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A Sigh of Relief

Updated: Jun 25, 2020


| This is the 408th story of Our Life Logs |


I was born in 1986 in Lagos, Nigeria to my father who was in the military and my mother who was a full-time housewife. They raised me in one of the fiercest neighborhoods in Lagos where petty thieves and prospective armed robbers were groomed instead of loathed. You can see how I quickly became a product of my environment.

I saw myself as belonging in the street because I had no interest in school stuff. I figured that I’d eventually just drop out one day and make my money off the streets. I was suspended countless times in high school for tormenting my teachers, scaling the school fence during school hours, as well as destroying school property on many, many occasions.

My path seemed set until I received several life-threatening beatings from my father for all the crimes I’d been committing. To cut the long story short, my father withdrew me from state high school and sent me to a private high school for my final year. This act changed the course of my life.

At the private school, I thrived and stopped acting up as often. My predecessors had made a hoot about university life and loved describing how fun it was, insisting that I go when I graduate; I wanted a taste of that freedom. So, when I graduated in 2004, I began mentally preparing for university life. I would study civil engineering and build a better life away from my neighborhood.

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Of course, getting into a university was no easy feat. After high school graduation in Nigeria, one must jump through many hoops, and that’s what I did. Pass at least five categories of the ordinary level exam—check. Score at least a 200 on a written exam called the University Matriculation Examination (UME)—check. Pass an entrance exam and join all your friends who made it into university—not quite.

I eagerly awaited the exam for Cross River University, confident I’d do well! Then I arrived at the school for the exam, and suddenly, I saw the hypocrisy of this entire process. The myriads of examinations just to seek admission to universities were just shameless institutions using students’ hopes and dreams as cash grab. Over 20,000 students a year would pay to take the tests (including myself), to try their luck at admission, but in the end, only the students with rich enough parents to bribe their way in received admission. As I knew no high-ranking university official, my chances of receiving admittance were as slim as the pieces of paper I wrote my exam on.

Still, I remained determined. I wrote exams for the next seven years with little luck. After yet another rejection, I had begun to give up all hope that I would ever smell the four walls of higher learning, let alone get admitted.

The saddest part of this fiasco was that obtaining a proper-paying job in a reputable company was nearly impossible without a university degree. We were seen in the society as outcasts and unserious elements who hadn’t figured out what they wanted to do with their supposed pathetic lives. It was a psychological disaster, and this merry-go-round of trying to become educated took a toll on me.

Me at my work place, c. 2010.
Me at my work place, c. 2010.

While I was biding my time, and trying to secure the Holy Grail (university admission), I took some pretty embarrassing jobs just to get by. I was mostly a chauffeur and many times, I dealt with the worst kind of people that acted as if I was scum under their shoes. I had one chauffeuring job where I was given tasks far beyond my job description. I had to wash five cars every day including a hearse that conveyed the ungodly smells of the deceased. And my god—I had one boss who was the devil herself, always loading me with stinking farts after eating God-knows-what in her AC-tight vehicle.

Meanwhile, my friends who’d gotten into universities were working good-paying office jobs. It was hard not to feel hopeless in those moments like I’d never get a chance at a better life.

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I had a moment of motivation after I saw one of my boss’ children who was a medical doctor come out to give me instructions during a workday. I was way older than the lad, but his parents were obviously well-off and got him admitted into one of the universities. Here was this young man giving me orders, all because of a degree. I wanted that for myself. I made up my mind that I would try to get my university admission by hook or by crook. I refused to let the previous rejections break my spirit.

Hell-bent on finding a way to get a degree, I took the next chance I had. In late 2011, one of my friend’s parents asked me if I was interested in attending a polytechnic institution. They had a connection with one of the principal officers that could help get me in. To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in that route but I was so frustrated that I had remained unadmitted for about eight years. I took the offer with both hands.

Me, 2012.
Me, 2012.

The following year, I passed all the required exams and applied and took the exam for Polymer Engineering in the institution. I can’t say if I did well or not because no scores were posted, but I was shell-shocked when I saw that I was among the first five names on the admission list. I couldn’t believe my eyes! At the ripe age of 27, I’d finally gotten admission into a university! I cried in my room for several hours and called countless people about my breakthrough! All celebrated with me in my joy. Many of my neighbors and friends had already been university graduates when I was just about to start my journey, but I didn’t care. I’d finally gotten my shot.

Now, I didn’t say I had made it. In fact, I was far from the end.

