Margee Ensign is the President of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola, Adamawa State. She took custody of 25 Chibok girls that escaped from Boko Haram to give them a new life. In this interview she speaks on their progress and her plans to take more kids off the streets to give them education.
What is the situation of the Chibok girls in your custody?
I have four Chibok girls in America and they keep in touch with some of their colleagues here.
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I went to pick up the first group about seven years ago, they were traumatized and scared of missing friends and family. They were not prepared for a world-class education so it is taking some time for us and them to make sure that we are giving them everything they need.
I think it is extraordinary in seven years to graduate, and it is not about number, but about the hard environment and a really challenging education. We have one girl in accounting at AUN and one in natural sciences.
Compared to where they come from without lab and no English, it is extraordinary how far they have come.
My second day here when I went to meet them I told them, “You are my heroes, whatever it takes to get you through we will do and we will continue to support you. It is not just the Nigerian government supporting you, the American government is also supporting you, and Robert Smith too.”
I will never forget the phone call that middle of night from Robert Smith saying, “I just heard about what happened right there. I just thought of what you did; I will support you. I know your government is supporting them,” and he has.
Smith continued, “I do not want to know what their life was like, but I do know they are strong, resilient and committed and we are going to stick with them till they finish their education and decide what they want to do.”
We have a unique programme here that prepares them to be what they want to be and gives them life skills.
The ones in New York constantly think about their friends that are yet to be found, and every time new kids are kidnapped they go through it again. So they deserve everything we can do for them so that they can get the life they want.
The ones in America have chosen different paths in what we call community college; which is a two-year college. One is getting a degree to be a nursing assistant. I told them, “It’s your life; you don’t have to be in my university with me, but we want to support you in doing what you want to do.” One is finishing her second year; she is writer, she is brilliant and I think of her when I see these kids without education; how many are like her with all the potentials. So my commitment in teaching people like her is strengthened because I think the issue has gotten worse.
The progress is individual, some are still in school, they are committed, some are graduating, they all have passed the test required to be here. That is a huge progress from where they started and their life in captivity. I think their progress is extraordinary.
One of the biggest challenges now is the demand for graduates to meet up with industries’ needs, how prepared are AUN graduates for this?
Industries, government, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) or whatever sector need the type of education that we provide here. I am talking about technical skills everyone needs to be thinking critically, to evaluate information, to look for evidence and to get to the truth. Industries, government and everyone needs that.
Everyone needs to write clearly and think clearly to be able to present. So here, it is not only specific skills in computer science, software engineering, or biological sciences, but the foundational skills that are needed for anybody in any discipline for any work.
The point is, if you teach people how to think, learn, evaluate information and look for evidence, they can continue to learn for the rest of their life.
Education is not just about giving a degree in a specific field, it is all those other important body of knowledge in certain skills. In America we call it General Education. So looking at it, I think AUN graduates are already a good match.
Does AUN offer scholarship to indigent students?
Yes; we give scholarships to some, but you can never give enough in my view. We have students who graduated and they said “Thank you” because we gave them full scholarship. I want to do more; Nigeria is a giant country and the demand for education is huge, and it is going to take resources, but I am committed to doing that.
You have been in Nigeria for a while, how will you advise the government to boost the education sector?
It certainly is not my place to advise the government, but education is the foundation of society; it should be the world’s number one priority, along with healthcare.
Without education, what will society look like? People are generally in poverty; they can’t find employment, they can’t take care of themselves in the family and how can they participate as citizens? So it is critically important.
The challenge here in Nigeria is that you are growing so quickly; it is not an excuse, but it is really an important variable because your population is doubling every 25 years, and it not easy to get the exact data.
So you ask yourself the question, where is the education sector right now?
I think there is a solution, and it has to be done wisely and carefully; which is proven in the North East, Nigeria, and that is using technology more effectively, otherwise you have to be doubling the number of teachers every 25 years and making sure they are very well prepared. I am not sure that is happening, and you need to make sure if you are using a traditional model, you are building enough schools that are safe, have good facilities that are learners-friendly; but it’s not happening.
As a leader, I will look at a problem and ask what are the solutions? We should quickly make sure everyone has a basic education, because with a certain level of education you can continue to learn on your own.
During humanitarian crises, we use radio and television and people in the US are paying a lot of attention to that because it is a simple model and it works.
I hope we are going to do more here in the North East through some of our partners; to teach kids basically how to read. We have models that are generalisable to the whole country, but what your government has to do is to make education a priority; not just in words, but in funding and ideas.
One of the things we have acknowledged as top technology university in the country and the region is we are looking seriously at what programmes, with all the regulations that are needed can be online and what can be hybrid to reach far more students that we have right now.
Yes, I want them to be on residential campus but I also want our reach to be far graded and we emphasised having students from other Countries of Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda and all region here because I strongly believed that we are going to have a great story if children go to schools with other leaders of other countries imagine what this continent is going to be like.
This is your second stint as President of AUN. What will you do differently?
I am going to work really hard to raise funds for young people who can’t afford tuition here. I would get some donors here.
As I drive by, I see kids on the streets and feel, with education these persons can start new companies, can run offices. Education is a basic human right, and when I see these kids on trash spots, it is just a reminder that this is totally unacceptable, it is inexcusable in a country that is rich like Nigeria. So that is why we have “Read and Feed Programme” and other things we do, but they are not enough.
At AUN, using American style pedagogy, what makes us unique is that we everybody has to work in a community. I have been strengthening all of that, every project has to have a programme for the community. It is no volunteer work, but a connection with the academic studies and the challenges that are out there so that when they graduate they are truly ready to be leaders.