Health & Education

A bend in the road is not the end of the road

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…It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? – Marianne Williamson.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” Our teacher asked. The scene was a kindergarten class. Hands sprouted in the air like mushrooms eagerly breaking from the dark and dingy world below…except for myself. “You have not raised your hand,” she pointed out referring to me. I nodded affirmatively, barely breathing, as fear threatened to crush my windpipe. “Well, you don’t even know the alphabets, so how are you supposed to know what you want to do with your life?” She added sarcastically. A raucous laughter erupted as my classmates relished her remark, which left me plummeting further into fear and bewilderment. That is a literal depiction of the first bend I encountered on the road of my academic journey. I am Dr. Victor C. Ujor, an Assistant Professor of Bioenergy at the Agricultural Technical Institute of The Ohio State University.

One of the most profound lessons I have learned in life is that a bend in the road is not the end of the road. When we are caught up in the mires of life, which are bound to come at some point, it is difficult to see ourselves beyond our current situation. Thankfully, the adversities that life seems to relish placing in our paths often come to pass, eventually. When I was approached by the Loretta Reveals Team to share my story on this platform, the gullies and valleys that paved way for me to get here came to mind. Before delving into those, let me share a bit more on what I do.

Today, I teach courses bordering on technologies for producing biologically-derived energy and biological wastewater treatment and the science behind each of them. My research work is centred on the use of metabolic engineering to restructure bacterial behaviour, and in so doing, coax them into producing certain biofuels more abundantly, or to more rapidly detoxify toxic compounds and/or remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater.

Young Victor is in the centre in this throwback photo

Young Victor is in the centre in this throwback photo

While in elementary school, I wanted to be a lawyer because one of my heroes in life, my oldest brother is a lawyer. By the time I was in secondary school at National Grammar School Nike, Enugu, I realized that I had a flair for sciences, which eventually took me to Special Science School in Ihe-Awgu; hence, I ditched law. At this point, my desire was to be a medical doctor. However, over time, I realized that I did not quite enjoy hospital environments. Nevertheless, I assured myself that I would get used to them. After I failed to make it to medical school, I began to search my soul as to whether I really wanted to study medicine. I had the option of either having another shot at Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) Examination or studying something else, of which Biochemistry and Geology where at the top of the list. My parents hungered for a doctor son, so they urged me to try JAMB again. Deep down, I was not convinced that I was cut out for medicine. At this point, a family friend lent me a copy of Time magazine where I read about the fascinating world of bacterial physiology. I was literally gripped!!! From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to study the minuscule world of tiny organisms that can be man’s best friend (after dogs, I guess) and his worst enemy depending on which one you encounter, and where. Like a workhorse, I ploughed assiduously into the field of Microbiology, planting, weeding and harvesting. In some seasons, harvests were plentiful, and in other cases, harvests seemed miserable…for a while. Now, let me share with you the ups and downs I have encountered in my journey thus far, which I have dubbed bends in the road.

Bend No. 1: As I described earlier, as child I had extreme difficulties with learning, which made me look and feel like a square peg in a round hole at school. At the slightest opportunity, I ran away from school, hiding in the back street corners where no one could find me until school was over. My parents and older siblings preached the essence of education to me relentlessly. My teacher used stringent measures in a well-intended effort to make me learn and be like other pupils. Her measures only served to drive me further away from school. One day, my oldest brother sat me down and began to teach me how to read. With persistent love he kept at it and eventually, I learned how to read. He lifted the veil that had been over my eyes and allowed me to see the world for what it is. I can say that he succeeded in making an addict of me – a reading addict, as I strove to catch up on everything I had been missing. I read signs in the streets like a mad fellow, twisting my neck to capture everything. I picked up dirty, mangled pieces of paper from the street corners and physically ‘deconvoluted’ them piece by piece in a frenzied effort to read whatever that was scribbled on each piece. My brother empowered a confused and scared little boy by offering him lenses; a new pair of eyes, with which to navigate his world – I have not looked back ever since.

