees:

"We are criticized for charging more than everybody else in Nigeria but that is not true. There are secondary schools in Abuja that charge more; nevertheless, in a poor country, it is high. We pay about N1m a semester for everything - tuition, board, food, e-books etc but for most people in Nigeria, that is out of reach but 80 per cent of our students pay in full and we use part of it to create scholarships for 15-20 per cent of the poorest kids you can imagine who are sometimes the best.We do admission tests around the country to find these kids."

AUN which has a primary, secondary, undergraduate and graduate schools, has a total of about 16,000 - 17,000 students. "Tuition doesn't cover our costs because the challenges of running a university in Nigeria are enormous. We provide power, security, water, sewage etc. So the gap between what we are taking and what we have to pay out is made up by H.E, Atiku Abubakar every month. The US Peace Corps said two years ago when Atiku got the Peace Corps global award that no private businessman in the world has done more for democracy and education than Atiku Abubakar."

AUN is sustainable:

Ensign said AUn has been put in a trust; "it is not a family business so when he passes on (we hope it is a very long time), the profits from one of his companies will sustain AUN. We are also in the final stages of an Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) loan in the USA. This is important because they loan at 3-5 per cent unlike in Nigeria where interest rate is 14-15 per cent, so if we can get that source of borrowing and with his unbelievable commitment, we are fine. We have outstanding Board members and all of them contribute in one way or the other like scholarships. "

Bright future for Nigeria:

"We are training these young Nigerians so you have a crop coming up who can take over."

Atiku who also celebrated his 67th birthday with AUN community, host community, friends and well-wishers, was full of praises for Prof. Ensign for taking AUN to such an enviable height.

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