It can be hard, coming from a humbling background and studying. There’s the constant worry of the difficult situation that your people are currently going through, hovering always in your mind – even when you have to study hard. Glory Okpiaifo, who we’re celebrating today, had to live through this. But despite her very challenging circumstances, her determination to excel set her apart, and today, she’s made child’s play of her dreams, graduating from her masters program with a distinction in Agricultural Economics from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Glory’s success is partly attributed to her parents. She says, “mom believed firmly in the power of education to lift us from the tentacles of poverty,and so she vowed to give us the best education she could afford, even if she would have to borrow. This was enough motivation for me to work as hard as possible and be focused right from secondary school. Given my background, no-one would have ever thought it would be possible for me to study in the United States. No-one in my immediate family had left the shores of the country.”
The best part of Glory’s inspiring story is that she just got full funding to pursue a PhD in Florida in August.
I was a very inquisitive child, always asking questions, always wanting to know everything. I loved to talk and read, those were (and still are) my hobbies. From a young age, I read almost any book I could lay my hands on, fiction was my favorite. So did my desire for learning begin, from an early age.
As the first of four children, I grew up with that sense of responsibility that is a part of every Nigerian first-born. Being from a family that struggled to make ends meet, I was always told by well-meaning relatives that my siblings and I were the hope for my family out of poverty. My mother, however, always told us not to feel pressured. She taught us the value of education and promised to give us the best education, even if she would have to borrow. This was enough motivation for me to work as hard as possible and stay focused.
I attended two of the best schools in my neighbourhood – Providence Nursery and Primary School and The African Church Model College. My parents struggled to pay our school fees, as they were far above their earnings, and we were sent out of school for non-payment of fees a few times. However, this did not deter me, but instead motivated me to work twice as hard. At this time, my career interest was to become a medical doctor.
Brief interest in Medicine and finding my passion
I applied to the University of Benin to study Medicine, and I got in on my second JAMB attempt. Due to issues with the medical college at the time, I was given a separate course to study – Agricultural Economics. In my first year of studying, I realized that I really had no passion to study Medicine, and had actually always enjoyed Agriculture and Economics in secondary school. Since I identified my interest from my first undergraduate year, I was able to set a goal and stay focused. I am a firm believer in setting goals, and I don’t let my goals be sidetracked by my present constraints. Thus, I set a goal of graduating with excellent results and learning beyond what would be taught in the classrooms, because I knew that I wanted to study up to the PhD level. My motivation for this had by this time become more of a desire to make a difference in the world by researching solutions to problems of global food insecurity, than of escaping poverty. I was a very curious student, never shy to ask my lecturers questions, and so I was well known by them inside/outside the classroom. In 2015, I graduated with a CGPA of 4.46/5.00, which narrowly missed the First Class division point, but I was still very happy that I achieved my goal.
I was posted to Achi village of Enugu State, a very remote village, for my NYSC. I taught in a secondary school and it was one of the most fun times of my life, despite the fact that it was my first time in a village, and some of the most basic amenities were missing – running water, electricity (most of the time). I enjoyed it because of the lives of the teenagers, especially the girls that I got to positively impact during that one year. I count it as a privilege to have had that opportunity.
Deciding to go for my Masters
During my undergraduate years, my concern about the deplorable state of Nigeria’s agriculture birthed in me the need to learn more about the agricultural sectors of better developed countries. I began to read about the US agriculture sector, comparing it to Nigeria’s. My curiosity about the successes recorded by US farmers initiated my interest to have my graduate studies in the US. However, this was just a dream, as it was clearly financially out of my grasp.
Despite the constant financial struggles during the 5 undergraduate years, I graduated with my desired excellent results. I didn’t let the circumstances discourage me. I knew I wanted to pursue my graduate studies in the U.S but this was barely more than a dream, because I knew that my family couldn’t even afford the plane ticket, not to mention the tuition/fees.
During my NYSC year, I took a bold step by beginning work on my application to study here. My mom was immensely instrumental as she encouraged me and took out loans (in addition to my NYSC N19,800 stipend) to pay for the exams and application fees. I was determined that I would receive a full funding award from the school, even though I knew that full funding is extremely competitive.
