The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional, and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.

What does it mean to get a CGPA of 7.0 in your undergraduate degree in Nigeria only to struggle academically at one of the world’s top universities in post-grad? With two weeks to graduation, this week’s #AbroadLife subject, narrates how she eventually attained a “perfect” CGPA studying for her master’s in Computer Science at Stanford University, California, USA.

Disclaimer: This interview is being published based on anonymity (without name) to protect the confidentiality and privacy of the interviewee.

How and where did you get a 7.0?

So I schooled at the University of Ibadan (UI), and from the beginning until 2017, they’ve been using a 7.0-grade point average (GPA). They only changed it to 5.0 recently to meet up with international standards.

As to the “how”, my goal when I entered university was to get a first-class degree; I wasn’t targeting a 7.0 in the first place. In the first semester of the 100 level, I was so scared of falling behind that I was always eager to study. After the first semester, I finished with a 7.0. I was so excited, but it wasn’t groundbreaking for freshers to finish with a perfect GPA in the first semester. It was quite common. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was attainable.

At the end of my first year, my CGPA was still 7.0, and I began considering the possibility of maintaining that grade to the very end. I wasn’t too optimistic because I knew the courses would get harder as I advanced, but it motivated me to do my best. In my class, two other people also had the same GPA as me, which made me subconsciously accountable to someone. 

My parents were people who could provide what I needed, and I didn’t have to find money to care for my siblings or parents. I was just a regular college student. I wasn’t a social butterfly.  

Interesting. What was your inspiration for travelling abroad?

I wouldn’t say that I was always dreaming of going to Stanford. Once I graduated from UI in 2019, my major goal was to make enough money. I wanted to make money so bad. 

After making a 7.0 CGPA, news about my achievement quickly travelled. Someone contacted me from Canada and persuaded me to apply for graduate school or a doctorate. But I wasn’t feeling it. I wanted to work, and I wanted to make money. 

If not for my Aunty, who made a compelling case on how my skills wouldn’t be fully appreciated without passing through graduate school, I may have never made a move. 

By then, I had already had a full-time job in Nigeria as a product manager in a tech firm immediately after school. I started to research what it takes to get admitted. 

Tell us more about the process.

I then discovered that I needed to write the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), reach out to professors, get recommendation letters etc. 

The process seemed quite challenging at first, but I found people who were also on the same journey as me, and we just motivated each other by solving past questions etc. Sometimes I returned from work late at night and started studying. I was targeting 320 as my GRE score, as it would ensure my entry into an Ivy League school. 

Sometime in October 2019, I got 318 as my GRE score, two marks shy of my original target, which wasn’t bad for me. I then got my letters of recommendation from my professors at school, wrote my statement of purpose, and submitted most of my applications by December 15. 

I got admission and full funding at Stanford University by April 15, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I couldn’t resume school until the US Embassy reopened for my interview in November 2020. The choice of attending courses virtually wasn’t there because I got admission as a graduate teaching assistant. This required me to be physically present in the U.S. Hence the long wait.

Wow, sorry about that. How did the interview go?

Thank you, and it went well. That interview was seamless. I know how often people get rejected trying to get US visas, but thankfully that wasn’t the case for me. The interviewer didn’t stress me out at all. I just gave him my I-20 (a document you receive as proof of admission). 

When he saw that I was going to Stanford, he just returned my documents and told me to go, that the F-1 visa (student visa) would be ready in about two weeks. The visa also had a two-year validity clause.

Why do you think the process was so easy?

I think it’s because I was going to an Ivy League school, and it was even Computer Science I studied and the full funding I received. I was shocked and happy because I had prepared so hard, and they never asked the questions I had prepared for. By December 2020, I travelled to the US.

What were your first experiences in America like?

As mentioned, I left Nigeria for California in December because I was so excited to leave and wanted to have at least 3 weeks to settle and prepare for school. I travelled with a friend because we would attend the same school and be placed in the same apartment. 

The first thing that shocked me was the seriousness of foreigners regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. By June 2020, Nigerians were beginning to get much more lenient with precautionary measures such as face masks, and I began to get used to pulling down my face mask a lot. 