Bend No. 2: For as long as I can remember, I always nursed the ambition to study abroad. I knew the most practical way to achieve that from a cost standpoint was through a scholarship. From my first day in school at the Enugu State University where I read Microbiology, I had a dream to leave school with a first class, as a means to obtaining a scholarship abroad. The first time I shared my dream with one of my lecturers in first year, he laughed it off as ludicrous. “It has never been done before in this department…In fact, in the whole faculty since the inception of the university. You had better focus on a goal more achievable else, you’d burn yourself out,” he advised me with a fair degree of certainty that my goal was beyond my reach. It was Les Brown who said, “Don’t let someone else’s opinion of you become your reality.” I chose to ignore his well-meaning advice and went about my pursuit as if I never had a chat with him.

Shortly afterwards, another lecturer encouraged me to go for it! On the flip side, my first year result fell way short of my target, leaving me with a massive catch up to do for the rest of my time in university. Despite that, I was not in any mood to give up and pack up. It was Jack Canfield and Mack Victor Hansen, the authors of the award-winning, New York Times Best Seller series, ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ who said, “In every pursuit, don’t think of failure, instead, think of the chances you miss when you don’t try at all.” I chose to hang onto faith and plough away one year and semester at a time. Thankfully, four years later, I managed to achieve my goal, having bagged first class honors in Microbiology, thus, ending a ten-year drought since the inception of the university; a feat that once seemed insurmountable.

Bend No. 3: Basking in the euphoria of my academic achievement after graduation, the Nigerian job market quickly cured me of that ailment – euphoria, that is. Contrary to my ill-informed notion that jobs would come chasing after me; I found myself jobless for quite some time. Soon, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) began to recruit, so I quickly sent in an application. Just about everyone I knew was invited for the NNPC test except me. I was utterly distraught at the injustice. I had been under the impression that my academic performance would earn me a place on the shortlist. Not in this case!!! However, a night before the NNPC test, I got a mysterious call out of the blues informing me that there had been a mistake. I ought to have been shortlisted for the test, I was told by some lady from the NNPC head office. I was told that a certain person would attend to me at University of Lagos (UNILAG) the next day. Delighted and relieved, I hurried down to UNILAG the next morning. Well, the person I was supposed to meet was nowhere to be found and none of the organizers knew who she was, if she actually existed, so I was not allowed to take the test. As I dragged my bruised self out of UNILAG filled with righteous indignation, a former classmate rang to inform me that my name was being called out at NESTLE where she had just taken a test. I had applied to NESTLE but I never really heard back from them. Surprised, I rushed to NESLTE Foods the next morning, only to be told that there was nothing they could do for me. “We sent you a letter several weeks ago,” they insisted. In one day I missed to key tests…painfully and mysteriously too.

Somehow, I managed to keep going; not without a massive dose of disappointment though. Soon, I got in touch with a Federal Government Research Facility near Jos, Plateau State. Thankfully, I was invited for an interview, which went well. I was offered the job and told to resume a few weeks later. I arrived in Jos from Lagos on the day I was asked to resume, having taken a night bus. I had a taxi driver waiting outside with my belongings as I made frantic efforts to obtain keys to my quarters. To my greatest disappointment, they told me that my offer of employment was no longer valid. Somehow, the rules had changed and nobody bothered to inform me not to travel all the way to Jos from Lagos. Well, I made my way back to Lagos after hours of unproductive arguments. I ended up working for a bank in Lagos; the one thing I had been keen to avoid by all means. I used to wake up at 4:00AM in the morning and worked until 10:00PM at night. By the time I got home it was midnight, and the cycle continued. Somehow, I kept my passion for science alive, scouring the internet for scholarships abroad. In 2005 The University of Westminster in London, UK offered me a full scholarship to undertake a master’s degree in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology. On completing my master’s degree with Distinction (First Class), my scholarship was extended by the university, thereby allowing me to undertake a PhD in Microbial Biotechnology.

