If You Can’t Do Anything Else, Be A Mentor

Two weeks ago, I was in Akwa Ibom, and I was going to be there for five days. It was going to be the longest time I would be visiting in a few years, so I planned an extra activity into the family event I was attending. I was planning to visit with the principal of the oldest senior science school in the community.

I had attended this school for what I would describe as some of the lowest periods of my life, and until recently, every memory form that place was horrible. However, I’d recently thought about some of the programmes I have thought about getting involved in, and could not find a better place to begin. I had decided to work with a couple of young entrepreneurs and professionals, and old successful professional to setup periodic mentorship rounds in this school, and a few others in the local communities, to help the kids in secondary school see what’s out there.

The reasons for getting myself involved in this mentoring business are two or three fold:

A few years back, I had also gotten involved in teaching basic computer classes to local kids, which opened my eyes to the opportunities for giving back to our communities.

The little I want to reference to my short time at this science school is that we had a lot of fantastic students back then, who were a lot more brilliant than I was. However, life happens – a lot of these brilliant chaps are still out there looking for work, with their top class papers. They are looking in the oil industry, or ExxonMobil to be specific.

Meeting up with some of these old mates, the big conversation was jobs. There were no jobs. Because the Nigerian system was so Nigerian, they just could not get jobs in the oil industry. All of then were currently doing trainings, similar trainings, to better their chances of getting into the oil industry.

The other topic was a slight disappointment on the part of my friends, at me, that a thoroughbred scientist like myself, would be out here, building a career in advertising. The fact that my company had hands in online advertising, applications development, bla, kini, ko, etc. made no difference.

I realize now, that growing up, the only difference between my life and a lot of people I grew up with was the support system of family, and more importantly mentors. My family built my values, and my mentors, specifically, my MENTOR, opened my eyes to what the world really needed. My mentor used to spend hours talking about what the world really needed, what the industries needed, and how important actual experience was in life after university.

Because of the insights I had, I spent a great deal of my university years outside of the university. Before I met my mentor, I was an A student. Two years later, I was getting ducked marks for not meeting minimum attendance requirements – but I was spending quality attendance in the oil industry and volunteer projects.

My friends where still making great grades. When I set up a project group, to get my friends to be more involved in building experience, very few friends were willing to put time on it. Not a lot of people were willing to follow an ex-A student, who was now a B student (because I hardly met attendance %, there was no way I could score As). It got to a head when I decided to build an application for use in the oil industry for my final project – I could not find a supervisor. No one was willing to supervise such a silly venture, till I met a man who took a risk by supervising me, despite his doubts about the project. When he finally saw what I was doing, he gave me an A without seeing the final product.

When I graduated, I had a job waiting for me. A few months in, I got offered a project and moved to Lagos. I haven’t returned since. In my time in the oil industry as a student running a project, a position was opening for me, which my mentor had groomed me for, but because he had done such a fantastic job of mentoring me, I knew the oil industry was not the place for me. I disappointed my mentor by not taking the oil route, but he supported my decision. When I wanted to setup my business, he was there to support me, and I owe a lot to him.

It was during my conversations two weeks back that I realized that without my mentor, I probably would have been a good student, come out and hugged my papers, waiting for a job in the oil industry. Because we grew up in the oil industry, it was all that some of us knew, the beginning, the end.

And it is probably what the kids in the science school are currently thinking. There’s not a lot wrong with our teachers. They were trained in the 70’s and 80’s, and back then, finishing school and getting a job was all they knew. Nothing had happened to change that. This is the reason they have nothing better to teach the next generation. Because they are limited by what they can see, and they can only teach what they know, the students will have no options different to what the teachers tell them. The oil industry cannot employ up to a million Nigerians (upstrean/downstream), but no one is telling that to the teachers, or students. ExxonMobil can only hire so many graduate engineers with little skill and no experience, but the teachers may not know that.

This is why, if I expect better from this generation, I have to help share a different perspective with these young people. If the next generation is to be better, if they are to do better, they need exists to open them to alternatives. They may not see alternatives in their local communities, but their minds should be opened up to these alternatives. They should be made to see the need to question the norm, to dare to be different, to branch out, off the beaten path, to be crazy and not be afraid. They should be made to see that getting good grades is fantastic, but also that there’s nothing wrong with building skill and experience outside of the walls of the classroom.

We should mentor.

We should work with schools to provide perspective. We need to help build extra-curricular activities which help the students see more, and experience difference. We need to expect change, but more importantly, we should be the change we want to see.

I have never believed in one perfect way, but I am hoping to take a few trips down to that school, and with the support of the teaching staff, hold talk sessions with the students, and share experiences which I hope, along with other experiences better than mine, would help these kids make better decisions, and see beyond what exists in their communities

Editi Effiong is an entrepreneur and developer based in Lagos. Follow him on Twitter, @EditiEffiong

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