Damaris Siyanbade studied Mathematics at Babcock University and graduated with first class honours, having finished with 4.68 CGPA. She speaks to TOLUWALOPE KAREEM about her love for the subject considered by many to be difficult and secret behind her academic success
What inspired you to choose Mathematics as a course of study?
I have loved mathematics since I was a child. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I began developing interest in mathematics but my lesson teacher in Primary school mostly taught me mathematics and paid less attention to other subjects. We spent so much time solving problems and I enjoyed it, at least most times. I grew to like it and it was easier for me, compared to other subjects. Mathematics became my favorite subject, so the decision to study mathematics was almost natural. Also, I really wanted to teach mathematics.
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What was your recipe for focus as a mathematics student?
I really wanted to do well, so I wasn’t nonchalant about tests, assignments and the like. I’m not sure I put in my absolute best but I put in effort. I think my will birthed focus. I really wanted to excel. My academic work was my utmost priority. I gave it most of my time and energy. In my final year, there was this app I downloaded that really helped me focus. It’s called “Forest”. It restricts you from opening apps on your phone for a stipulated time, which you choose. It also keeps track of how long you have focused in a day.
Many students find studying mathematics tough. Were there courses that particularly stretched you?
(Laughs) Of course there were. Many actually – Metric space topology, real analysis, numerical analysis and all the other analyses. Honestly, there was barely any course that wasn’t a challenge. Even for someone who loves math, there were many days I felt too dumb to be studying it. Mathematics itself is a challenge. I just kept pushing really. The thing about mathematics is that it requires your consistent effort. You can’t stop studying or attempting a problem because you failed at the first attempt. So, I will say being persistent helped, although there were times I wasn’t.
What fond memories of your growing up do you cherish till date?
Teaching invisible students and using our doors as my board. I even gave these fictional students of mine names (laughs). My family used to travel to our hometown every August. I loved the thrill of a long road trip, buying snacks on the way, falling asleep in the car, looking out for signposts that spelled the names of towns we travelled through. Also, singing in the children choir and dancing choreography in white and black outfits with my hands in white gloves are memories I hold dear.
What influenced your drive for excellence in your academic work?
I’ve always been this way. I love having good grades, I love doing well and I just love school. Of course, it gets stressful. But I love the thrill of it all – studying, attending classes, preparing for tests and exams. And maybe my desire to be a teacher is also a factor.
When did you eventually start having first-class results?
I started having good grades in my first semester as a year one student.
What were the major challenges you faced as an undergraduate that you considered a threat to your academic success?
For me, it was phone/social media addiction. I am sure many students can relate with that. You are meant to be studying but your phone keeps calling your name. It’s like your mind knows you should be focusing but your hand keeps itching to grab your phone and scroll through social media. It was a constant battle. I’m also on the procrastination table, sitting very comfortably on it actually.
Did you win any prize in your faculty or department?
Yes; I won the Student Tutor of the Year for the 2019/2020 academic session in my department.
It is generally believed that success comes with hard work. Were there things you had to sacrifice to stay on track?
I don’t think I had to sacrifice anything per se. One can always try to find a balance. However, in my case, I wasn’t very interested in social activities, so I didn’t have to give up anything to focus fully. I had to sacrifice screen time, if that counts, and sleep, too, although I mostly studied during the day.
Did such sacrifices affect your relationship with people around you?
My academic work did not impact my relationship with people. I only had a few friends. I wasn’t a social bird or anything close to that.
How best would you capture your excitement when you eventually graduated with the perfect score?
I was really relieved, more relieved than excited. Finally, a huge load was lifted off my shoulders. My final exams were not my best but my results surprisingly came out great. I was genuinely shocked. That’s God’s favor, I tell you.
When you told your parents you would be graduating with first class honours, how did they receive the news?
They were very delighted.
Mathematics is seen to be a difficult course, how easy was it to graduate with a first class?
