NEEDHAM, Massachusetts — In 2018, Tolulope Olasewere left her home in Lagos, Nigeria for Cambridge, Massachusetts to start her first year at Harvard University. During her international orientation, the orientation leaders read out every country that the Harvard freshman hailed from. As the leaders read each country’s name, the students from that country cheered and shouted for their homes. However, Olasewere found herself to be the only one cheering at the call for Nigeria. She had seen other African students, but it became clear that they were mostly East Africans. She was the only student from Nigeria, which is in West Africa.
A year later, when Ife Adeogun, also from Lagos, started her first year at Yale University, she encountered a similar situation. Eager to get to know her fellow African classmates, she joined the Yale African Students Alliance. Like Olasewere, she found a strong population of East Africans and almost no Nigerians.
Through conversations with East African students at their respective universities, Adeogun and Olasewere began to learn. The duo discovered African college access programs such as Bridge2Rwanda, USAP and KenSAP. All of these programs helped East African students access American education and opportunities outside of their home countries. However, no dedicated college access program worked to serve first-generation low-income (FGLI) Nigerian youth. Olasewere spoke to The Borgen Project in an interview. She said, “There was a gap in the market and one that needed to be filled.” Thus, Olasewere and Adeogun founded BUILD Nigeria in 2020 in order to correct what they had seen.
What is BUILD Nigeria?
As stated in its mission, BUILD Nigeria is a “non-profit NGO that [is]dedicated to bridging the college access gap in Nigeria” by providing “credible and comprehensive resources and personalized guidance” for low-income students in the application process to top universities. The organization focuses on financial aid for its students.
After founding BUILD in the summer, Adeogun and Olasewere have been busy creating a team of valued advisors, building their curriculum, creating a financial model and recruiting students for their first year of programming. This resulted in an impressive number of applications from high-achieving Nigerian youth, eager to continue their education and improve their home country. After rounds of interviews and testing, Adeogun and Olasewere selected the first few students for BUILD Nigeria.
What BUILD Nigeria Works Toward
Currently, the students are immersed in BUILD Nigeria’s Cohort Program. The program acts as a one-year holistic experience in which the students receive access to information, resources and personalized guidance. They work with a one-on-one mentor about applying to American colleges with the goal of securing admission and full-financial aid. After admission to a college, BUILD Nigeria does not abandon its students. It continues to provide a strong community for students to rely on. Additionally, it also includes programming on how to deal with culture shock and imposter syndrome at their new universities.
The goal of BUILD Nigeria is to invest in Nigerian youth and provide them with opportunities that do not exist in their home country. By opening these new doors, Nigerian students can go on to achieve their goals and invest back in their country. As the organization’s website states, “It is our hope that one day BUILD Nigeria will no longer need to exist because Nigeria itself will be home to world-class educational institutions available to every single Nigerian student and capable of creating the leaders that we know we deserve.”
Nigeria’s Economy and Education
Nigeria’s economy heavily depends on the oil market. Nigeria went into a deep recession after crude oil prices significantly dropped between 2014 to 2016. This recession caused and exacerbated many problems, including health and economic issues along with “high illiteracy rates.” The crisis led to slashed education budgets, resulting in increased tuition paired with poor infrastructure. By 2015, the adult literacy rate had dropped to 59.6% from 85.3% in 2010.
In primary education, some argue that the system prioritizes memorization instead of critical thinking with little emphasis on problem-solving. Higher education struggles under overwhelming and unmet demand. As a result, students might have to take much longer than the expected four years to graduate.
The Need for BUILD: The Nigerian Education System
Adeogun and Olasewere formed BUILD Nigeria as a result of Nigeria’s educational landscape. Having grown up in Nigeria, both had firsthand experience with the shortcomings of the system. Olasewere told The Borgen Project, “It’s really, really difficult to explain what happens in […] Nigerian schools to people who have not had firsthand experience. Olasewere spent her entire youth in Nigerian schools before attending Harvard. She described it as awful. Adeogun added that they are aware “of the fact that Nigerian schools are not serving their students the way that they should.” This is core to the mission of BUILD Nigeria.
In Nigeria, 60% of the population is younger than 24. As a result, many college applicants simply cannot attend university in the country’s current system. The room to successfully accommodate and educate everyone does not yet exist. Even as the population wants education, the opportunity remains inaccessible, and as BUILD’s founders contend, the curriculum excludes critical thinking.
The founders of BUILD Nigeria seek to address this. Olasewere explains BUILD as a “college readiness program that helps students start developing skills” to enter college “so that they can achieve their aspirations and do so in a very competitive, dynamic world.” BUILD Nigeria is here to help alleviate some of the shortcomings of Nigeria’s educational shortcomings and failures.
BUILD Nigeria and Alleviating Poverty
In addition to its struggling education system, almost 50% of Nigeria’s total population lives in extreme poverty. However, with improved education comes economic growth, improved public health, reduced income inequality and countless more benefits as educated citizens invest back in their country. As education rates increase, countries can start to rise out of poverty.
This extreme poverty surrounds Nigerian children. BUILD Nigeria provides Nigerian students with an opportunity for themselves and their communities. BUILD Nigeria works so that its students can do more than escape poverty for themselves. Rather, it works so students can take their education and invest it back in Nigeria as leaders.
BUILD Nigeria looks to create a new future for low-income, first-generation Nigerian students. “If the education system is broken, students shouldn’t just remain in those systems. We need to give them the opportunity to go to schools they deserve to be in. We need to help them reach their aspirations.” With BUILD Nigeria, Adeogun and Olasewere are unlocking Nigerian potential while providing a strong community, improved education and confidence for their students. As Adeogun concluded, “Nigerian students deserve it.”
– Georgia Bynum
Photo: Courtesy of Build Nigeria