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UVA Student Persisted in Bringing YWLP to Nigeria

Daughters of the Fatherland

Nigeria is home to many young women as the most populous country in Africa with almost half of the inhabitants being women and roughly half of the population aged 15 years old or younger.
While the patriarchal country has had significant moments of women’s rights and feminist movements since its pre-independence days, the fight for female equality is still an issue today.

Recent coverage of Nigeria in the news has shown the social and political forces that affect Nigerian women, such as the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014 and the recent deaths of 26 Nigerian girls migrating to Europe. But the reality of the most prevalent issues facing women is not always seen by the public. My personal knowledge of the country’s gender disparity inspired me to bring YWLP to my home country. I saw a significant lack of access to mentoring opportunities that are based on leadership development and self-empowerment for Nigerian women and girls.

Closed Doors, Open Windows

Prior to applying to YWLP, I wanted to engage with an outlet that would help me serve young girls in the Charlottesville community. When I saw that I missed the deadline to apply for the Women’s Center Internship Program, I unexpectedly found my way to YWLP. I applied to the YWLP program and was accepted as a mentor, providing the perfect opportunity to serve girls in the Charlottesville community. It’s true what they say-when one door closes, another one opens! In taking the required course, “Issues Facing Adolescent Girls,” offered through the Curry School of Education, and experiencing the program itself, I always found joy learning about the essential mentoring and leadership skills that helped me build my bond with my little sister.

A month into the program, I approached Dr. Edith (Winx) Lawrence, the co-founder of YWLP, with the idea of starting a sister site in Nigeria. Having learned of previous Jefferson Public Citizens (JPC) grants for YWLP international sister sites to be established, I made it a goal of mine to apply for the grant. With a team of four other women that were in the YWLP course with me, and Winx as our faculty advisor, we started building our proposal for JPC.

In the midst of the excitement around this opportunity, I was reminded that UVA follows the Travel Warning List of the U.S. Department of State in all academic-related travels abroad for its students. Taking a quick scroll through the list, I was surprised and disappointed to find Nigeria on the list. Since YWLP Nigeria was anticipated to start in Imo State, located in the south-eastern part of the country, I argued against the travel warning restriction, noting the distance from areas of conflict in Northern Nigeria.

I couldn’t let the Travel Warning deter me from applying for JPC grant, so we continued our work as if that restriction didn’t exist.

A rule of thumb worth noting about Nigeria is that connections are everything when it comes to creating a bond of business and understanding. Thus, our next objective was to find community partners to create a connection around female empowerment. My auntie, Stella Egekenze, was the support line throughout the whole application process. She helped my JPC team and I connect with Imo State University (IMSU) and Owerri Girls Secondary School. Both institutions provided amazing letters of support for us to include in the JPC application.

It was a true blessing when I opened the email that the JPC proposal for YWLP Nigeria was approved. Despite the good news, there was still much effort being carried out to be approved for travel. When we found out we would not be approved for travel, we came up with an alternative plan in order to keep my dream alive.

After hearing ideas from my father, I proposed to Winx and the JPC team that we invite a select group of female students from IMSU to learn about YWLP at UVA. With positive responses, I made plans in hopes of traveling to Nigeria over the the summer to visit the university there.

Coming to Naija

I was able to travel with my dad to Nigeria shortly after the Spring 2017 semester ended. Prior to traveling, I was in contact with Professor Valentine Obinna, the Director of Research and Linkages, and Dr. Mrs. Philomena Ugo, a senior staff member of the Student Affairs Department. On May 30 2017, what I assumed would be a small meeting with adults turned into assembly of students gathering to hear me introduce YWLP to their school.

Accompanied by my auntie Stella, my dad, and my uncle Chinedu, I introduced myself, shared my hopes for the program, and announced that I would select a number of students to be the pioneers of the program.

During the Q&A session, there was a moment I will never forget. One of the male students asked me how competent I was to be bringing such an initiative to their school, considering I have never lived in Nigeria. I hesitated before answering, because the last I checked, I’m a Nigerian girl to the core. I told him that I’ve never lost sight of where I’m from, despite living in the States for the majority of my life.

My upbringing may give the perception that I can be labeled as “Americanized Nigerian,” but I simply see myself as a determined person who wants the best for the development of my country. The applause of the audience following my response gave me reassurance. As I still reflect about this student and his question, I wonder what would have happened if I replied in Nigerian Pidgin English (just to prove my “naijaness”).

Days later, I revisited IMSU to conduct interviews with potential Big Sisters that would travel to UVA for a YWLP experience. After interviewing 16 women, asking pertinent questions about the issues facing Nigerian girls and what mentoring means to them, I chose four students to represent IMSU for the JPC trip to Charlottesville. Their responses truly inspired me and I was ecstatic about the women in the group.

The Nigeria trip was the root of a growing initiative, truly the start of an impactful change for the better. This is just the beginning of a hopeful future for tomorrow’s leaders of Nigeria!

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