However, on my Turkish Airline flight, I needed something from my friend, who was some seats away from me. I decided to stand up and walk towards him without my face mask. Suddenly, one of the passengers shouted at me to return to my seat because I was not wearing a face mask. It was so embarrassing, and I did not get the item from my friend again. I felt like a “bush” or uneducated girl. It then dawned on me that the pandemic was real here, and this wasn’t Nigeria, where precautionary measures weren’t taken seriously. 

Also, people tended to cross to the other side of the road whenever I walked by, and I didn’t understand why. I wasn’t a monster, was I? I believed (and still believe) that I was a petite and pretty lady. Someone then explained that they were either trying not to contact the virus or get too close to people because of the COVID season. It was only then that I understood their actions.

Another thing that happened in my first week was falling sick –

Wow, how did this happen?

I didn’t like the vegan meal given on the plane, and even at the stop in Istanbul, I didn’t like much of the $15 pasta I bought because it was so bland. Coupled with the fact that it was a 14-hour flight, I got ill from the stress of travelling. 

Some Nigerians had to take me to the hospital. I asked the nurse for water in the emergency room, and she didn’t understand. Only when I rolled the “t” in “water” did she finally understand what I requested and give me water. The doctor later discovered that I had malaria, but since it’s not a prevalent disease in the US, they didn’t have the test kits and equipment to treat me. They also had to take my blood sample from California to Atlanta before they could figure out if it was malaria. 

I was also in the hospital for three days; it was the best time ever. I ate free food, received free Wi-Fi, paid my bills with insurance, and spent my days watching Bridgerton. It was an interesting time. The weather was cold but not too cold, which is one of the advantages of residing in California.

Nice! Could you please describe your experience as a master/teaching assistant?

Everything was virtual at first because of the pandemic. I did have to teach courses as a teaching assistant and then get paid a stipend. I remember the first class I taught on web application development. 

There was an idea of the course but didn’t know what to expect because I had never taken the class before. I remember introducing myself and telling them to ask me questions, but after the class, I thought, “How can I tell them to ask me questions when I just started this?” 

My teaching assistant experience started with me just “winging it,” more like a “fake it till you make it” sort of thing. I remember taking three artificial intelligence (AI) classes during my first office hours. After seeing these classes’ syllabi and weekly assignments and discussing them with a friend, he advised me to drop one class. As a graduate teaching assistant, you don’t just teach; you also have to attend the classes and do the assignment before handing it out to the students so that you can help them with whatever problems they encounter. 

The magnitude of the content for my first class was enormous. I can remember us covering in two hours almost half of the entire semester syllabus of that same course in Nigeria. 

Wow, how did you manage to juggle all those classes with your coursework?

At the end of the day, I dropped all those 3 big AI classes because I really couldn’t do them. I then stuck with the web application development class because I felt it would be a good refresher, and then I picked a lighter class regarding the coursework. This was so that I could cope with my coursework. Three of my new friends knew the courses, so I could rely on them for help and guidance. Not knowing these courses, I couldn’t afford to do office hours as a teaching assistant. It took more than 20 hours daily to focus and grade papers as a teaching assistant, talking less about being a master’s student.

Part of what helped me was belonging to a community of students to rely on if I needed any help with my own courses. My school also offers a quarterly or 10-week system to do assessments, teach, and wrap up with exams. This made the pace of work fast. You could always expect the course assignments to take 10-20 hours alone. Coupled with my workload as a teaching assistant, I was always stressed and tired, and I had nightmares in my first quarter. 

I could wake up as early as 3 a.m. because I’d remember I had something to do that wasn’t even close to completion. I was sleeping for only 3-4 hours daily. My teaching was non-negotiable, and I couldn’t look like a fool. I was also to be reviewed at the end of the quarter, with students rating me, and I didn’t want a bad review because it could attract penalties. 

Wow, THAT hard?

Yes. People say that if you survive in a Nigerian university, you will thrive in foreign universities. This is a lie because it is harder because of the weekly assignments; you’re either teaching or doing research, unlike in Nigeria, where you just need to show up. 

I can remember a social computing assessment that I took for my coursework. I didn’t finish because I was a slow typist and wasn’t a fast thinker, and it was the same in many of my courses. Along the way, I asked for accommodation, which helped me gain three extra days for submitting assignments and 1.5x the time for assessments. If the standard time for an assessment was 3 hours, they could give 4 hours and 30 minutes due to the accommodation or special consideration I signed up for. I always felt below average regarding my set because this experience differed from the Nigerian educational experience. 