Bend No. 4: Whereas my master’s scholarship had been a full scholarship that entitled me to accommodation, free tuition and living expenses, my PhD scholarship covered only my tuition. The tuition in itself was quite a fortune, so I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. A few weeks into the program, I was stuck. I shuttled between the streets of London and the lab as I desperately searched for a job to help keep a roof over my head while I studied. My efforts met with staunch opposition week in week out, leaving me more in the streets than in the lab. The first half of my first year PhD was particularly abysmal, to say the least. Soon, I was being warned that if my performance and attendance did not improve, there would be severe consequences. As if on cue, I managed to find part-time work that only just covered my living expenses. I had to dig in deep to keep up with seemingly never-ending research and part-time work. It was a real rat race working in the lab and peering at the clock intermittently to make sure I was not late for work. About 3:00PM, I would dash out of the lab and ran all the way to work. By 11:00PM, I returned from work to the lab to finish up my experiments. Often, I stayed in the lab with a dear friend and colleague, now Dr. Bernard Anani until 2 -3 AM. This went on almost seven days a week, for three and a half years. As God would have it, I graduated on schedule with a doctorate degree in Microbial Biotechnology.

PhD accomplished. Victor is the middle person again in this picture

PhD accomplished. Victor is the middle person again in this picture

Even on the tightest of angles, a steady focus on the road ahead and the desire to get up and fight one more time, allow me to reload and take on the challenges that life throws at me. Every now and again, I look in the rear view mirror to remind myself of the many bends I have negotiated, for which I am immensely thankful to God. I do this mainly through writing. Away from science, I do a lot of writing. Writing allows me to tell the stories of folks who quietly take on giants every day in their worlds, away from prying eyes with tears and sweat, pain, passion and joy despite their adversities. Currently, I write for www.moofyme.com; the fastest-growing story-telling hub on the net that publishes inspiring, spellbinding, and mesmeric tales every day on love, action, horror, epic African/Nigerian tales and politics, among other genres.

Victor first from left and his friends, often at home in the laboratory

Victor first from left and his friends, often at home in the laboratory

When the Loretta Reveals Team got the e-manuscript of the “Bends”, we each read it and one of us decided that we do a quick vote for our most inspiring aspect of the story. 40% of us voted for Victor’s brother and his labour of love watered with countless buckets of patience in “Bend 1”. This man tenaciously ensured he did not give up on his brother. He opened the window of his mind by teaching him how to read. He started the chain reaction of knowledge acquisition that till date, no life challenge has been able to halt.

A further 30% voted for the lecturer in “Bend 2” who stated ‘You had better focus on a goal more achievable else, you’d burn yourself out burn out’. This was one of the key catalysts that continue to accelerate Victor’s drive to keep using his acquired knowledge in surmounting life obstacles whenever they arise. They pointed out that Victor ‘has resolved never to burn out’ but rather, to “stand out”.

The final 30% went to NNPC and the other disappointments in “Bend 3”. The more NNPC and the other disappointments made success a mirage, the more determined Victor became to make success a reality. He worked harder, even went “right round the bend” to take some more tortuous route like working in the bank before coming back onto the track that led to his projected end point.

So, Victor’s oldest brother got the highest votes! What does that tell us? It means we all need that person – that “uncommon mentor” as Mike Murdock calls it. That one person who believes in you even before you begin to believe in your own self. That man or woman, with the uncommon vision and the uncommon patience to nurture your inadequacies, turning them into the uncommon fuel that will help propel you beyond every possible “Bend” that you encounter in life.

Well-done Dr. Victor C. Ujor. That boy who could not even read the alphabets in school has now metamorphosed into an Assistant Professor of Bioenergy at the Agricultural Technical Institute of The Ohio State University.

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