For the average American, attending Harvard is a very tall dream; for Nigerians, however, the dream is twice as tall. Regardless, Destiny did it.
Growing up in the trenches and attending a relatively poor school, little Destiny had no idea that he’d one day attend Harvard. In this episode of #MoneyRise, he tells us about his journey, beating all odds to get there, and what attending Harvard feels like.
What was growing up like?
Growing up was okay. I only look back and talk about it now as having grown up comparatively poorer than many of my contemporaries. If you give birth to a child now, and you’re in the trenches, and all his friends are in the trenches, your child wouldn’t wake up thinking, “oh, we’re so broke.” As long as you’re paying his school fees, giving him food, he plays football with his friends in the sand, bathes in the rain, the child will be happy. This is because children don’t typically know if they are poor. A child begins to know his family is poor when he leaves the most comfortable zone he’s been in, meets other people, and compares his life to others. When he has something to compare against, in a negative way, he begins to feel inferior. He realises that he’s probably from a place where they don’t have what it takes to look that way. The more comparisons he makes, the more he realises who he is and his social stratification.
Yes. My point is that I had a normal upbringing for a person who grew up in the settlement that I did. I could perhaps say that I experienced three different stages growing up. Childhood experience was basically waking up to normal routines, going to school, playing the local type of football in the sand, and stuff like that. But the older I grew, the more I realised we were in a terrible social situation. The realisation dawned on me when we changed schools because it became increasingly problematic for my dad to cater to all our school fees. My siblings and I had to go to another significantly cheaper school. Being around the new students, I saw that they were different from those in the school I was from, which was comparatively better. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was relatively better. From there, things took a downward spiral. I grew up in one of the harshest environments in Benin. They call it Sakponba. It’s probably the Edo state equivalent of Mushin in Lagos.
How does one go from a place like Sakponba to Harvard?
I would ascribe most of it to the quality of the conversations I had with my dad at a very young age. Although the conversations may have been few, as my dad was not always around, they shaped my mind. As a parent, beyond having money, one of the things you should never neglect is taking time to expand your children’s imaginations. They must be able to stand with their contemporaries and feel that regardless of their social stratification, they’re still up there through the accumulation of knowledge and utilisation of their intellect. My father understood that. I remember when I was still early in primary school, he’d sit with my siblings and me and talk about Shakespeare, literature, arts, and history. Not that these things directly impacted us, as you can see that I’m not a literature scholar, but they broadened our minds. They put us in a mental space that made us feel like we had enough stuff and material to give to the world, much more than we even realised at the time.
I remember when things took a downward spiral, as I mentioned earlier, and we were so broke. We would travel to the village after school closed for the holiday. There, I’d see proper village kids who had not even gone to school and mostly slept in mud houses with no beds or electricity. They would wake up and go straight to the farm or river. It was a different life from what I was used to. Whenever we went to the village, we’d go to the cassava farm to help my grandma. While I integrated easily into the setting, I never felt like I belonged there, nor did any of the conversations diminish my sense of wonder. Again, I attribute this sense of imagination and self-expectations to the quality of conversations I had growing up.
I say this because children are generally perceptive. They imagine things, and the ideals they come up with become the yardstick for self-measure. It is the job of their teachers, parents, or guardians to nurture that sense of imagination during the formative years of the kids in their custody. Ideals are essential. You see how children love cartoons; or stories of superheroes. They visualise these fantasies, and these fantasies inspire the deployment of their enormous potentials. Kids need those ideals to work with. It’s just like how Christianity or Christ is the ideal against whom we measure our sense of humanity or morality. Like Fyodor Dostoevsky, a philosopher I admire, said, “without God, life is chaos.” He essentially meant that without a spiritual idea to guide us, our energies would dissipate. It’s like entropy. And if you remember, the second law of thermodynamics basically tells us that when entropy is left unchecked, systems will dissolve into chaos. So it’s not a question of whether God is real or not real. People have an ideal they imagine as an internal guide that helps measure their actions. For kids, this imagination has to be developed in a way that makes them feel powerful – like the characters in the cartoons they watch. The ideals may be fantasies, but they’re essential. They teach children that a lot of things are possible. If you constrain a child’s imagination, they may never make it. A child who grew up in Mushin will never get into Harvard. Children need to dream brightly, and they need help in shaping these imaginations. A potent way to help is to broaden their knowledge, feed their curiosities, and empower them with words that give them a sense of self-replenishing belief in their potential. And that is something my dad was able to impact on us at a very young age.
What was your dream growing up?
