Fatima Akinola’s story is a truism of the saying: tough times don’t last, tough people do. Growing up in Nigeria, Akinola was confronted with several challenges but she was ready to brace the odds. She recently graduated with a perfect grade of 4.0/4.0 in Mathematics from Marshall University, United States.
In this interview with SaharaReporters, she talks about her academic heroics, challenges and experience studying in the US, amid racial discrimination.
My name is Fatima Akinola, I am the first child of my family. I was born and raised in Sokoto State and my parents are originally from Ede in Osun State.
I attended Federal Government College, Sokoto and while in my Junior Secondary School 3, we went for the Cowbell Mathematics competition and I represented my school. I came first in Sokoto State, then I moved on to the national level of the competition in Lagos. I was in the queue when the teacher that accompanied students from Nigerian Turkish International College, Kano approached my dad because my dad and my teacher followed me down to Lagos.
He told them about a scholarship that was for students in their school and how he would love for me to just try it out. He offered to conduct the examination in Sokoto and he did. I took the examination and they offered me a 100% scholarship to study at the school. Now, it is called Nigerian TULIP International College. I went to the one in Kano State, and I completed my secondary school there. While I was there, I participated in some competitions. I went to the Mathematics Olympiad in my first year; that’s Senior Secondary School 1. I came fourth.
I don’t think I was prepared well enough but I took that position and in my final year, which is SS3, I represented the school also in a competition and came first. I went to the National Mathematical Centre in Abuja to represent the school at the national stage.
I graduated in 2012, and applied to study medicine in university. You know, everybody wants their children to be a doctor (laughs). I think I was fine-tuned to be a doctor, to like the profession, to like medicine. My first admission, I was offered Agricultural Science and because I just didn’t want to stay idle at home, I accepted the admission to study at the Usman Danfodio University, Sokoto.
My first admission came in 2012, so for the 2012/2013 academic session, I was in school studying Agricultural Science. I took the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) the second time.
I applied for Medicine the second time but was offered Mathematics. I wanted to be an Engineer, so as I was offered Mathematics, I told my dad that Mathematics and Engineering are like brothers, in ways, so I just settled for Mathematics.
You studied Mathematics, which is quite a difficult subject for many people, what triggered your interest in this field of study?
I actually understand where you are coming from because I have interacted with people. I understand how people struggle when I help them and it has also helped me appreciate the fact that. I think to me it was just a gift–the ability to understand Mathematics and that’s why my basic goal is just to learn it well enough and teach it because we don’t have many people who understand it well enough to teach it. I want to use the gift for the greater good.
In my undergraduate studies, in the last two years, in 300 and 400 levels, I took some tutoring classes and when I finished and was waiting to be called up for the mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps programme. I also taught at a secondary school for 6 months before I was called for service. And right here, (doing) my master’s, I’m in an environment where I can work and study, so I also teach, I have classes that I teach.
What do you find most interesting about studying Mathematics?
I think for me it is not about studying Mathematics, it is about how I appreciate the fact that Mathematics is the same, its objectivity. Mathematics in Nigeria is Mathematics in Pakistan, America, UK; that consistency is what I love.
You don’t have different answers to the same question, 2+2 wherever you go in the whole world is 4. That helped me. I love the fact that I don’t have to stress my mind so much about how to answer. The fact that if I publish a paper here, someone else in another place in the world will understand it makes it good.
Imagine if I was studying child philosophy; child philosophy in Africa is different from child philosophy in America, it’s different from child philosophy in other parts of the world. That consistency with Mathematics is just something that I really love.
Can you share an interesting aspect of Mathematics that can be used to solve a real-life problem?
Mathematics is applied in everything. I did my thesis under graph theory and graph theory is one of the most applicable aspects of Maths. Let’s take Facebook, for example, I think when one of my professors was introducing graph theory to us, he mentioned that and I found it fascinating.
I can go on Facebook right now and Facebook will suggest friends to me. Facebook doesn’t know that I don’t know those people or I know them but it is almost 20% sure that I know those people, that’s graph theory right there.
Graph theory helps you connect people, that’s why you have one of these suggestions like if I’m your friend, Facebook can connect the dots and tell you, yes, you can be friends of friends, you know the whole idea of mutual friends, that’s the word. Why will Facebook tell you how many mutual friends you have? It is because it was able to connect the dots, it can think of people as nodes and you can think of those connections as edges, there’s a lot of actual real-life practicability of maths. I just chose that one because it is relatable.
You wanted to be an engineer like your dad but now you are a mathematician, would you still pursue a course in that desired field?
