Unconventional Paths: My response to questions surrounding my studies

The Nigeria that I grew up in is one that, at the time, was extremely one dimensional both in the societal norms and cultural expectations shouldered by adolescent children. I suppose that the same could be said of the world to some degree, but I can only speak so confidently of the scenes my eyes have seen the most in my story so far.

In secondary school, there came a point in the career of a student in the Nigerian secondary school curriculum where each pupil needed to select the subjects — moreover, the group of subjects — they found themselves so inclined to take. It was the division of students into the sciences, social sciences and the arts. Shortly after this, maybe a few months into the new directions we took, I got the impression that some held (and perhaps still hold) the understanding that those who took the core science subjects were somehow more brilliant than everyone else, particularly when paralleled with the students who partook in the arts. In this convoluted opinion, they had ungracefully overlooked the ways that those in the arts showcased their own forms of brilliance: through the application of logical principles in sifting through arguments and fallacies; the rendition of an oratory masterpiece; the orchestration of harmonious melodies; the skillful sewing together of tales, and the intricacies involved in fictitious world building. And many more countless ways that people in the arts leave others in awe of their genius.

I felt that this narrative they held, this shallowly and wrongfully placed philosophy, might go a long way to damage the images that young, artistically inclined children have of the world moving forward. Even worse, it holds the possibility of damaging the images they have of themselves as they grow older. It is a philosophical train of thought that, though fallen short in recent years, needs to be completely eradicated. It is, and I cannot stress this enough, wrong beyond measure.

I don’t believe this notion impacted me in a negative way. I took a few science classes like biology, geography, and agricultural science. And at the end of the day, I did as well in them (if not better in some cases) as in other classes like literature and history. So in my mind, I saw myself taking art classes not because I was dumb or of inferior intelligence to others. I took them because I enjoyed them, and I took them because I excelled in them. But I realize that not everyone may have a similar experience as mine — not everyone may have been lucky to see that they WERE good at science subjects.

I believe that these ill-informed ways of thought remain because the Nigerian society that I grew up in held about five career paths in high esteem. They were (and in some cases still are) medicine, engineering, law, finance and tech. So everything that falls outside these selected few are simply miscellaneous fields of study. This was most evident to me when I returned from studying in Michigan and Milan. Anytime an older person asked what I studied while abroad, after my response, they would then proceed to ask me what I would do with that course. In civil interactions there is nothing wrong in asking that question when it is rooted in genuine curiosity and interest. But the times that the question was laid at my feet, I believe it was wrapped in a blanket of forceful condescension. Perhaps it is because what I did falls outside the walls of what most people are most knowledgeable. We tend to have varying responses to that which we do not know.

Photo: Fononyamba Nunghe.

Nigeria is a place that revolved around the entrenched beliefs that people hold, both of themselves and the world around them. Beliefs that are only reinforced in people and passed down by the roles that cultural heritage or the interpretation of religion play in their lives. There is a specific way that gentlemen should look, there is a time frame where a young lady must be betrothed, and there is a path to success that the youth must adhere to (usually through the academics) as every other thing falls to the wayside. I am abominable for doing this, but I sometimes ask Nigerian friends who long to pursue doctorate degrees why they plan on doing so. Many times, other than having the title next to their names, or on the direction of their parents, they give me no other answer. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the answers so to say, nor is there anything wrong with dedicating years to getting a doctorate degree — the dedication is quite admirable as a matter of fact. However, the answers do tell a deeper story. If I did not have open-minded parents who recognized my strengths, gave me the freedom and encouragement to pursue them, I am unsure, and honestly gravely afraid of where I would be today.

Though I understand the role of security through these paths, the diversity of human beings through experiences, varying interests and passions is far to vast of a field to even attempt to curb into allocated plots. And most of the time, specific courses of study or the appearances of individuals on the surface, are stark limitations when considering what those people can do. During my entire time as a Youth Corp member, not one person asked for a resume, or past work experience, or certifications I had, or recommendations, or programs I was proficient in. Questions never went beyond what I studied. And I believe that is a terrifying problem. A few eventually enquired further and realized the depths of exploration to uncover beneath the surface. I believe that these same depths are the volumes of spectacles and wonder, the brilliance and groundbreaking revelations, waiting to be uncovered in many people if we simply decide to take a closer look.

Photo: Graham Carlson.

The world is growing increasingly more connected. And as such, with the exception of specialized skills in some fields of expertise, people cannot simply be grouped and placed with labels on their foreheads in a time where education is both a personal responsibility, and knowledge is a limitless resource available in an instance. So while Nigeria has a long way to go, I am glad that there are beacons of hope out there: people who have done great things through these “unconventional” paths they have embarked on, sometimes even in the face of the blistering winds going against them. For some time now, because of these thoughts that pinball about in my mind, I have a definitive answer. When someone asks me what I will do with my Philosophy and Communication degree, my response to them is simply, “Great things.”

(Originally penned for Leadership Newspaper’s print version, dated Sunday, February 2, 2020.)

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