Different things, actually. There was one time I thought I was going to be a zoologist. Lol. I had a few dogs I was caring for. I would also go to the market to buy native rabbits and pigeons, construct cages, and keep them all there. But the truth is that I didn’t want to be a zoologist. I was just a dreamer; I always felt I could do anything. I was like that rebellious child, bubbling with a lot of potential. I didn’t know how to channel it, so I was trying my hands on everything. I didn’t have a particular thing I was sure I wanted to do. I never dreamt of being a lawyer. I only had one lawyer uncle, and we started talking when I was already far in secondary school. So growing up, I did not exactly dream of being a lawyer.
My uncle eventually made me see that I could be a lawyer, which I don’t regret as I’m doing a pretty good job at it. But Law was never part of the initial plan.
What was Law like in UNIBEN?
It was amazing. I enjoyed reading and understanding what it was, even though I wasn’t passionate about practising it, especially in the formative days of my university life at UNIBEN. But I loved studying the course and what people had to say about it. I found it fascinating and challenging. I had a fantastic time at UNIBEN.
Interesting! How did you feel graduating top of the class, the first one in many years.
Surreal. There are not enough words to express that feeling. It was a memorable day when I got the news that I had made a first-class. It was surreal. I remember that some students were writing exams that day at the faculty of law, UNIBEN. I remember how many students ran out of their exam halls as the news spread through the faculty. The lady, who was the first ever to have a first-class in law, had long left the faculty. So every single person at the time had not seen it happen at all. I was the first person they saw do it, so it was crazy. The happiness in the faces of many is hard to erase. I actually broke down into tears because it was too much for me. It is an experience to remember.
Was there a point you ever thought you weren’t going to finish with a first class?
Yeah, absolutely. That happened in my 400L. It was the only time I had less than a first-class GPA. From 100L to my 500L, I was top of my class, and I always ended the session with a first-class GPA. 100L was a 4.9 GPA, 200L 4.7 GPA, and 300L was a 4.8, and it kept going on, except for 400L when I got a 4.1. It was the most challenging level for all of us. And it was the only level when I did not get an A in a law course in both semesters (I got 2 Bs in my Law of Evidence). Usually, I’d have As in my law courses in both first and second semesters or at least an A in one of the semesters. But 400L was different. That made me question my chances of having a first-class because it was then that I had become very intentional about it. And then, you hear some people make snide remarks like, “Hm. Let’s wait till you get to 400L,” not because they do not want the best for you, but because it’s just their reality. 400L is typically tough for everyone. So when I got to 400L and dropped to a 4.1, I doubted if I would still make a first-class. But I picked myself up in my final year and made a perfect 5.0, which cumulatively gave me a first-class CGPA.
Impressive. You’re clearly one of those people with “two heads.” What was law school like?
*Laughs. Law school was easier compared to UNIBEN. I didn’t feel so much pressure until exams drew closer. I was generally just relaxed. I felt less pressure and was just reading, having fun, and enjoying the experience. It was amazing. Easy for me to say anyway, but that is just the truth.
You mentioned not being passionate about practising law, so what did you do after you were done?
I actually practised. That was even the highlight of my professional and academic trajectory, using my impressive academic background to get into a good law firm and then practising in the areas I enjoyed. I was in the energy & natural resources practice group of Banwo & Ighodalo for roughly three years. It’s an internationally recognised corporate law firm that advises blue chip companies and top corporations on some of the most market-defining transactions. I did quite well, I guess, and even got promoted before leaving my former place of work. I am always grateful for the experience. I did a lot of corporate work at the highest level in Nigeria, shaping and preparing me for the place I am now – Harvard.
Quite inspiring. How do you handle the pressure of finishing with a first class and everyone’s expectation of the best from you?
Well, I generally don’t pay so much attention to that. The people who expect the best from you cannot define the best. What exactly is the best? You can make all As and think it cannot get better than that, but someone comes some weeks or years later and makes all As in 5mins. The point is that there is always something ahead. There’s always something going to beat what you’re doing, so I don’t put pressure on myself. I came here with nothing; there’s technically nothing to lose. As humans, all we’re trying to do here is make sense of the many cards we’re dealt. I’m driven because I want to reach that point where I can freely choose to do the things I love. The freedom to truly choose our passions is the ultimate ambition. That’s the end goal. When you have that end goal, you can deal with everything along the way. All the pressures won’t matter as long as you achieve your end goal. You can decide to go down freely or stay up there. That’s how I handle the pressure; I choose what matters, prioritise them and ignore the rest.
Tell us about Harvard. How did it happen?