When I accepted Maths at that time, I comforted myself with the notion that I can just go for a master’s degree in Engineering, I can take courses in Engineering, I can switch to Engineering and then I started out; my first year was fair, average.
It was fair, I had every grade there was, I had an A, B, C, D, F and I was like yeah probably, it won’t work for me but that ‘F’ was just a tilting point for me. I just told myself, an ‘F’? But it turned out to be the biggest blessing of my life because that ‘F’ tilted me towards a first-class in all honesty.
People that are conversant with how GPA works will understand this. I had an ‘F’ in that course but when I retook it, I had an ‘A’ , now that ‘A’, if you do the calculation, adds to the numerator of my GPA, but it keeps the denominator of my GPA constant but for me, that was how I saw it.
That ‘F’ pushed me to that first-class and it was just about keeping up the tempo, then I realised, I actually got this. Maybe I might not really even need engineering anyway and it’s not like I don’t need it… I felt like Maths works much more for me, and that’s when the whole teaching people, understanding how I had a gift of understanding Maths in a way that people didn’t, that was when everything started hitting me and I was like, yeah, I will just go with Maths. The beauty of it is, I can still use my Maths to help engineers solve their problems, that is enough for me.
What are the motivating factors behind your academic excellence?
Firstly, I will say I had this amazing Maths teacher, Mr Isaac Omotosho, he made me see Maths in a different light. I can’t remember so much from all of that but I know he was very paramount to how I developed a love for Maths and while I also keep mentioning my dad because he saw the potential that I had and he helped me nurture it. When I got a scholarship to go to Nigerian Turkish school, he was with me through it all and my mum and siblings too.
You know, moving from Junior Secondary School to Senior Secondary School, you have to take Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Further Mathematics; he went and bought me all those text books, and in the holiday before I resumed, he got me lesson teachers who took me through like the first teacher class of the textbooks, so that way I was not going to start something new that I was not conversant with, that’s part of why I always mention my dad because he gave me that much foundation.
I went with that foundation to the university. Before school resumed, I always found my seniors in UG 3, 4 and got their handouts. I always made myself conversant with courses before I took them. I would say that was also a really good push for me and till I finished at Nigerian Turkish school, I remember, I think in my first year, I finished with an 89%. I remember SS3 because I was so proud of myself, I finished with a 95%. I was really proud of it. That is the foundation of why and how I am where I am today.
What were your study patterns? Did you spend all day reading or had trouble socialising?
Let me take it from Nigeria first. I never put myself out there to people as an intelligent person. In fact, I never considered myself as an intelligent person. I was a social bird, I knew people, I had friends, I had lots of friends. I make friends so easily so it was not until I was contesting for a political position and had to submit a GP slip for them to confirm that the GP was correct, that it got out there that, oh this girl is a first-class student. But I never put it out there, just a few people knew but I had lots of friends. I was really great with people, I had a lot of friends, I still do.
I ran for the Vice President of the Mathematics department at the National Association of Mathematical Students but I didn’t win. The second time was for the Vice President of the Students’ Union and at that time, my school came up with a rule that final-year students must not contest for a political position. That was in my 400 level. I served as a legislator, I served as the student representative representing the Mathematics Department on the Faculty of Science Student Representative Assembly (SRA), that was the only position I held while in school.
I don’t how I did it but I always made sure to put school aside and society aside. I always made sure to balance both of them. I read when I could, and preparing for the semester before it actually began, made things a whole lot easy for me to some extent. I still read, but I already knew stuff so it helped me have time to focus on other things. I was not the type to read, read and read. No, I believed and still believe in socialising, meeting people, just other things that life is about.
Was there any time you ever gave up on graduating with a first-class degree?
I honestly cannot remember because I think I always just strive. For me, being a good daughter to my parents is very important to me so the joy my father and mother expressed over my result in my second year, and then my uncle because I have a really great uncle who told me ‘you have done it and I want you to keep doing it’. All of those people; my support system was a good push for me to just keep at it.
What was important for me was, don’t go down, you can remain on that GPA, just find a reason not to go down. It’s not like I was reading every time but I also lived life. I was running for offices. I went for a competition in my 400 level. My friend, three guys and I from my class represented our school at the National Mathematical Competition for University students and we all had medals so I still had other things going on for me, it wasn’t just books.
People believe being in a relationship affects academic excellence, were you under pressure to be in one and how did it affect you?
