Oluwatosin Otitoju: Today’s Leader, Today’s Inspiration
By: Pembi Stephen-David on June 14, 2013 - 3:22am
When she became the Senior Prefect (Girls) of Queen’s College Lagos sometime after her 14th birthday, everyone knew there was more to the slender girl. But no one knew she had some stunning stunts in the offing. A few months down the line, she graduated with the best West African Examinations Council Senior School Certificate Examinations (WAEC/SSCE) result in the nation. That was in 1996. Seven years down the line, she has lost very little of what made her the wonder kid.
Born on May 1, 1981, Oluwatosin Helen Otitoju is perhaps the most decorated young Nigerian of her age.
Having left jaws dropping with her feat in 1996, in June of the same year, she took part in the EESI programme sponsored by NASA and entered the Howard University to study Electrical Engineering in 1997. She went on to shatter records at the Howard University, graduating Summa Cum Laude (First Class) in Electrical Engineering and becoming the first ever Howard graduate recipient of the Poincaré Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology for post-graduate studies.
In 2001, she began her doctorate programme, but after a short time, she abandoned the idea, insisting that she had learned enough.
“I was satisfied that I had learned a lot and by that time there was a mismatch between what a PhD is about – deep research into a small topic – and my broader goals. I didn’t have a strong research interest or a clear path to the PhD. On the other hand, I had developed strong interests outside my PhD and was pining to explore them. Put it another way, I had overdosed on elite science and wanted a change of diet. Some people call this whole thing “burnout”.
Anyway, it’s a complex and popular PhD disease… There are not so many places where you find such intellectual density. It’s so super amazing, but it’s very irritating too because there’s nobody else. Nobody you can talk to and share problems with. No church, not many religious people, no buffers – people who care. No real community – everybody’s just really, really, smart…really, really, competitive… After you go to a place like that, you appreciate women. In the absence of this oiling, and the people who say “how was your day?” and pay attention, the world wouldn’t work. People didn’t understand me, I didn’t understand them, but I knew that I was in an amazing learning experience and the emotional climate there was horrible.” She took a bow in 2006, after some good advice from well-meaning friends.
In 2004, she received a national merit award (FRM) from the Nigerian government and two years later received the Young Person of the Year Award at The Future Awards 2006.
In 2009, she had a teaching stint at the University of Technology, Yola, Adamawa State. A juicy appointment with the Department of Systems Engineering, University of Lagos followed. Presently, she works with Bells University of Science and Technology. An Associate of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative, she holds a Master’s degree in Control and Dynamical Systems from Caltech.
In 2010, she published a collection of poems called Comrade. Another collection, Yalla! followed a year later. Yalla is Arabic for “Let’s Go!” And it was while she was in Yemen that she got the inspiration for the book.
On the last day of 2007, Otitoju left the United States and in 2008, a job in Egypt beckoned. She worked in Cairo at a Software company for six months. “It is very good for the soul,” she claimed. ”There is so much sunshine there and the people are warm. I love the Middle East, not necessarily Egypt. I loved Egypt, but I love Yemen more. I will do my honeymoon in Yemen, if I ever marry someone.” One thing is certain: nothing matches her love for life like her love for Yemen.
Though Otitoju was born and bred in Lagos’ Tin Can Island, she hates the atmosphere in Lagos. “I am not a Lagosian,” she stated, “because the gra-gra is so much. I love the North more, because I prefer rural life: It is a a learning experience.”
But the young academic is scandalized by the utter neglect of the country’s young. For her, it is a criminal offence. “We have to take better care of our young people, not the criminal neglect that exists. Care for our youth includes providing for their food and security, but it also includes their social and economic development, which is ensured by sound education. Nowadays you still see classrooms in Nigerian universities with hundreds of students – this is an insult to the students, it shows a lack of care.”
This was part of what drove her into poetry. “I had just returned to Nigeria and felt sad about the society I was seeing. We had not united to improve our lives – no wonder things were so bad that we did not have simple electric power, let alone justice or prosperity. Not only was there a lot of work to be done to build the society, but also all the people were not busy building.
Then I went to Yola for NYSC, and it was so dreamy and peaceful that I started writing tonnes of poetry. I decided the first collection, where I put all the political-, or struggle-, themed poems had to be called Comrade. The word evokes images of coming together and acknowledging a shared struggle. We struggle because we want better, and there is no shame in it. It seems the Nigerian youth today has got that message actually.“
She even has something she would have done if she was president. ”If I was the president of Nigeria, I would ask Ernest Ndukwe, formerly of NCC – the telecoms regulator – to spearhead the deregulation of the Electric Power Industry. Since I am not the president of Nigeria, I am asking him to do so. We are lucky to have several great talents in this country, yet, so often, we do not respect the importance of the right person in the right job.”
While at Caltech, Otitoju was actively involved in Caltech Theater Arts (2002-2006) as an actress in five full productions, including Molière’s The Misanthrope, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and As You Like It, and modern works: Inspiration by Iona Morris and Krishna by Sid Jaggi of OASIS.
As an engineer, she has worked in process and quality engineering in companies in the Middle East, Nigeria, and the USA. During the 2011 election season, she led the Digital team at 234next.com.
Tosin is a blogger, too. She owns www.LifeLib.blogspot.com,REALbubbler, BokoHalal, UpNaira, Nigeria News Buka, and a popular mathematics blog.
Otitoju may be a goal-getter, but she has one dream which, for all her determination, she might not achieve. “I want to marry Rafael Nadal – tough one, he has a lovely girlfriend. “
Who says today’s leaders were not born yesterday? Otitoju is a leader in her own right and that is one thing no one can take away from her. That march-into-class song: “Parents pay our school fees, we are the leaders of tomorrow, parents pay our school fees and give us sound education,” has never been more true. It did shape Miss Otitoju into the world-class brain she is today. As a result, not a few girl-children would love to be like her.