Aniedi Akpan broke a 15-year record at the Department of English, University of Uyo, by graduating with first class honours in 2019.
In an interview with PUNCH Akpan narrated the journey to achieving this feat and his dreams for the future
What was your childhood like?
I had a quiet, simple life growing up. My family would pass for an average family but I was comfortable and satisfied in the fact that I have a father that loves me and a mother that would go the extra mile for me.
Was there something that your parents did consciously to shape you academically?
My family believes a lot in education. Though both my dad and mom didn’t finish secondary school, they value education and encouraged me and my siblings to do our best in school. Growing up, my dad would always tell me, “Aniedi, read a book for me! Just read. Forget about everything and read!” He said those words like I was doing him a favour by reading my books and by being successful in my exams.
Though my parents didn’t really have all the money, they still sent me to a private school and I was not for one day sent back home from school for failure to pay tuition fees. Somehow, my father managed to pay. That was why I knew that I was very special and could not be like other kids in the neighbourhood.
Because of the kind of neighbourhood I grew up in, I was indoors mostly and this moulded me into a critical thinker and made me an introvert. I didn’t play football like other boys. Even now as an adult, I can’t say I am a serious fan of any particular football club. I identify with Chelsea only because I love colour blue. My goal has always been to make my parents proud and ultimately to change their economic status. And with the way I was raised, there are certain things you will never catch me doing.
What are these things?
You can never find me smoking or drinking alcohol at all. In fact, for me, it is not about religion; it has become a part of me. I am so conscious that I just can’t imagine myself with sticks of cigarette, even if I’m the last person to judge anyone who chooses to do these things. I feel like things I cannot boldly do in front of my parents, I shouldn’t do it in secret. That’s hypocrisy, which is a major problem in this country. You see people shouting at and condemning other people doing something that they themselves enjoy doing in secret.
You broke a 15-year record in the Department of English, University of Uyo, by making first class. How were you able to do this?
I think when I was around age 11, I started experiencing this wave of academic excellence. When I was younger, I didn’t believe in myself. I suffered low self-esteem and it was eating up my confidence. One teacher told me, when I was in JSS1, that I was a genius when she asked a seemingly difficult question which I was able to answer somehow. She was a student-teacher at the time, doing her teaching practice. She was the one who helped to boost my self-confidence. Also, one of my classmates in JSS1 boasted that I was no match for her academically; so, I worked hard, beat her and came first in the class. That also boosted my self-confidence. It was from that point that I discovered that I have an ‘excellent spirit.’
When I got to university, I heard people saying things like, ‘I am here to make my Second Class and go away. Whether or not it is ‘upper’ or ‘lower’, I just want a degree.’ But for me, it was not just about having a degree; I wanted to graduate with first class honours. I pictured myself going up on stage to pick up a plaque, bearing the inscription ‘Best Graduating Student.’ But I kept this dream to myself; I felt if I told my colleagues they would tag me an overambitious person. Something in me told me that I could make it and I made sure I always listened to that voice to draw my strength and inspiration to keep pushing.
Did you adopt a special reading method to achieve your goal?
I wouldn’t say I am much of a reading person. In fact, the university, for me, is not about reading. For me, it is about how well I can apply what I have read in answering examination questions? I have a magnetic brain. When a lecturer comes to class, I pay very rapt attention and jot down the points. If (s)he is one who gives notes, I make sure I get the note. If (s)he recommends a book, I try to get it or borrow from someone who had already got it. But I try to picture the examination questions right before the examinations come. I answer about 75 per cent of the examination questions in my head beforehand. If I could not, it showed me that I was not prepared for the exam.
I also tried to imagine how a particular lecture would love his/her questions to be answered and I tried to give them just as they loved it. There are some lecturers who love straight-to-the-point answers; some like you to explain; some like you to just enumerate and give short notes; some want you to cram and give them exactly what they gave you in class. So, I took time to study and understand what my lecturers wanted and I gave it to them. At the end of every exam, I could even envision what my marks were going to be. I calculated my results before they were posted on the departmental board.
I am currently pursuing a master’s in Arts in the University of Lagos, and this is the method I am using so far, which has been working for me like juju.
What were some of the challenges you faced while striving to achieve your dream of finishing with first class?