For me, it was never about books, I lived life and I am still living life. Yes, I had relationships and I always made sure to separate both of them, separate my academic work from my relationships, and not allow one to affect the other. Even the friends I kept, I made sure that it wasn’t the book that was going to be a problem. I made sure it was not in the way of anything. I was not under any pressure and I have just learned to balance that life; there’s a study life and there is a personal life and for a relationship, I believe it has to do with two people understanding each other and trying to complement each other well enough. People that I have been with understood me and helped me. There was just never any pressure to have both of them clash with one another.
What was your experience as an African Hijabi studying at a US University? Did you experience racism?
There’s a school environment and then there is the outside world. I lived close to my school. With everything happening in the US right now, I think they are having so much awareness on racism, and all of that. I have just been fortunate enough to be in an environment where I roll with Nigerians. We know one another, but I think I’ve had interactions with people from other countries in an educational setting, where all of this is tricky.
I actually did not put myself out there, as Nigerians will say, ‘I dey my dey’, and that is it. The fear of someone being racist towards me makes me stay in my lane. I teach students but there is the understanding that this is an educational system. It’s a diverse system; that respect for your professors has not allowed any of those things to happen to me.
The school is a place that is diverse enough. I am not saying there is no racism, I’m sure people have felt it. I’ve had to walk to school and have people look at me in one kind of way. I’m not just a Hijabi, I am black and here in America you have so many identities– black, a woman, a Muslim, those are things they are just coming to terms with here in the country so there was almost that fear in me to not put myself in situations where someone would have to say anything racist to me or even anything Islamophobic.
I have had people ask me, ‘why are you covering your hair?’ and I just tell them it is my religion and that’s it. So, in the educational system, people understand it is a diverse environment. We have people from different parts of the world who school here, there are also other Muslims who cover their hair, it’s not like I’m just the only one. I think the environment is just an important factor. There is a school and then there is the outside world.
What can you say about the education system here and abroad?
First of all, I want to relate it in terms of the factors that make the two systems different. Every system works, coming from Nigeria is very paramount to my achievement here so, yes Nigeria worked.
These factors are the things I believe constitute a major difference between the two systems; the first one is the access to resources, access to professors, access to even grades. Like I finished my exams on a Friday and my grades were already ready on Monday in the US. You have that and then you have a very important factor: the teacher: student ratio. I don’t know how best to put this but I think that there’s a lot of things that contribute to the student: teacher ratio in Nigeria but those are things I don’t really like to talk about.
I don’t dwell on that but those are actually the factors that constitute a major difference. Also, you have people say if they go to other countries, they’ll do well. The reason why you’re able to do all of that is the difference in that system, trust me, the curriculum here is crazy. It is a demanding one; on the first day of class, I was given an assignment and those are assignments that, no matter what, they count if you want good grades.
So, yes, the curriculum is not in any way easy but what makes everything else easier is the help you get, the resources you get. Even in Nigeria, I could walk up to the offices of my professors to ask questions, you have the same here. That receptiveness to help you is also important.
There are factors that make both of them different. I don’t think I want to begin comparing and contrasting, those things are important. I believe they are one of the reasons people think they can come here and make it in life. It’s not easy, trust me, I had my struggles. I had to cope with different things in different ways; it is not as easy as people think it is.
When I came to this country, even when I was in Nigeria, as the first child of my family, I had to cook because it was a large family but when I came here, I had to do something to take my mind off books, and for me, that was just cooking. I never knew how to bake in Nigeria but when I got here, I learnt how to bake. After all the school stress, I had to find something I could hold on to and for me that was cooking. So I am not perfect yet but I am glad at the journey because it has actually helped me in a lot of ways. It’s not just easy, it is not.
Would you choose to remain in the US over returning to Nigeria?
The end goal for me would be to teach and for me to do that to the best of my ability is to finish the journey of academia. So right now, I am going to commence my PhD in August. I have that working for me. I am a Mathematician, I solve problems as they come, so right now, the problem I can solve is getting myself a PhD admission that is what is in front of me right now.
Who are your role models and why?
I would not really say I have role models, I would say I have people whose journeys, whose lives have shaped a lot of notions about my life and I have something I call a support system. My family members are my support system, my mentors are my support system. To me, that is even just way more important than a role model.
I might aspire to be like someone and they might not help me in my quest to be like them but with a support system, you have people who are there for you, come rain, come sunshine. Like I said, it was not easy. I had my days of tears, I had my days of laughter; I had my days of being so frustrated but those support systems did me well. Once in a while they remind me of what I am doing; they tell me words that keep me going.
