The Last Word

Q+A: Stella Uzochukwu, Founder, Odyssey Educational Foundation
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An electrical engineer’s crusade to transform Nigeria by teaching its girls science and engineering. On her first visit to the U.S., Uzochukwu, who shares the school’s diversity aims, spoke with USC Viterbi magazine.

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You decided to quit a well-paying job as a power engineer to start a foundation and help Nigerian girls, in particular, learn STEM. How did that happen?

SU: It was the craziest thing I ever did. I tell you the truth. But there was this burning passion in me. I’ve always said to myself, “I am a change agent as far as Nigeria is concerned. I’m going to leave a mark.”

I told my husband, and it was various nights of no sleep, arguing. He said, “You have to sit down and think about our children.” We have two kids — one is 7, one is 3. He said, “We’re not going to be able to pay the bills if you quit your job. And it’s not as if there’s any funding waiting out there for you.” I said, “But maybe I’ll be more satisfied.” He looked at me and said, “What about your satisfaction? What is that going to do for the kids? Are you crazy?” I said, “I’m sorry, but I’m so obsessed with this vision.” At the time, he had to agree with me because even when I’m sleeping I’m talking about how the [Nigerian girls] will be able to code. Even in my dreams. He gave up. He’s now my best confidante — he’s the first person I’ll tell my dreams to.

What was your motivation in starting Odyssey?

SU: My life has been a motivation in the sense that from when I was a baby I knew I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. I wanted to say, “Look, you aren’t better than me, I should be able to do something good!” That’s what made me go into electrical engineering. And I know so many girls would want to go into this but they don’t have the opportunity. They don’t have someone to look up to, to say, “Oh, but you can do this, too.” It made me think of the life of girls in Nigeria. Sometimes it’s difficult, really, really difficult, because we have a lot of girls wanting to marry early, and we have a lot of families deciding that their girl child should not go to school further than primary school — they should stop there because they will soon be married to somebody, and there will be no dividend from investing so much in the kids. So they prefer to train the boys. That made me say, no, this can’t continue to happen. The girls in Nigeria should be given equal right to achieve whatever dreams they think they should achieve.

What was your lowest moment?

SU: Yeah, I have personally had some low moments. Like we’ll get to some school and we’ll have about eight computers that we came with, and there’s no power or batteries. Not even internet. And we had to sacrifice by maybe using the last money in our pocket. We were so disappointed. We said to the school, “OK, please, just a little liter of fuel into the generator so that we can teach the kids.” And I’m like, Oh, God, I wish I never got into this. Sometimes I tell myself, “Maybe you’re not able to do this, you’re not wired for this at all.” Then other times I tell myself, “I don’t need to be wired for this. I can also get myself rewired.”

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How many schools have you worked with?

SU: We’ve worked with over 15 government schools, and during summer we have a center where kids can come in. Kids from all over, all various kinds, all various schools. We do a training program for the teachers since we are not able to be in every school at the same time. So far, we’ve been able to work with over a thousand kids.

UNICEF put out a report that one in five children in north Nigeria are going to die of hunger. That’s about 250,000 children that are affected by widespread famine and malnutrition. I wonder if some people are saying to you, “Well, education is important, but it’s only second important.” Why not feed the kids first and then teach them?

SU: That’s been it. People have been saying, “We’re talking of starvation. We’re talking of people dying, and you’re not even talking about basic education. You’re talking about STEM education. Wow. There are even some kids who are not literate at all, you know, and you’re talking about an advanced education.” And I’m like, yes, all those things are there. But even a few years vested in a STEM education, we’re sure to reap it. I’m sure you won’t see any child on the street with malnutrition or looking for food to eat with a STEM education. My own plan is to start up a center — we’re still looking for funding — but start up a center where we will become tech entrepreneurs. Where we don’t have to depend on people to fund the center. We’re looking at an education that will empower the kids in the nearest future. I know a lot of people have told me that we need to feed the kids. But it’s like that saying: You give the child a fish, it will just last a day or two. But if you teach her to fish, it’s for a lifetime.

You started Odyssey in 2013. How did that start?

SU: I went to India — that story I will never forget. When I got to India, I saw that the kids there were answering questions at the speed of light. And I was like, oh, there must be some Indian magic or something behind their great ability. But after a second, I said no, it must be hard work.

So I went to one of the afterschool [programs] close by my hostel, and I saw the little robots they were able to construct from scraps. I saw a lot of things they were doing had to do with science. They were doing a burglary alarm, stuff like that. And I was like, wow. … India was once considered a third-world country, too, like Nigeria. I began to do a study: What made India move from this to this? I found out that technology was the brain behind it. And I saw that it was not about learning technology in your old age. There’s a need to begin to infuse it as early as kindergarten. So I felt, that’s where we’re missing it, because in Nigeria you don’t know anything about engineering until you’re in the university, maybe first year, thereabouts. So I said, there’s a need for us to teach kids after school, because I knew if I talked to the people in charge of changing the curriculum and all that, there’s a lot of bureaucracy. So I said, “Let’s do this after school, at holiday times — at least we’ll be able to impact kids.” I wrote to the organization that handles it, and I asked them, “Please, just give me one hour in a few schools as a pilot program.” So I started with those schools. And I saw that the kids, their grades got better, especially mathematics and science. Some of the kids,
even in their English or arts subjects, it still affected them. They began to think critically.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about you teaching girls science and technology. What were some of the reactions?

SU: I had a lot of negative reaction, to tell you the truth. Like I mentioned, in Nigeria some of the parents were like, “I’m not going to be able to leave my child one second after the school asks. Please, these kids are girls, and they will soon be married, so why are you bothering them with learning some skills they may never use?” So I got a lot of opposition. Even the government, some of the schools, said, “It’s not going to add up to making them different so why bother them with robotics? Why bother them with coding? It’s not part of the curriculum, so please let them be.” But I showed them the success stories and where the kids were scoring before we started the program and what their scores were after we did the program for a semester.

Boko Haram has been in the news these last few years, most notably with the kidnapping in 2014 of 276 school girls. How have they affected things? 

SU: One thing I have to let you know is that Nigeria is not all Boko Haram infested. The truth is, yeah, there is Boko Haram, and it’s causing a lot of panic to the people of Nigeria. I remember that one of my programs, one of the competitions I had, which was the Technovation competition. We were supposed to start off with the program during a holiday. But most parents didn’t want to give out their kids for the program because they were scared that since the Boko Haram is against the Western education, they’d rather keep them home. But the truth is that we’re living, we’re moving around, we’re free. The Boko Haram is concentrated in a particular area in Nigeria.

Tell me a little bit about the future. What would be the thing that — if you could accomplish it — you could rest easy?

SU: Just recently I wrote to nine more state governments to start up a center in each of those states’ capitals, so we can have kids gather together maybe in an afterschool setting or holiday period. I have not gotten the green light from any of the states, but my plan is to get to all 36 states in Nigeria and beyond. We have a center where kids could come in and have a feel of science and technology. If I’m able to do this, then I can go to sleep!