Dr Kelechi Owukamike is a Research Scientist with Procter & Gamble, Germany who bagged his first degree in Industrial Chemistry in Nigeria before travelling abroad to further his studies. In this interview Elizabeth Osayande, he speaks on how is helping Nigerians to secure scholarship abroad to further their studies. Excerpts.
How did you combine two PhD programmes at the same time?
The PhD that I did is called a double PhD.
I did a special kind of PhD in which you are registered as a student or as a PhD candidate in two universities at the same time. For me, it was the University of Bordeaux, France and Karisruhe Institute of Technology, KIT Germany.
I had to move in between the two universities, so I could do some experiments in Germany, and I would move to France to complete it. It is on the same Ph.D. project but from different angles. At the end of the day, it is going to be one thesis with different expertise from these universities.
It wasn’t easy as I had to combine research and a lot of traveling. I had to plan a lot because I needed to be in the university in France, and needed to complete some experiments in Germany and move the products to France to continue the characterisation.
It was tough but once you are very focused on what to achieve nothing is impossible. Also trusting in God for strength to overcome challenges.
Tell us more about your mentorship platform?
I got into mentoring because of hope. When I look at Nigerians who graduated, having no scope of what the future holds for them, very intelligent students I feel so bad. Knowing that I have so much information that could be of benefit to them, I decided to go into mentoring as a volunteering activity as my way of giving back to society.
In this way it was possible to give these brilliant students an opportunity where their skill can be optimised and where they can also find fulfillment in using their abilities to make something for themselves. So mentoring for me is a way of providing hope.
It is something that I can hold and look to people that are undergraduate and to show them what’s possible if they keep studying hard. I remember when I came back to Nigeria sometime ago and I met my Professor whom I asked a question,” What is it that motivates your good students to want to graduate as the best when all they see around them are graduates struggling to find something to do.
So, how can your students be motivated when they cannot see a future out of their academic excellence? So, opening up this option of mentoring, showing them what is possible that just by graduating as a good student and following due process you could earn scholarship, and become a millionaire instantly.
It gives them that expectation of what is possible. it keeps them on course, it motivates them. So, for me mentoring is really that opportunity I am using to drive home and encourage excellence. At the same time, when these very good students get opportunities to travel out on scholarship and gain the best education, we stand as a nation to gain from brain grain.
As I don’t see it as brain drain because these students can become better, and improve on their skill sets. They can also become key resources that can to transform or enable a sustainable society. So, I started mentoring to provide hope for graduates to show them what is possible if they keep on doing well and become all that they ever wished for.
Don’t you feel it is brain drain to Nigeria if you mentor people to seek admission abroad?
I don’t think it’s brain drain, I think it is brain gain. Why? If you take for example a student that has finished, graduated top of their class, wasting away in Nigeria. And struggling to find a job, struggling to even use that certificate they graduated with.
How would they contribute to Nigeria or make any contribution to the economy? They can’t, instead they get frustrated. And what happens is that when someone their junior sees them, knowing how brilliant these people are literally just doing menial jobs and struggling to fend for themselves, it doesn’t motivates them to want to study.
We are already seeing the impact of this when you go to the university. You see as it is so difficult to motivate undergraduates to studying because they can cite examples of graduates who are very much struggling. So giving opportunity to these candidates to grow, to build up expertise to consolidate their knowledge ,they can become asset
You are an asset when you can use your education to make an impact in your society. These opportunities, rarely a fraction, if you look at the numbers of first-class graduates in Nigeria, they run into thousands.
Again, mentoring people to get better education abroad is an opportunity too. As even if you tell them to stay in Nigeria and do their Master here, where is the resources and the funds for their studies? But getting a scholarship that gives you. And not only are you getting a good education, you are getting it and getting paid for it.
So by providing these students opportunity to go to Harvard, Standford, Oxford and other universities, give the opportunity to grow, develop and build capacity that can bring in that needed change. All these would not be possible if they have been idling in Nigeria. So at the end of allowing these students go abroad for better education is brain gain to us and not brain drain.
What are the criteria for accepting students into your mentoring programme?
One of the criteria I look for in selecting a candidate is resilience and persistent. This is a free membership platform. For me, the mentoring part is the least of all, because you could pay so much and still not give the attention needed to justify the time I am investing in the mentorship program.
Hence the first thing I want to identify is resilience and persistent of the student. And how clear and focused is the student. As I wouldn’t want a situation where a candidate just want the scholarship without looking at the long term goal.
Getting the scholarship is just part of the story not the end. As it enables them grow into their different area of interest seeing that there are a lot to be achieved. That is why my strongest philosophy is until we win, we are a work in progress.
Even at my level, I believe I am still a work in progress. So once a student has that open-mindedness to withstand the many rejections that come with applying for scholarships; has the ability not to quit, and that continuously applying knowing that rejections are part of opportunity to grow and learn. Once you have this kind of characteristics, then you are an ideal candidate for my mentorship program.
Due to the large numbers of applications, I brought a new approach to select my mentee. And this is by going through a 30 day challenge. The challenge is free. However, they have to make a commitment fee which is refundable once they complete the challenge.
The challenge involves giving them the opportunity to read a book everyday and making a summary. The idea here is that by the time someone goes through this, you have that mind change. Which is the first part of winning a scholarship.
You win a scholarship in your mind. Once, it is clear in your mind and in your attitude that you are a winner, whatever comes through the process like getting rejections and the rest, would only encourage you to do more not frustrate you out of the system. Once these people go through the 30 days challenge, then they are able to join my mentoring platform. They also get the refund of their commitment fee.
Your success stories as a mentor?
Last year, we had 25 of my mentees that got full funding for scholarships in the US, UK and Europe, in Asia, Israel and Australia with a combined value of over one million US dollars. And this year, as of April, we already have 28 mentees that have received full funding with over 1.5 million US dollar.
We have recorded a lot of success but the most important aspect is opening up that possibilities for these students that can see beyond their present environment, beyond the limitations that the background set for them.
How do you see education in Nigeria compared to education abroad?
I will say the level of education between Europe and Nigeria is far from comparison. but of course you can’t generalize it. Of course, we have very good private universities, Covenant University is doing well. But, what is fundamentally different here is the interest they have in education.
From my own perspective, the Nigerian society , the leadership, do not see education as a necessity and as important tool for national development. This explains the reason why we keep getting very low budget allocated to education. If you are not putting in a lot of money into education? and you are not making it a priority, how then can you build a robust academic system that can build the workforce needed to grow the society?
If you take a look at what happened last year when the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU was on strike for one year. How can you account for this? And the amount ASUU was asking for and what they need the money for?And the failure of government to honour the agreement entered with ASUU.
Meanwhile, the funds needed were targeted at improving laboratory accessibilities and other resources neededin the university to run a good system.
What is your say on Nigerians not coming back to the country after getting quality education abroad?
When we talk about these candidates not coming back to Nigeria after going abroad. The very first question is what is the benefit that they bring to Nigeria?
Nigerians in the Diaspora remittance to the Nigerian economy are in excess of almost 20 billion US dollars. Now that amount of money is coming in from this category of people that have left Nigeria either through scholarship or they went in other means.
If they end up working in Europe or in US or any part of the world, they earn money that they send back home.