I refused to give up this dream and I went ahead to begin research on the procedures to obtain funding to pursue graduate studies in the US. I learnt how expensive graduate studies are in the U.S, and so full funding is very competitive. However, with the encouragement of my mother, I began the process of application. This was during my NYSC year, and it was a very tough period. My mom and I borrowed money for practically every stage of the application, and so I couldn’t apply to more than one school. I hardly had any money to eat because even the meagre NYSC stipend was going to my application funds. However, the perseverance paid off, as I was awarded full funding to study at the school I applied to. My family would not need to spend a single dime. I was ecstatic!
After my NYSC, I got two great job offers, and I accepted one where I worked for just three months, before I had to leave for the US. In May 2017, my efforts paid off and I was informed that I had secured full funding (my tuition would be fully paid and I would receive a monthly stipend in return for working for the school) to pursue my Master’s program.
Welcome to the US
I will never forget the day I landed in the US. I arrived through Chicago. As the plane touched down, my excitement was palpable. I couldn’t believe I was here. In the America that I had heard so much about! I understand that this may not be a big deal for many people, but it was for my family and I. None of us had ever left the shores of Nigeria, and no-one would have thought that one of us would. I arrived in Fayetteville, Arkansas (my school location) and had to go straight to campus because I arrived on orientation day. I remember walking around the school, completely awed and grateful to God.
I settled in to start classes and work (my funding package comprised of me working as a Graduate Research Assistant/Graduate Teaching Assistant) and I soon realized that the education system here was a lot harder than Nigeria’s, contrary to what I’d heard back home. I will never forget that first semester, because I call it my baptism of fire. I struggled so much, worked harder than I’d ever done in my life. What helped me tremendously was the fact that the lecturers here were extremely willing to help, and my classmates and I always worked together. I’ll always remember my joy the day I saw my first semester results and I saw that I made all As.
Diving into extra-curricular activities
One thing I regretted from my undergrad years is the fact that I never engaged in extra-curricular activities much, apart from a few volunteer activities here and there (I have always loved volunteering). I was determined to correct that in my master’s program, to be a more well-rounded student. I served in two organisations in various positions, including President, Vice-President, and Events Coordinator. I was also a member of other organisations and was involved in organising various events around campus, such that I became a bit popular, especially among Africans. It was extremely difficult combining all these activities with my academics and work, and I often got questions as to how I was able to do it. However, I didn’t regret it, as I was able to connect with an amazing community of friends who made my stay more fun.
Racking in honors and awards
I also participated in various competitions and conferences in different parts of the country. I’m that student who is always willing to try something new, even if I didn’t win any place in previous trials. I received second place and two third place awards at three of these competitions. I also received a leadership award for my service to the African Students Organisation, and an award for my service to the International Culture Team. Most rewarding and exciting was the Outstanding Master’s Student award for my department, which I received in April 2019. I was ecstatic and surprised when I was notified that I had been selected for the award. I was extremely happy because it felt like a culmination of all my achievements so far.
The end is here!
May 11 2019 was a historic day, as I graduated from the University of Arkansas. I could hardly believe that it was real and I was graduating with a distinction (4.0/4.0 CGPA). It felt so surreal! No member of my family could make it, but I had an amazing turn-out from my church family and community of friends. So many of them came to celebrate me and I was so amazed at the love shown me.
Reflecting now on my journey here so far, combining studying with working as a Graduate Research Assistant, and also as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, was extremely stressful, and I had to make a lot of sacrifices. I practically lived in my faculty building, as I was there from mornings until late nights, often times six to seven days a week. I also had to sacrifice to support my family back home by sending money home every month from my monthly stipend, which was already small. But I considered it a great honor to be able to help my family. There were many times when I felt like I would buckle under the stress, but I learnt to persevere, with God’s help. Towards the end of my program, I began applications to PhD programs in other schools across the country, also with the hope of getting full funding. Anyone who is in a PhD program knows how difficult and competitive it is to get PhD funding. Early this year, I was notified by the University of Florida that I had been awarded full funding to continue my studies at their Food and Resource Economics PhD program, starting August 2019. I am so excited!
You can do it too!
For those reading this story and hope to get similar opportunities like I did, or those currently studying, I want you to know that nothing can stop you from getting what you want, not even your background/financial constraints. Know exactly what your goals are, set specific steps to achieve them, and begin to work hard toward them. Never see limitations, always see opportunities instead. Always be willing to take the first step. If I had let my financial situation limit me, I would never have taken the first step of beginning my application to come here. Most of all, God was the one who made everything possible, and I owe all my gratitude to Him.