I don’t really believe in the notion of role models but a support system and that for me has been my family. My professor, even in Usman Dan Fodio University, pushed me and encouraged me that I could actually do it. I have all of these people; they are my mentors, my support system. They’ve been there for me and I appreciate them, you can just call them my role models.
Many believe that the situation in Nigeria is hindering young people from optimally exploring their potential? What’s your take?
For that question, I would say yes but if I was to put a yes and no on a scale, the yes would be like 80% and no will be like 20%. The reason why I have a no in there is because I have opinions that I actually prefer to leave them best to myself, I don’t comment on politics, I don’t comment on the government so I can’t actually put what I have in my head out there regarding situations like this but yes, I do believe that Nigeria limits us in a lot of ways.
Do you have any regrets in life?
My life has never been a smooth sail, I don’t think I’ve had things come easy for me. I’ve had my struggles and I think as humans, we all do. At this moment, I can’t pinpoint a big regret in my life but one thing that I know will constitute a big regret for me in life is if I don’t get to do what I want to do, if I don’t do what I love to do.
Before I left Nigeria, someone asked me the question and said, ‘you must enjoy Mathematics’. Then I sat down, took a couple of minutes and thought to myself and I was like, yes, I actually do. I enjoy mathematics. I love what I am doing and I think that was just all that made me, even with all the frustration, that was what has made it easy to overcome.
My biggest regret will be just not doing what I love and doing what makes me happy too. Sometimes, the things we actually want in life are not actually the things we need.I wanted Chemical Engineering and then I have what I have today. I think everything else just falls in place.
What is your advice for young people, especially on career and academic excellence?
Firstly, I don’t think I have enough experience to give people detailed advice but I will just say the little that I know I’ve experienced in life till now. Firstly, career. In my case now, I have learnt that the things that I actually want did not work for me but I do not take that disappointment of not studying engineering as the end of the world.
I saw something good in Mathematics and decided to stay on that path. A lot of times, I see people who keep taking UTME over and over again because they want to study a particular course. Take for example when I got my admission for Agric, I didn’t say that I would sit in the house for another admission to come, no. I took the admission and I sat down there in school among my peers, I met new people, I made friends.
Even though I knew that I was going to take another UTME, I still put in my best so I think that’s just what I want to put out there to people. Whatever situations you find yourself, and this is typical of Nigeria, you apply for this and you are given that, so whatever it is that you are doing, just try and put in your best. It’s not easy, nothing good comes easy but just try to do our best.
I heard a story my father told me about a good bricklayer. He had been serving rich people for a long time, he had been helping them to build good houses and everything. The man went to the rich man and said, I’m about to retire and the rich man said okay, I want you to do one last job, after that, I will never ask you to do anything else again. And the man gave him one huge contract to build a fine house and because he felt he was too tired, he didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. He didn’t do it well and once he finished, the rich man told him, well this is my gift to you for all the years of service and commitment.
If that person had kept up his good work, if he had continued what he had been known for, he would have been living in the mansion because that was what he wanted to give him but he didn’t know. So sometimes, you have some things as a disappointment but there might be so much blessing in it if we are just patient enough to allow God to show us his way.
For academic excellence, finding what works for you is important. Like I said, I’m not really the person who reads all the time. When I came into this country, I had to study and work so I had to plan my time and mostly part of those times included a lot of rest. When I got here, I’d wake up by 2 am, my eyes would be swollen and I was like, this doesn’t work for me. I took a step back and set a time to wake up, time to do this and that and I stuck to it.
Set your goals and try to find time to rest. The body is very complicated, it will ask you for it. In my first semester, when I finished school, I was sick for a week because I had put myself under tremendous stress and when my body came asking for it, I was sick but in my subsequent semesters, I learnt to balance everything, learnt to balance rest, learnt to balance food because I have to eat.
I just learnt to balance everything. There’s no right way, everything works for everyone in different ways. I have learnt to be good at multitasking. I can be on my phone, I can be studying, cooking and all. That works for me. I know people that when they are studying and you tap them, they will lose their train of thoughts so just find what works for you.
You talked about getting a PhD, beyond that, what are your plans?
I think generally in my life, I’ve just learnt to take a step at a time. If after my PhD I get an opportunity to teach before going for a post-doctorate, I will take it. If it is a post-doctorate that comes first, I will take it.
At this point, I just don’t like to reach out too far to the future. I’m just taking things one step at a time but the end goal for me is to teach Mathematics, to be a professor of Mathematics someday.
At Usman Dan Fodio University, we only had one female lecturer and I admire her so much, she’s great at what she does. She’s one of the people who I appreciate their journey and I strive to fill up all those gaps we have in our environment.