From hawking commonplace foodstuff in her village, she became a house help for an opportunity to attend secondary school. Funke Olaode captures the amazing story of how Onyema Benigna Ajuogu conquered hardship to become a Florida-based Aerospace Engineer/Pilot
From a seemingly hopeless situation, she has become a source of inspiration to strong-willed people everywhere who keep their dream in view. Onyema Benigna Ajuogu sprang out of obscurity to register a string of firsts.
We had to go back to her village in Umuhide in Orlu, Imo State to catalogue her chain of successes. She is the first person ever to travel to the United States of America from her village. Her bragging right extends the larger Orlu community where she is the first Aerospace Engineer and arguably one of the few in Nigeria. Hers is a rare case of triumph beyond expectation, beating every hurdle of suppression and poverty.
Given the circumstance of her poor parentage, Onyema could have been subsumed by the overwhelming surge of penury. However, she was determined, not only to swim against the tide, but to float comfortably. With no role model or anyone to emulate, she trusted her guts and envisioned herself as an accomplished professional. This big picture was always before she began the grind. In primary school, she hawked commonplace food items in the village to earn money for her textbooks.
Primary school education was all her parents dreamt for her. The next big thing on their mind was to have her acquire tailoring skills. It was a station above the subsistence farming which engaged them. At least, she could read and string together enough figures to take measurement and make outfits for the village folks. She would then expect to attract a suitable suitor; and become a wife and a mother.
This was not the life Onyema dreamt. Like the probable ring which circles her name (and has proven to envelope her destiny), with thoughts of possibility, a relative volunteered to sponsor her education in a secondary school, if she would serve him as a maid. The offer could be likened to a straw thrown at a drowning person. She grabbed it with both hands.
She did not see herself as a maid. All she could see was the corridor of opportunity leading to the realisation of her dream of flying an aircraft. It was a childhood dream since she was eight and an aeroplane roared above the backyard of her parents’ home in Umudihe. The mechanized bird captured her imagination forever. Growing up, something kept telling her that one day she would fly an aeroplane. But she never discussed it with anybody.
After secondary school, she re-awakened her desire to be a pilot. Almost every night, she sneaked out to a cybercafé in the neighbourhood to browse the internet. Some might have thought she was up to some immoral business. But she was simply taking advantage of the cheaper N100 internet browsing at that time of the night. This was between 2001/2002.
From searching the internet, she got some information on how to school in the United States. She particularly read much about piloting. In the process, she stumbled on Aerospace Engineering, a more challenging course. She momentarily lost interest in piloting. Although she would not dwell on the details, it was clear that providence came to her rescue. Having secured admission to several schools, a stranger bought a one way ticket to Atlanta for her. She arrived in America in 2004 to study Aero Space Engineering. If she thought, America did not offer immediate comfort she longed for. It was a long journey to academic attainment.
For nine good years, she toiled to get a degree that should have taken four years. Determined to succeed, she worked hard, remain focused and persevered. Taking advantage of several opportunities to work, while going to school, sometimes she engaged in four jobs just to survive. Her student Visa posed a different kind of challenge as she had to be in school full time student. Tuition was expensive. Being an international student, it was difficult to get a full scholarship, but she got a small scholarship here and there. Consequently, she had to defer some courses several times to allow time to work for money. This happened four times. She even had to go to Canada in search of better paying jobs.
“I traversed six universities to actualize my dream. I was at Harvard University. I attended University of Alabama briefly and equally registered my presence at Fisk University in Tennessee, North Eastern University in Boston and Massachusetts Institute of Technology before I finally graduated from the Florida Institute of Technology with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. I am a very passionate person and when my heart grabs something it is very hard to let go. I never gave up,” she said.
As she walked up the podium to shake the hand of the President on the day of her graduation, an unquantifiable joy ran through. It was an emotional moment. She looked back in her mind’s eye at where she was coming from. She’d never felt that great. She achieved her dream of flying a plane, but more than that she was an aerospace engineer. She explained the difference. You can be a pilot without necessarily being an engineer and vice versa. I am an engineer and a pilot. I currently work for a small aerospace company in Florida.”
A little while ago, Onyema was in Nigeria to meet the Minister of Science of Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu. The primary purpose of her visit was to introduce Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to Nigeria through Benignant STEM Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit innovative organization that is committed to inspiring young women and providing educational opportunity. The focus is on developing countries and underserved group in developed nation. She believes STEM is a tool that can help jump start development in developing countries.
She has already secured the interest of the governments of Guatemala and Peru in Central America where she teaches young girls to embrace science.
“Every school should have a curriculum that includes STEM project. These days, it is not all about what you learn in the class room, it is the experience you put into it. An experiments that can expose them to basic STEM concepts would go a long way with a hands-on activity that can spark their interest in STEM. I believe STEM education must be incorporated into Nigerian education curriculum. They need to be shown what it is and the benefits they can get going into these STEM fields.
The development of any nation is measured by the advancement in infrastructure, technology and the service sectors such as public transportation. With a lack of STEM skilled workers in the country, it is impossible to bring about this development. The root cause of this problem lies in the education system and the system in which we retain skilled workers.”
Onyema who has become very passionate about the gospel of STEM posited that “STEM professions build communities and transform nations. Science should been identified as a nation’s priority, but science teachers can’t do it all on their own. A lot of importance needs to be given to STEM education in the country.
We need to provide the right kind of opportunities for students who wish to pursue their education in STEM, we need to show more faith and fully support intelligent students in the country. We need to inspire more young people to get into these advanced degree fields in STEM. While doing so, we also need to rethink the system in which we retain highly qualified STEM workers in the country. Many of the STEM skilled individuals leave Nigeria for better employment opportunities in developed countries. Nigeria is ripe for actual development, which cannot happen outside STEM skills.”
By a load of compelling demand, Onyema’s amazing story of overcoming the odds has been packaged into a book, ‘Escape Velocity: Journey of Hope.’ “I actually wrote it to inspire people. It is a bit about my life. People encouraged me to write it, saying that my life has inspired them. I have been on it for the past 10 years.”
Part of the title ‘Escape Velocity’ comes from an aerospace terminology. Escape Velocity is the speed needed to pull clear of earth’s gravity. Onyema’s story is about escape velocity of a different kind; the force needed to escape destitution, hardships, poverty, gender inequality, socio-economic and national gravitational pulls to achieve a dream. It is a message of hope for anyone who has a dream, especially one that seems not just unlikely but unreachable.
In her life trajectory, Onyema has learnt many lessons. “In this life nobody is going to help you because heaven helps those who helps themselves. If I had stayed back in my village nobody was going to rescue me, if I hadn’t stretched out my hands to get some help and help myself, I would have remained in the village and become a village woman. The fact that you were born into a poor family or you are in a helpless situation shouldn’t limit you.” THISDAY