I applied to Harvard sometime last year and got in. I would attribute the desire for it to the friends I have, where I worked, and the quality of persons I worked with in my former place of work. Some of my former colleagues are Harvard graduates, and staying around them made me see that it was possible, regardless of where I came from. I’ve been around lawyers who attended Oxford, Cambridge, and other Ivy League schools. The truth is that if you hang around such people for a while, you begin to see that you, too, can achieve these things – to the extent that you have the academic and/or professional pedigree to back it up. I started thinking about it, and my friends encouraged me to go for it. I eventually did. I applied, despite the rigorous requirements and application process. I knew it was a highly competitive application, so I gave it my best shot. Harvard is arguably the hardest institution to get into, at least in the US. It’s tougher for JD students, no doubt, but highly competitive for LLMs. They deal with an average of 20,000 applications from around the world, and up to 7,000 applications for LLM programmes. Clearly, one has to be outstanding and brilliant to make the cut, other ethereal factors notwithstanding.
Interestingly, they don’t require you to write lengthy essays, just 1500 words. They want to see how you can concisely put your best foot forward, making it even more difficult. If they allowed 5000-word essays, people would have a lot to say and probably have more chances to razzle-dazzle. But writing convincingly and concisely is a much harder task. Also, your CV has to portray a demonstrated history of excellence and leadership. These are critical to the selection process. While it is not a compulsory requirement, Harvard admits an overwhelming amount of first-class students, those with stellar academic backgrounds. When you come here, you’ll be astonished by the sheer number of first-class students around. It’s almost as though Harvard wants to feel lucky to have you in the hopes that your future will reinforce their belief in you, an eventuality they want to take credit for. So when they look at your application and don’t feel like you’re that ‘person,’ they probably will not consider you. The application has to convey a compelling story, an enthralling picture of who you are, what you have done, and a pattern to the things you can do in the future. In summary, Harvard came about primarily because of the friends I have and my environment, like my workplace. You take a shot at anything when you are in a place that makes you feel like you can achieve anything.
What’s Harvard like?
It’s nothing like I’ve seen before. To start with, the environment is highly intellectually charged. It’s very competitive because there are a lot of smart folks here. The teaching style is also very different. Students are required to contribute during classes, hence are compelled to study hundreds of pages before each class. You could have a class at 12 noon the next day and will have to read about five different papers cumulatively running into 100 pages, which you will do for other courses. Harvard employs the Socratic method of teaching, which basically involves asking questions to drive lectureship. Sometimes, you already know you’re the one to speak in some classes because they have a schedule for people taking turns to answer questions in each class. Some Professors are more brutal; they just cold-call you and ask you questions on the spur of the moment. Your contributions in class also contribute to your overall grade for the course at the end of the semester. So you’ll find that your colleagues are enthusiastic about making contributions in class. Even if you are a shy person, you have to get into the game, which is part of the training they give you. The experience has been amazing; the lecturers are pretty amiable and accessible. You can reach out to them just as you imagine in a typical western institution. They’re very open to your ideas, comments, and criticisms.
How has your life changed since you joined Harvard?
The level of my critical reasoning has increased because every moment I’m asked a thing, I think it through before I answer. I’ve also become more accepting and intellectually patient. One problem that many intelligent people have is that when they try to understand a thing or engage in an intellectual conversation and it’s not going the way they expect, they become uncomfortable, sometimes abandoning it altogether. Fighting to see it through often makes them feel less intelligent. At Harvard, my lecturers will always remind you that you’re dealing with the product of thousands of intellectuals. So you just have to be intellectually patient in order to learn. And I’ve learnt just that because there’s really no way around it, even if you were the smartest person in the world. That’s been the major part of my learning here, being intellectually patient and more open to criticism.
What advice do you have for every child living in Sakponba?
Expect great things from yourself; that’s number one. Once you’ve achieved that, you’re like 50% ahead. Then put in the work, and everything will fall into place. The other day, Tunde Onakoya and I were chatting on Whatsapp, and I was telling him the same thing I just said. Tunde Onakoya was just a regular guy who went to Yabatech, training children to play chess. You could observe through the videos of those children he made and his efforts that he expected himself to be the one doing it. It’s like a messianic complex; you see yourself as the person who should be doing it. It’s an expectation you put on yourself and run along with it. Greatness follows the expectation; that is the trajectory. I can’t point to one person who has done something great but didn’t invest their time and effort into it, nor can I remember those who did not expect such great things from themselves. It’s the driver and the fulcrum. This is something that I always take the opportunity to tell people every time — expect great things from yourself. That’s the best message I can ever give to anyone.