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•The inspiring story of Prof. Celestine Ntuen, VC, Ritman University, Ikot Ekpene, about the noble roles his parents and teacher played in his educational upbringing
BY CHIKA ABANOBI
Whenever Celestine Ntuen, Professor of Industrial and System Engineering, former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Faculty Fellow (USA), recipient of ex-USA Vice President Al Gore Award on “Using Information Technology To Improve Government Productivity,” and, today, Vice Chancellor, Ritman University (founded by Senator Emmanuel Ibok Essien), Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State, talks about his parents and one of his teachers in his secondary schooldays, he does so in glowing terms.
In this chat with Education Review, he opens some windows into his past, on the noble roles that his mother, father and Physics teacher, played in his educational upbringing. Excerpts:
“I used to look up to my teachers as examples of what my life should be. Of course, there were my parents too. They were my heroes and true role models. I can tell stories of many of them. To use simple cases for illustration, let me mention how the three people influenced almost every aspect of my undertakings. I shall present them according to the order of their mentorship influence on me.
“Number one on the list is my mother, a beautiful but uneducated woman who might have had some insights into my future, prophetically, that is. She would state her motherly concern with calmness and passion: ‘My son, I saw your teacher at the market. She asked me to put my eyes on you. He told me that you like Mathematics in school. He also said that with Mathematics you can be anything—engineer, permanent secretary, professor, or a doctor like the one in our health clinic. Son, please pay attention and study hard. One day you will take care of yourself and the family.’
“With consistency, my uneducated mother repeated the same advice so much that, as a young lad, I got infuriated. When I received my Ph.D in Industrial and Systems Engineering (from North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA) it was then I knew that my foundation of working both hard and smart was, mostly due to my mother’s way of mentoring me. I gladly proclaimed in a hall of many graduating students, ‘this is for my mother, she just graduated.’ I called her from United States to congratulate her on her PhD degree, and, mostly, to thank her for being indeed a mother. I wonder how many of such mothers we have today. Mine was my home teacher, an adviser, a coach on morality, and a mentor of pedigree. She was indeed someone to emulate, from time consciousness to diligence to her duty as a housewife, a farmer, and a trader, she found a way to share some pieces of advice with all her children and others around her. Her legacy continues in me and in many others. That is the foundation of sustainability that I learned.
“The number two person is my father. Not lesser than my mother in expectations, his approach was learning by doing. Armed with a Standard Four education of the early colonial masters from Qua Iboe Church, my father brought a different type of discipline and mentorship to my life. In fact, I did not realize he was mentoring me until I completed my secondary school career. With a kind and softer disposition, he would say, “son, I want you to carry me in my bicycle to Aba. I have a meeting with my friend, Chukwu Nnanna. I often obliged. But my dad would never get down on any hill. I would climb down from the bicycle and push the man along with the bicycle. Ogbor Hill, in Aba Ngwa, (Abia State), was one reference point. At times, he would tell me stories of the ancestors and their bravery in war. He was using the bicycle pushing exercise to teach me obstacle courses about life—ability to understand constraints, developing plans to manage conflicts, constraints and conflict resolutions, and mediations in family conflicts.
“I still remember a single unorthodox example. I was in class three in secondary school when one of my uncle’s two wives had serious conflicts and a fight. As is usually the case, my father, and the village counsellor would have to mediate. On the particular day for hearing the case, to my surprise and that of the entire six family heads of my village that were present, my father asked that I take over the case and that I should give my opinion on resolving the conflict between my uncle’s wives. He gave me one week to study the case, collect necessary information, and decide on the case among the two women during the next family heads meeting. The village council of family heads was surprised at this assignment to a young lad, who, in the first place, had no idea about marriage.
“For many years, I amused and teased my late father as my teacher in leadership and management. He had a gentle and respectful approach to dealing with people and solving difficult problems. When I received the “Management Excellence Award” from my university in USA, I promptly called my father to congratulate him and told him that as my tutor-mentor, the award belonged to him. My father left behind a sustaining legacy as a mentor to me. I wonder how many fathers would ask a nine-year-old boy to preside and decide on a case between polygamous wives. He did that to me with a sense of humour and with some expectations.
