Mary Otunba, 26, graduated with a first class from the Department of Economics at Caleb University. She tells TUNDE AJAJA about her journey and the choices she made that worked for her
How do you feel graduating with first class honours?
I’m grateful I finished with first class honours. My goal was to either graduate with first class or finish as the best graduating student, and with that in mind, I ensured I had a plan that would be actionable daily to achieve my set goal. But even if I didn’t make that grade, I knew I was still super blessed and I would have been proud of myself that I did my best because, for me, it wasn’t just about making a first class; it was basically about putting my best in my work and hoping for the best. I believe what is worth doing at all is worth doing well. However, I should add that the first class didn’t come easy; I had to make sacrifices.
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When did you first hit first class?
It was in the first semester of my first year. I used to complain to my friends that my Grade Point Average was not strong enough and my friends in other classes of degree would just marvel at my dissatisfaction. Inasmuch as they felt I should celebrate where I was, I didn’t like to settle for less. I always believed it could be better.
Did you have a similar performance in your previous schools?
This question reminds me of when I was growing up. I come from a polygamous home and it was not so easy to cater for all the children, so I remember my father told me that it was the only chance I had. That, in a way, was the motivation for me.
Were you scared when he said that?
I was scared, honestly. I grew up with him and I knew if the funding wasn’t coming from him, there could be issues.
Do you recall how your parents felt when they knew you made first class?
I grew up with my father, but I lost him to a partial stroke in March 2017, after being ill for almost four years. My mother died in 2016. Those were sad moments I don’t like to talk about. Hopefully, they would be impressed with how I’m doing if they are privileged to know. Their death also came with some financial challenges I had to deal with, but I’m grateful life gave me some friends I could call my own. It gave me mentors who are like my parents and I’m still amazed at how far they could go to make sure I was okay.
So, at every level, I had to give my academic work my all, especially in terms of burning the midnight oil. Right from secondary school, I was always exceptional among my peers and this earned me a leadership role as a prefect at both junior and senior secondary schools. So, this has always been a part of me through the polytechnic and university.
What would you say worked for you?
I didn’t get to use the library for long. While I was in college trying to obtain my diploma, I mostly preferred group discussions in the day, while I did personal studying at night. I simply replicated that in the university and while taking my exams to qualify as a chartered accountant. I could read anytime and anywhere if I made up my mind to. A number of times, some colleagues saw me as too serious to the extent that it affected my relationship with them, but I’m glad I achieved my goal and even graduated as the best in my department. Now, those relationships are being restored. I think we need to keep our eye on the ball, regardless of the distractions.
You first obtained a National Diploma in Accounting before you proceeded to the university for your first degree programme in Economics. What informed those choices?
I like to explore and wanted to be versed in many things. I thought that since I had started taking the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria exams, it would be a better option if I should study Economics. I knew it would put me in an advantageous position to exploit other opportunities in finance. The ND programme prepared me for university life, so it wasn’t so difficult adapting to the university system. While I was working, I obtained some other certifications related to my work at the time. I was also able to leverage my work experience, given the level of exposure I had at the time. So, it wasn’t so difficult to achieve all at the same time.
Since you were able to combine all these, would you suggest that students should make extra efforts to earn relevant certifications in addition to their degree?
I think it depends on individuals and how they can combine that with their studies. Some are able to do multiple things at a time, while some are not. It could also be a function of the resources at their disposal. The truth is that exposure matters a lot. I would not have seen the need for these things if I had not mixed with the right people. I always learn from people who have attained an appreciable level of success and have gone past where I am.
What do you find most interesting about the two professions?
As an accountant, you can segue into any profession, from audit to core accounting, tax and other fields. That, for me, is most interesting. Also, as an economist, you improve a lot on your research and analytical skills. One also gets to know how the economic variables interplay to aid stakeholders’ actionable steps. The blend of these two areas of study has helped in sharpening my thought process and building my decision-making skills.
You wrote that you’ve acquired over four years’ progressive experience across several areas like audit, financial analysis, accounting and project management since you graduated. Could you expatiate on that?
