Emmanuel Ohuabunwa, an incredibly intelligent 22-year-old Nigerian, has emerged the best graduating student of John Hopkins University in the United States.
Ohuabunwa made history when he obtained a Grade Point Average of 3.98 out of a possible 4.0 to earn a degree in Neurosciences; he also holds the highest honours conferred during the May 24, 2012 graduation ceremony.
However, the journey to the peak of academic success was not an easy one for this young man from Abia state.
Born in Okota in Lagos State, Ohuabunwa studied at Lilly Fields Primary School in Lagos and had some secondary school education at the Air Force school in Ibadan, Oyo State before his parents made the big move across international borders.
Bullied and abused
He was 13 years old when, with his family, Ohuabunwa left the hustle, bustle and familiarity of Lagos, Nigeria for Houston, Texas.
There he was enrolled in Fondren Middle School, which he said was located in a ghetto area. Ohuabunwa described that time in his life as “one of the darkest years” he experienced.
Ohuabunwa recalls years of peer pressure, bullying and taunts at the hands of fellow classmates.
“Some of the students, ignorant about Africa, bullied me and called me names such as ‘African booty scratcher’ because to them, Africans were dirty and scratched their butts all the time,” Ohuabunwa said in an interview with Punch.
“Some asked me if I lived in mud huts and ate faeces for breakfast. I remember one day, when I was walking to the school bus, a boy came from behind and punched me in the face, called me an African and walked away. It took everything in me not to retaliate. I knew that God had put me in the U.S for a purpose and it did not involve fighting or selling drugs or doing the wrong things.”
He was even more hurt by the fact that most of his abusers looked like him, black Americans, whom he had thought would be “nicer” to him, and added that he had some “minor episodes” with white Americans as well.
The bad experiences made him a stronger, more focused individual, he says. “I learned to stand for what I though was right even when the opposition seemed inusurmountable”.
Focused and determined
Ohuabunwa looked beyond the prejudice – which he dismissed as a sign of ignorance on the part of the young classmates – and he focused on what he knew was a golden chance.
“I was still gaining an opportunity to school in America and nothing would stop me from making the best of this opportunity”.
The first of three children born to his parents, Ohuabunwa maintained a position at the top of his class and then excelled at the entrance examination to DeBakey High School for Health Professions.
It was at that high school, where he got to interact with doctors in the field, that his passion for medicine was ignited.
“The more I learned about medicine, the more it felt like the thing God was calling me to pursue and by being in the US I got a lot of people to support me to do this. Even though in high school, I got to see first-hand what it meant to be a doctor. We studied advanced anatomy and physiology, learned medical terminology, and learned important skills, such as checking blood pressure, pulse rate, and many more.
“I knew I wanted to go to the best school in the US. I had heard that Johns Hopkins Hospital had been ranked the number one hospital in the US for the past 21 years and I wanted to be in that environment.”
He knew that sponsoring that first-rate education would be difficult for his parents, however, and went the distance to see to it that the money wasn’t an issue.
He got top scores in his PSAT exams and won the National Achievement Scholar award, and that opened up the doors to more awards and recognition, including recognition from Senators from both Texas and the US Congress.
There were scholarship offers from the University of Houston, Rice University, Texas A&M Honors College and many more, but then he struck gold with the Bill and Belinda Gates Foundation, which offered him a full scholarship to any university of his choosing.
It wasn’t a difficult choice. Ohuabunwa worked hard and gained the admission to Johns Hopkins University to study Neurosciences, with Bill and Belinda footing the bill.
Why Neuro? Ohuabunwa explains: “I studied Neuroscience, because I was fascinated with the brain, its control of our behaviours and how various diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, lead to a decline in its activity. I also minored in Psychology because I wanted to understand disorders in the psyche. What causes bipolar disorders or schizophrenia. I did not just want to label them as crazy but to understand what causes these conditions and how we can treat them.”
Differences at home and abroad
The young Neuroscientist is grateful for the opportunity he had in the United States because he is well aware of the difficulties, corruption and inefficiencies plaguing the Nigerian educational system.
One can’t help but wonder what would have become of this academic marvel had he finished his secondary school education at Air Force Comprehensive and went on to study at a top Nigerian university, where he would have likely faced an unpredictable academic calendar, corruption, examination malpractice and inadequate funding.
“There were a few problems with Nigerian higher education that contributed to our emigration in 2003. The first was the number of strikes that occurred in schools. It took my uncle seven years to graduate with a degree that should have taken him only four years. A second problem was the corruption. We had heard of people going into universities, because they paid someone to look the other way. I also heard of a few cheating scandals, where people would pay someone to take their exams for them or get a copy of the exam a few days before”.
While some of those problems no longer exist in the same intensity, there is still a lot of work needed to stabilise and equip our universities so that Nigeria too can properly train the budding neurosurgeons languishing in poor educational systems.
Another difference Ohuabunwa noted is that the Western society rewards hard-work and nurtures a balanced lifestyle, mixing hard work with extracurricular activities. The same can hardly be said about Nigerian universities.
What does the future hold for this bright young man? Well, he could be off to Yale University next. The Ivy League college has offered Ohuabunwa a scholarship, following his outstanding performance at the Johns Hopkins.
Ohuabunwa, who says God’s grace contributed to his many successes, is also the only black student to be inducted into the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa society.
He is all set for medical school too, saying “I took the MCAT and scored in the top five percentile”.
Ohuabunwa is also not ruling out coming back to the home of his birth in the future, he says.
“I am absolutely interested in the health care policy decisions in Nigeria. Because there are many changes that need to occur, I will not rule out the possibility of coming back after my studies, in order to join hands with the leaders to make these changes possible.”
The talented young man who is well on his way toward accomplishing his dream to become a brain surgeon, is hoping to make changes in the nation’s suffering healthcare system where “the poor get neglected”.
His grandmother passed away recently after a long battle with stroke and was a victim of the Nigeria’s ailing and ill-equipped health care. “Even during emergencies, it was difficult for her to get to the hospital,” he recalled.
“It would be an honour to one day contribute to this transformation that is necessary for improvements in Nigeria’s health care sector,” he said.