Since Brent is out of town, I was glad to have the chance on Saturday morning to take advantage of a volunteer opportunity. The American Women's Club offers scholarships each year to college students, and they needed volunteers to interview the new applicants. They assured me that it would be interesting, and indeed it was! Scholarships of N50,000 and N70,000 ($400-$550) -- amount awarded depends on type of study -- are offered to students after their first year of college and they can reapply each year through their undergraduate education. The interviews were taking place at the American school and we were assigned to a preschool room. It was kind of amusing to see everyone there, college applicants and adult women, sitting on preschool size chairs and at short tables made for little people.
First I helped with interviews for a couple of the returning students who were unable to make their assigned interview date a month ago. The female was very impressive and we had no reservations about recommending her continuing her scholarship. One of the questions that was on our list to ask was: "What will you do if you are not awarded this scholarship?" She just shook her head and almost seemed about to cry. She said she didn't know what she would do -- she wouldn't be able to continue in school. We assured her not to worry. The boy we interviewed next was a little less impressive. His first year in school he had passed all his classes except one. The woman over the program assured us that it was not unusual for students here to fail classes -- less unusual than in the U.S., anyway. This past year on the scholarship he had failed 5 out of 11 classes. One question we asked was "How do you spend your leisure time? What are your extracurricular interests?" He said he was involved in hip hop dancing and he spent every night practicing with his dance group. We wondered how serious he was about school and put a question mark next to his recommendation.
Next we started interviewing the new applicants -- there were 16 there, who had been writing an essay as part of their application. They were to write on how they chose their field of study and what they would like to do with their education. Some of the essays were quite bad -- not on the topic or organized well or even with any coherent thoughts. There were some that were organized in paragraphs and written neatly. They seemed about the level of writing we'd expect from a good Junior High student in the U.S. The volunteers divided up and worked in pairs to do the interviews. We asked the applicants questions about their family life and how they had paid for their first year of college. We looked at test scores and grades, though we were assured that financial need and grades were not the determining factors in who would get the scholarships. We were to look for honesty and a desire to learn and work hard at school. Each student would need a sponsor, a member of the Women's Club, who would mentor them while they were a scholarship student. The sponsors not only hand out the money, but they check up on the students and make sure they are staying in school and they are managing things okay. About half of the applicants had a sponsor ready to support them -- they were children of a club member's maid or driver or tailor -- and they had been informed about the scholarship program and given help with the application. The club doesn't want to advertise the program to the general public because the funds are limited and they said when they get random students applying, they often get applications that are fraudulent and it's difficult to verify if the student is really in school. They've had better luck and prefer to award scholarships to students where there is a connection with the sponsor and the student's family.
One interesting thing I learned about universities in Nigeria is that there is a wide range of tuition costs. One student we interviewed was in a private school. His tuition had gone up tremendously this past year -- it was N280,000 ($2200) and had gone up to N360,000 ($2800) a year. Another student in a state school had tuition of N5300 a year ($41). The law student in our ward said that her law school tuition was under $100 a year. One problem with state schools is that there are often strikes and disturbances that shut down the schools. This delays their studies and can add a year to a program. One applicant's school had been closed down for a couple of weeks due to "student disturbances." School terms start at different times depending on the field of study -- there's not a regular schedule for the bulk of students as there is in an American university. Students pretty much go into college knowing what their major is and most programs are 4-5 years, which can be extended due to strikes or other shut-downs. The mother of the student whose son was in private school was a seamstress making the sacrifices necessary to send her son there because she thought it was a better environment and he wouldn't be subject to the strikes and delays that occur in government schools.
The students my partner and I interviewed were all quite nice, soft-spoken, probably a bit scared and nervous in this interview situation. But we were quite impressed with them personally. One was a French student who wanted to work in the tourism industry and help Nigeria open up possibilities for tourism. One was in accounting and wanted to work in a bank. One was in mass media and wanted to be a TV broadcaster. One was in computer engineering. Most of them didn't have grades yet from their first year of school.
My British interview partner said that there had been a big drop in quality in Nigerian colleges. She said that in the past students would come from Nigerian universities to top colleges in Britain and were able to compete and succeed there. She said it's very difficult now to get a good college education here.
After all the students had been interviewed, the interviewers that could stay gathered around the little short tables and we pretty much decided who would get the scholarships. There was actually money in the fund for everybody to be awarded one, but there were several students that the interviewers determined were not eligible or recommended. The students with sponsors already were first priority, and they all got scholarships. There were several of us there who were willing to sponsor students and so there was discussion about who would sponsor students that didn't come in with sponsors. All the students I interviewed were awarded scholarships, and I was pleased with that, though the hip-hop dancer was given a conditional acceptance. His sponsor will be informed that he needs to bring up his grades or he will lose his scholarship. I've also been very pleased with the American Women's Club. They seem to be very focused on service and addressing and meeting needs within the Nigerian community. There are many women who spend a lot of time in the administration of programs such as this. And I think that's a good thing!