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My time at the Federal Polytechnic, Auchi in Edo state, located in south-south Nigeria was a classic one; classic in the sense that the positives and negatives were in equal measure. I had been admitted to an institution…but the course had no job security and it was more difficult than rocket science. I might have physically attended my classes but mentally, I was miles away trying to keep my life together even though I was miserable, broke, and unable to keep up in my classes. I celebrated “D” grades like they were an A+ but took solace in knowing that several other students scored the same grades or even worse.

In the lab during a practical session, 2013.
In the lab during a practical session, 2013.

Each exam day, I would spend more time planning on how to pass the exams than actually studying to understand the course. I often passed, but barely. My cumulative GPA was embarrassing. “Who will hire a person with such ridiculous grades?” I had asked myself one evening in frustration.

Each semester had the same near-passing grades. It was as if the harder I tried, the more I failed. Still, I persisted, and by 2014, I graduated with a pass (2.45 GPA).

With that grade, I couldn’t apply for admission for a Higher National Diploma until after another two years, which I beat myself up about but in discovering this fate, I made the choice to do things differently in preparation for the diploma. I decided to put in an immense effort in understanding what polymer engineering was truly about. No more getting by. It was time to truly understand.

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To get started, I took an internship at one of the pen-producing companies in Lagos so I could familiarize myself with some of the heavy machines I’d only ever seen in my textbooks. There, it was a lot easier to understand the functions of the machines. I took out ample time to understand these functions and some of the underground tricks, but in time I learned to combine the theory with practice. In less than six months I was promoted to production supervisor.

I remained with this company for the next nine months before I received a job offer at a recycling company that included a house close by and a huge salary. It was a far cry from what was considered “qualified” for me with just an ordinary diploma, but hey—I took it proudly!

I didn’t sleep on this achievement; I signed up for a few different automation courses. This job required the use of an entirely different type of machine to recycle plastic materials for industrial use, and I was interested to learn how it functioned. I guess the student in me finally woke up.

With some colleagues on site at the Federal Government Orientation Camp in northern Nigeria, 2019.
With some colleagues on site at the Federal Government Orientation Camp in northern Nigeria, 2019.

In 2016, I reapplied for my Higher National Diploma program to the same school and secured admission on the first try. I decided this time around, I’d do much better. This time, my combination of on-field expertise and certificate courses gave me a huge lift-off.

I wouldn’t say it was a smooth ride, but it was a whole lot easier to comprehend the teachings this time around. More surprisingly, I even spotted errors from lecturers a few times! Not only did my grades improve drastically, but I was also constantly traveling for contract jobs outside of school (which kept my accounts fat and my contacts broad).

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In November of 2018, I graduated with an upper credit in polymer engineering from the Polytechnic, much to the delight of my colleagues and to the surprise of the lecturers in my department. On my graduation day, I wept uncontrollably as I couldn’t believe that I was proudly living the life I had wished for myself for so many years. I went from an ill-treated chauffeur and an admission-seeking miscreant to a university graduate working as a polymer engineer!

Graduation day, 2014—breathing a sigh of relief!
Graduation day, 2014—breathing a sigh of relief!

Of course, now that I’ve completed tertiary education, I’m serving the Nigerian federal government (it is a compulsory requirement), but once I’m finished I intend to fly out to Turkey for advanced automation training. I’ve even made plans to wed my long-time girlfriend in the coming years. Things have fallen into place and I have come to realize that it is never about how you start, it is how you finish.


This is the story of Tab Bessy

Tab Bessy currently resides in Nigeria where he is now graduated and thrilled to begin his career with his higher diplomacy. Tab was a victim of Nigeria’s corrupt tertiary admission system that had left thousands of students trapped in poverty, unable to obtain a degree. Having gone through the hurdle of working bad jobs, Tab never took his eyes off the ultimate price of being educated. Thankfully, Tab never gave up and made the best out of the situation which paid off when he was admitted to a polytechnic later in life. Once he obtained hands-on experience in the field, he could return for even higher education and find the success he’d been striving for. Tab is now a graduate of Polymer Engineering and is currently serving the federal government of Nigeria and will be traveling to Turkey for further training before the completion of his service year. He has discovered that those who wait and never lose hope will find what they’re looking for with the right amount of patience and hard work.


This story first touched our hearts on August 7, 2019.

| Writer: Jeffrey Oparah| Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker |

To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)
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