It wasn’t easy. I admit mathematics is really challenging. Mathematics stretched and pushed me in a good way and it was draining sometimes. Studying was difficult because this mathematics stuff can be hard. Sometimes, it was as if I wasn’t assimilating anything but with persistence I was still able to do well. There were times I found the course annoying, even wondered what made me decide to study it. So, it was hard, frustrating at times. I once read somewhere that mathematics makes you want to pull your hair out of your scalp. Quite dramatic but it’s no lie. I often felt that way. Unlike elementary mathematics that came with the rush and thrill of solving and calculating and computing, I was often stuck learning proofs to theorems and lemmas and propositions. It was strange at first. I wanted to solve and solve and solve instead of defining concepts and studying proofs that did not always make sense to me. Learning the theory behind mathematics was not always exciting but that’s what you get with Pure Mathematics. I kind of grew to enjoy this ‘strange’ side of mathematics.
What advice will you give other students who desire graduating with first class honours?
You know this popular quote “You can do anything you put your mind to”. It sounds clichéd. We have heard it over and over again but it is so true. Don’t tell yourself it is impossible. Because it is not impossible unless you decide it is. Put in the work. Don’t be nonchalant about school work, show up in classes, take your notes, and turn in assignments on time. Don’t start studying at the last minute. Sometimes, you get away with it, sometimes you don’t. So, it’s better if you are safe than sorry. Also, know what study pattern works best for you. For instance, I found it easier to concentrate during the day, so I did most of my studying during the day. Burning the midnight candle doesn’t necessarily make you a serious student. If it doesn’t work for you and you force yourself to do it, you won’t get the desired result. We are all different, so someone else’s study methodology may not work well for you. Some people learn better when studying with others. If that’s you, find people with like minds you can read and learn with. Some people gain better understanding by watching tutorials on YouTube. If that’s you, spend more time doing that. Find out what works for you and stick to it. Also, don’t get discouraged if you don’t perform as well as you desired in a test. Don’t resign, re-strategise and keep pushing. You’ll need to be your own cheerleader. Miracles happen too. Divine interventions occur, so pray and rely on God’s help.
Some people see being in a relationship as a distraction for an undergraduate, were you in a relationship or you also saw it as distraction?
I wasn’t in a relationship. But I don’t think relationships are always distractions. They will only be if you let them.
What were some of the activities you were involved in as an undergraduate?
I was a student tutor. My department held weekly tutorials for 100 Level students who needed it. I also served as Vice-President Academics of my department in my final year. Phone photography was a hobby I picked up at some point and I used to take pictures of nature and once in a while, portraits.
What are your aspirations as a young mathematics graduate?
I intend on furthering my studies – get a master’s in Mathematics or a related course and hopefully pursue a PhD afterwards. My major interest is in research and education. I want to teach long-term, while writing on the side and exploring my creative side. I also want to establish my own school and start an educational outreach that will set up small schools in remote areas in Nigeria that lack them.
What can a prospective mathematical student do to excel in the university?
Be persistent; don’t be quick to give up on a topic or concept you don’t understand. You do well in mathematics when you are consistent. Another thing is your mindset; I find that some students just take it that mathematics is too difficult to be understood. If you think it’s too difficult for you, then it is, and if you think it’s doable, then it will be.
Don’t pile up your notes (I don’t even know if I’m in a position to say this because I did this sometimes, too). As much as you can, review your notes before they pile up. When it comes to calculation-based courses, practise very often. The more you practise, the more proficient you become and don’t be intimidated by the scary math symbols, formulas and expressions. I know how staring at mathematical expressions can set your heart racing. It may seem too much for your brain but it is not. It may be confusing and difficult but it’s not too much for you. One step of that problem at a time, one line of that difficult proof at a time and it will become clearer. When you need help, please seek it. I truly believe anyone determined enough can excel at maths.
Are you concerned about the rate of unemployment in the country?
Yes, I am. It’s very alarming. Almost everyone has lost hope and wants to flee the country and it is totally understandable. It seems things keep getting worse by the day. I can only hope that someway somehow, by a miracle perhaps, there’s a light at the end of this grossly dark tunnel.
What do you do presently?
I just finished school so I’m waiting to go for the national youth servivce.
Do you have a dream job?
Yes, I enjoy teaching. I would love to teach at a prestigious university someday but I really just want to be somewhere teaching mathematics, learning from great minds and researching.
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