“The number three person, although not in a lesser pedigree was my physics teacher in high school, who by divine providence, also taught me Physics at the College of Education, Uyo. He is the late Mr. Okon Udo Itanga from Ikot Ekpene. My parents had prepared me to be respectful, religious, and ethical. It was Mr. Itanga who taught me to achieve excellence in whatever I did. He encouraged me to never surrender to mediocrity.
“In 1972, precisely on March 12, at Ikot Ekpene Post Office (by that time I had finished with my secondary school career, that is), he slapped me publicly, before many post office patrons or customers. You would have thought that he was slapping his son. Wrong, it was me, his former student who just graduated five months earlier from the secondary school under his blessed tutelage. The reason for the slap was simple: I had not reported to a university that gave me admission to study mechanical engineering because I could not turn in my guarantor’s form to the university in time. It was not my fault that the person who was to fill the form did not even care to send it back to me. For the first time, I heard him thunder like a lion, ‘Celestine, I always have my hope on you. I recommended you to my alma mater because I know you will be a good physicist, if that is what you want to do. For now, see me tomorrow in my office; you must go back to school. I don’t care where. You can’t waste your talents at home.’
“The following day, I eventually met with him as he directed. I took a late entrance examination. I got admitted. That was my teacher whose tough love was like that of an uncle, father, or a brother. In fact, I went to the College of Education to study Physics and Mathematics because of the admiration I had for my Physics teacher and my mentor. It is not the case today where students hardly look up to their teachers as exemplary men and women of honour. If it were today, the teacher who gave me a public slap could have been sorry for himself and the family. Another student, under the aegis or guise of cultism, would have retaliated with impunity. In my time, there was something like “tough love”, and we had our teachers to emulate.
“Most of today’s teachers at various phases of our education tutorage have had their hands soiled with dirty corruption. Our youths are left with mentors who are self-proclaimed billionaires whose pockets are enriched with public funds. I often wonder whether teachers (especially in tertiary institutions) who extort money from students to supervise projects, demand a bottle of wine to approve a thesis or a project topic, use predatory methods to abuse female students, with a promise of academic/class work performance inflation, and demand fee-for-grade in course works, are indeed mentors. No wonder that majority of our university graduates today cannot be compared intellectually to men and women who were esteemed Nigerian university academic products before and shortly after the civil war.
“You need to see sample of English essays written by graduates with first class and second class upper statuses from Nigerian universities. I conducted a recruitment exercise recently and I demanded a short one-page essay on an assigned topic. I came to the conclusion that sustainability in academic excellence is fast eroding to its low ebb. Remove the infrastructure from the parameter of this discourse. I propose that mentorship in our youths needs further discussion.
“Following the recruitment exercise I just mentioned, I decided to conduct a non-scientific opinion research among the pool of the local youths in my community. Asked wanted they to be, I was not surprised that an overwhelming eighty percent of the youths (from ages 12 to 25), indicated an interest to become politicians. Very few had any interest in the much-needed professions such as medicine and public healthcare, engineering, information technology, agriculture, business, and entrepreneurship.
“This is affecting the future of Nigeria and competitive stand in the global market place. It also affects the sustainability factor of the skills needed for industrial development. We need to re-brand our courses towards human development. I sincerely call on people of decency and moral compunction in private sectors to take on the roles of mentoring our youths. I am sorry the public sector has failed Nigeria; their hands have been soiled to the shoulders. These are evidenced by daily and routine media news reports that indict almost all Nigerian public servants as corrupt citizens. In fact, Nigerian tertiary institutions have not been spared and are the worst hit by this immoral virus called corruption because of its ‘epidemiological’ tendencies resulting from overexposure to the dense population of Nigerian youths seeking educational careers. These are infected with incurable moral diseases by the various forms of corrupt practices they are subjected to. I sincerely believe that mentorship, in the right hand, by the right people can help to alleviate our national problems. With a caveat, let’s leave some religious leaders out of this plan.”