As the youngest of nine children in a polygamous Nigerian family, Ola Tony-Obot was expected from an early age to learn a trade braiding hair and forget her education.
But refusing to give up on her ambitions, Ola set herself on a path that would finally see her standing on the stage at the Stadium of Light this month picking up a First Class degree inHealth and Social Care, awarded by the University of Sunderland.
It may have taken Ola until the age of 42 to finally succeed, but she says the struggle has been worth it and she hopes other girls back home in Nigeria will view her as a role model.
Ola says: “I should have given up a long time ago when my father died at age three and I was told by my family to forget education and learn a trade. Only I could see a different path in life for me and I refused, but was considered a rebel by everyone around me.
“Now hopefully they can all see this is what I have been longing for. It’s not because I’m stubborn, I just saw more for myself. Getting a First Class degree is heaven to me and I would say to women back home ‘never give up’!”
Ola’s journey began with her love of writing when she secretly applied to study a diploma with The Nigerian Institute of Journalism. She passed the entrance exam and was offered place, only to find herself in need of the tuition fee. She managed to persuade her older sisters to pay the £50 fee, but still had no money for books or transport, walking almost 14 miles every day for two year to make her classes on time.
However, she passed with flying colours and applied for a job covering sports journalism with the Lagos State Broadcasting Corporation. After her audition, she was asked to start work the next day. For the next 10 years she worked on the radio station, travelling to Australia to cover the Olympics in 2000, South Africa to cover the World Cup, as well as reporting on the Nigeria and Ghana 2000 Nations Cup.
Ola explained: “There were no women in sports journalism at the time and I felt privilege to be doing the job. At the same time I had to study for my HND in Mass Communication, which I paid for through my job. It was a huge challenge, but was a continuation of the education I loved so much.”
It was during her time with the station that she met her husband, Tony, also a journalist, and the couple had two daughters, Dikan, 13, and Akem, 11. Tony was incredibly supportive of her dream to study a health-related degree and agreed to pay for her tuition fees, when she met staff from the University of Sunderland, during a visit to a UK Universities’ expo.
“I knew absolutely nothing about Sunderland, but the Health and Social Care degree course seemed perfect for me and the location – a city by the sea – was very attractive.”
Despite a shaky start in her first year, struggling with the course, the language and a different way of life, and on the verge of quitting without her family by her side, her tutors convinced her to keep going.
As a result she went on to become the Students’ Union Equality and Diversity Officer (2014-15), volunteered as her class student rep for three years, has volunteered for the BBC covering the Sunderland Airshow two years’ running, continued supporting St Benedict’s Hospice in Sunderland, following a university placement, and complete the University of Sunderland Professional Award (SuPA) – designed to develop employability skills.
But the icing on the cake for Ola has been achieving her much longed for First Class Honours degree.
She said: “If I had not gone to school I would never have realised I had a first class brain, it would have died with me! Hopefully my experience has given my own girls the confidence to say ‘if mum can do it, then I can do it’. This has fired them up to do really well; they have no excuse not to! You need women standing up for the rights of other women, I was called a rebel and felt like everyone had turned against me, but I believed in myself and knew one day I would do something special. I feel so proud and so happy.”
Dr Lesley Deacon, a senior lecturer in Applied Social Studies and Social Work, said: “What can I say about Ola…? To me she has been an exceptional student and an inspirational example to all. Ola came to the university with an excitement and intention to take every opportunity that was on offer – and that is exactly what she did. She has achieved so much over the last three years and I know her enthusiasm will continue and she will positively impact on anything she applies herself to in the future.”
Ola has now been accepted onto the Masters in Social Workdegree at Sunderland for the next two, and plans to eventually become a social worker.