After I graduated with a distinction in Accounting from Yaba College of Technology, there was the need to do the compulsory one-year internship. Having waited at home for six months, I applied for an internship role in KPMG Nigeria. I went through the recruitment process, including the assessments and interviews and I aced them all and got the internship placement. After a year, I became a contract employee, and because it was possible for me to work and study at the same time, I enrolled for my degree programme and started studying for my BSc degree. I started my journey to becoming a chartered accountant as well and I put in for weekend classes in 2017. These provided me with a strong foundation needed to build a career and it gave me the much-needed exposure and helped to realign my purpose.
What would you say are the basic things students who desire excellent results must do?
I would say goals should be set right from the start. If there is any student who has yet to do that, it is never too late. The truth is there is no one way to do these things. It is about identifying what works for you and making sure you always set your mind on that goal. Have a plan that will guide your steps towards achieving that which you desire and do a daily assessment of the plan.
You said you mentored some students. Could you tell us about that?
It was more of influencing them positively. At my age, I have had a couple of people tell me, “Mary, you inspire me,” and I think I have a natural ability to care for others, as well as take steps to be of help. I have a couple of younger colleagues and professionals who ask me to be their mentor and that means a lot.
You also wrote that you had done a lot of auditing. What was your most memorable moment in the line of work?
My most memorable moment in the line of my audit work would be a time I had to lead the team on a small engagement. It was exciting. Although it didn’t last long, it allowed me to build my confidence. Liaising with the management staff of the organisation also boosted my esteem. Another highlight for me was working with incredibly smart people. I cannot even stress that enough. These made every engagement exciting.
Would you say you are in your dream profession?
Presently, I love what I do and I’m still in the profession but not exactly the kind of role I aspire to be in. I aspire to be in roles that help to build my data analytical skills and provide financial solutions, while helping management make informed decisions. These are the roles that best suit my current profile. I aspire to dive into the world of financial technology, while providing financial solutions, bearing in mind the rising need for data. I would love to explore the world of finance to be properly equipped and be part of a team that aligns with this.
Where would you like to work?
I would like to work at multinationals and other places where I can learn and be groomed to become a better version of myself.
What bothers you most about Nigeria’s current economic challenges and what solutions would you proffer?
I would say insecurity. We live in a society where everyone is for themselves. This, in a way, cripples economic activities, leading to less productivity, fall in aggregate output and unemployment. Industries would be down and would not be able to recruit new employees. One of the major causes of insecurity is the fact that a lot of people are poor and they are even getting poorer, but people would always look for a way to get out of that penury. Since the Nigerian system does not reward excellence and hard work, there seems to be an incentive for young people to go into wrong things. To solve the problem of insecurity, we need to tackle poverty so insecurity can end and the economy would witness a boost.
Did you create time for social activities or was it all about your studies?
(Laughs) I was the classroom person who needed to always attend lectures. Working, schooling and taking professional exams at the same time did not give me the room for that. Some of my friends could not understand why I pushed myself that hard and some stepped aside along the line. I also got tired of trying to explain to them, but all that has passed now.
Were you in a relationship or you stayed away to avoid distractions?
I wasn’t in a relationship, not necessarily because of my target. Like I mentioned earlier, I combined a couple of things, so I wouldn’t have been committed to any relationship. I knew it was best to remain focused and single.
There are other forms of distractions that students often contend with. How did you manage them?
I would say the goal I had in mind kept me going and that helped me to manage whatever distractions came my way. I could sound like Fela Durotoye here; I feel if you do not have a picture you want to feature in, say short- and long-term, it might be difficult for you to trust the process and embrace everything that comes with it. That picture kept me going. I knew I could be much more than where I was. I authored a book I published in 2019 titled ‘Secrets to Esther’s Favour,’ thanks to friends who made the process easy. I do not like to miss any opportunity to also say thank you to friends and colleagues who, one way or the other, contributed to my success story and made schooling seamless. They were the shoulders to lean on during those challenging times. I mean people like Muiz Yusuf, Tina Eborka and Ayoola Sikiru, to mention but a few. I thank God our paths crossed.
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