I wouldn’t say that at any point in time I lacked money; but then, I also wouldn’t say I was enjoying myself as much as I saw my mates doing. The thing is that I enumerated my needs and made sure I got only the things I required to keep body and soul together. I was not a frivolous spender, because I know the kind of family I come from. I got a scholarship at some point, but my dad said I should save it for my master’s. So, he always made sure he sent me money, no matter how little, for my monthly upkeep. I wasn’t living in luxury, but I wasn’t hungry, either.
How did you come about the idea of studying English?
I wouldn’t say I was influenced by anyone. But from when I was in Junior Secondary School, I knew I loved the subject (English language) and wanted to study it. I asked a few teachers, who dissuaded me from doing that and rather advised me to go for Law. But I was sure that what I wanted was English and so, I went for it. One of our teachers then, I remember, was shocked when she heard me say I wanted to study English. She asked, “How can a brilliant boy like you say he wants to study English?” It was really funny. Much later, in senior school, it was a bit shaky. Then, I was sure I just wanted to be a lecturer. I loved to teach young children and I felt I would really want to take this as a career. In my first Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination in 2012, I filled in Economics. Somehow, as fate would have it, I wasn’t admitted. In my next UTME, I filled in for English at the University of Uyo and my name was number four on the merit list. This showed me that I was made for it. One day, I know I will be a professor of English.
I love English. I admire English academics. I love the way they speak and how well-groomed they sound. I hope to become a professor someday.
How did your parents feel about your choice?
My parents have never really tried to influence my choices, especially as regards academic. They let us choose. I have an only sister. She is in her final year, studying Chemical Engineering. She’s also on honours roll as we speak. You see, this thing runs in the family. I have very supportive parents, who just want the best for me.
What do you think you did differently from other students?
I would say I was a bit more confident in my capabilities than other students. My ability to interpret and analyse questions was another instrument I had. I never read blindly. I wouldn’t say other students read blindly, though. Reading is totally different from interpreting questions. You will need more than just surface knowledge to be able to analyse any question, especially in the Department of English. When a lecturer asks a question, (s)he doesn’t want the obvious or most likely answer. Give him/her what is embedded in the sentence(s). This is what many term as ‘reading between the lines.’
Were you at any point worried that you might not make a first class after all your hard work?
Yes, there were times I thought I was never going to make a first class. I never reached a CGPA of 4.50 until my final results were released. My final results helped me reach first class. It would have been very disastrous and heartbreaking if my results didn’t sum up to 4.50.
When will you consider your toughest moment in your undergraduate days?
Apart from the fear or feeling that my results might not come together well, I had a few moments when I found things difficult. Some lecturers were just difficult to please. You write everything, expecting an A grade and you see a C, after studying all recommended texts and even using online material as reference. Another tough moment would be those moments when I couldn’t get some beautiful things I wanted. I did not lack anything I needed, but there were times I wanted some things but I had financial constraint.
How did you feel when you saw your final result?
Even though I had calculated the Cumulative Grade Point Average for the eight semesters, I was still anxious. So, when I saw my final result pasted on the departmental board, there was this air of fulfillment that I felt around me. I was happy. I believed more in myself.
What impact did making a first class have on you?
I knew then that I could achieve anything I set out to. My self-esteem was boosted. It has raised my level of confidence. Sometimes, being confident in oneself when facing a task may be more important than the actual effort needed to deal with the task.
Did you hold some leadership positions as an undergraduate?
I did not hold any leadership position as an undergraduate. I was more of an introvert. I had a number of friends, though. Facing my academic work was not stressful for me.
What inspired you to immediately go back to the university for a master’s degree?
I see myself lecturing in a university. It has always been my dream. Postgraduate degrees are necessary in order to function as an academic in the university. So, before finishing my undergrad, I knew I’d be pursuing a postgraduate degree, so as to prepare ahead of the opportunity.
What is your target at UNILAG PG school?
A distinction won’t be a bad idea. I want to have another good result that would qualify me for a doctoral degree. Getting recommendations from the university would also be pivotal to my career.
Do you intend to take your dreams out of the shores of this country someday?
I believe in Nigeria. It doesn’t look or smell good now, but I believe that if we all put our hands together, we’ll build a formidable nation. I love to go abroad for my PhD and further studies, but I certainly would be back to build this country.