On 9 March 2022, a group of Commonwealth Alumni working at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, held a symposium for female public junior secondary school students from Makoko, an informal settlement in the Lagos coastal area. The symposium was titled ‘Her Dream, Her Future’ and was designed to promote the importance of girls’ education to those from low-income settings and highlight the opportunities available to girls who complete school education.

The ACEF activity was led by alumnus, Dr Temilola Oluseyi, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry, and the group included Prof Olatunde Julius Otusanya, Dr Maryam Quadri, Dr Esther Makinde, and Dr Oluwatoyin Fatunsin.

Thirty junior school girls, selected from three junior secondary schools within Education District IV of Lagos State Ministry of Education, participated in the symposium. The girls represented Mobolaji Bank Anthony Junior High School, Sabo, Onike Girls Junior High School, Onike, and St Francis Junior Secondary School, Iwaya.

The girls selected were between 10-15 years of age. This is a critical age range for girls as it marks an age where many in the community drop-out of secondary school. Reasons for this include early marriage, turning to street hawking to earn money, and working as domestic help in other peoples’ homes. As such, many do not have the opportunity to complete their secondary education or pursue dreams to continue their education.

Opening the symposium

Despite the University of Lagos being located near to Makoko community, most participants had not entered the university site until the day of the symposium. As part of the programme, Dr Oluseyi and fellow alumni arranged for several female leaders, academics, administrators, and undergraduate students at the university to deliver talks and sessions for the pupils.

Opening the day, the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Development Services at the University of Lagos, Professor Ayo Atsenuwa, told the pupils that they must be focused and determined to make a difference. She said:

‘This is critical if you must have the next batch of people to pass the baton to when you retire. You will become senior students soon and the junior students will be looking up to you and your excellence will make them feel it is doable.’

This was followed by an address by Professor Bola Oboh, Director, Research & Innovation Office. Other speakers at the symposium included the Head of the University Counselling Unit, Mrs Aderonke Asiwaju, who spoke to the girls on ‘Counselling for career choice’. She was followed by Dr Mary Akinyemi who highlighted the importance of mathematics skills in careers, Dr. Chika Yinka-Banjo who spoke about robotics, and Dr Abiodun Gbenga-Ilori who promoted opportunities for females in engineering. Following these sessions, many of the girls were encouraged to take courses in engineering and related fields and to not feel that the profession is limited to the male gender.

Prof Atsenuwa adressing the girls
Photo of Mrs Asiwaju

Opportunities to succeed

Talks were also delivered by female undergraduates studying at the University of Lagos to share their experiences with the girls. During the talks, the speakers, drawn from Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Medicine & Surgery, challenged the pupils to be studious and encouraged them not to drop out of school, but to look ahead to opportunities such as studying at the university. They also encouraged them to take up STEM related courses and pursue careers in this field. The group was joined by the Best Graduating student in the Department of Chemistry in year 2000, Miss Vivian Nwosu-Madueke, who challenged the girls to be the best in their academic pursuits and not look down on themselves because of their backgrounds or gender. She equally highlighted the unlimited opportunities available to graduates who excel in their chosen course of study.

Following on from the career discussions led by Mrs Aderonke Asiwaju, Commonwealth Alumnus Dr Maryam Quadri spoke to the girls about Commonwealth Scholarships. She informed them that, even though they are from low income backgrounds, with little support from their parents/guardians, they should be hopeful as there are scholarship opportunities for them both locally and internationally, such as Commonwealth Scholarships, to support them in fulfilling their dreams in the future.

Exploring the past and the future

Towards the end of the symposium the pupils were given a tour of the university campus and visited the University Library, where the University Librarian, Professor Yetunde Zaid gave a talk on library science. This included an interactive session on using ‘RoboScholar’ and how notes were translated into braille for blind students to access library materials. The students then visited the university’s natural history museum which holds a collection of diverse artifacts in arts, science, and culture.

Photo of students in the museum

The day closed with remarks from Professor Ayodele Atsenuwa who hosted the girls in her office, where they also met the first female Deputy Vice Chancellor, Development Services of the University of Lagos, Professor Folasade Ogunsola. Professor Ogunsola charged the pupils to return to their schools and share their experiences with classmates and to motivate others as ambassadors of the visit.

Pupils then enjoyed an interactive session in the artificial intelligence and robotics lab, where Dr Chika Yinka-Banjo showcased robots which the pupils had the opportunity to operate. Five of the pupils were selected to attend the upcoming robotics summer camp for free.

As a result of the symposium, Commonwealth Alumni and the university staff involved have shared their details with the pupils to continue conversations and to provide motivation and support in their studies. In return, the pupils have committed themselves to stay in school, dream big, and pursue the future they desire.