I also learned to ask questions, but I noticed that they never gave straightforward answers. They gave hints and pointers, but never the answers. There was a lot of mental shift and tons of academic realisations in a year and a half. But I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.

What was your social life like at Stanford?

So I had my course for two years. The first part of the year was still about the COVID scare, and no one had much social interaction. The campus was quiet, and there wasn’t much activity. People still met in groups, but they wore face masks. Every Nigerian I met seemed willing to accommodate a new Nigerian, so that was chill. 

It was a bit tricky mingling with other nationalities, but one way I did this was through assignments. I was the only African in my cohort, with the rest being African-American, Asian, or Indian. Only in September 2021 did things start to open up with physical classes. My attempts at socialisation came in the 2nd quarter because I knew the coursework now and how to go around things. I was also able to take harder courses. 

We had departmental hangouts from time to time, and it was always just a bowl of food on a table (usually pizza), with people talking about research and no music. It was always boring, but at the same time, I could appreciate Americans and their zeal for research and hard work. They are so passionate about what they do and very cooperative.

There’s a memory that stands out for me. It was this Black, African-American event, and there was no music, which was very weird. Then, whenever I introduced myself, they’d almost always ask, “Where are you from?” 

I wondered if my Nigerian accent was so obvious and if it was that easy to spot that I wasn’t part of them. Because of this, I felt more at ease being at a departmental event than one organised by black students. The cultural difference creates subtle tension, making you feel out of place.

What were the costs and quality of living like at Stanford?

Firstly, I’d say that healthcare is very expensive. Paying your bills would be extremely difficult if you didn’t have medical insurance. 

I can remember a time when I attempted to do long-distance running and had tummy aches. My roommate felt I was in bad shape and called 911 (the emergency hotline). The roommate also confirmed that I wouldn’t pay out of pocket before I went to the hospital. The ambulance that the insurance company paid for amounted to $1,200 (N553,500), and the medical bill was $2,000 (N922,500), making a total of $3,200 (N1,476,000) for an ailment that I knew wasn’t serious and would have gone away in a couple of hours. If you don’t have medical insurance here, you can go bankrupt. Thankfully, I only fell ill once.

The cost of living in California is extremely expensive. Therefore, the average salary of a worker here is much higher than in the rest of the country. This also affected my stipend, and I receive $1800 as disposable income (after taxes and other charges have been deducted). This helps me pay rent on my housing, which costs $1,000 monthly, the cheapest I could find. What I have as a balance is usually enough for me. I can afford to send money home to my parents or upgrade my iPhone. You’re not rich, but you’re not broke, either.

What are the best parts and challenges of living at Stanford?

The best part was being part of an environment that motivates you to do great work. If you enter the campus, you’d feel like its heaven, with the infrastructure, alumni network, state-of-the-art equipment, etc. They’re also some of the world’s brightest people from all over the world, which makes learning so diverse. I also like that I can support my family without being affected negatively. $100 is like N73k here, and it won’t shake me here. However, it’s a significant amount to the average family or person in Nigeria. Every family should have one person abroad. 

As to the challenges, adapting to a new environment with no family and friends can get lonely. There is also the pressure of moving to a new environment and being burdened with the expectation of succeeding immediately. 

People here also tend not to be hospitable and mind their business too much, unlike in Nigeria. Unlike Nigeria, where I can randomly call a friend and visit that day, you always have to schedule visits here. You also have to be very intentional about cultivating friendships here, unlike in Nigeria, where you don’t have to stress how to make friends.

How are your grades now that you’re graduating?

Well, it’s not a 4.0, lol, but at least it’s definitely above the 3-point mark. I wasn’t crazy about getting the perfect grade, but I needed a good enough grade to maintain my teacher assistantship. Also, no one cares about CGPA here. Your skills and your GitHub account are what matter. And schooling at an Ivy League college already shows that you are smart, and that’s an endorsement of you.

What’s your next plan after graduation?

I plan to start working right away. I have a job waiting for me in a few months, but until then, I’d like to gain some extra cash with part-time tech gigs. I’m not looking forward to getting a PhD, though. This master’s degree is enough.



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