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OPINION: My academic journey – dream come true!
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OPINION: My academic journey – dream come true!

This is a real-life story, but a snippet of what could be written as a best-seller book, aimed at inspiring young Gambia towards a fulfilled academic life. The moral is in the last paragraph. Please take time to read through and have your say. (PLEASE read before you like or react... lol)

Growing up in what was probably one of the poorest households at the time, the prospect of attaining a higher academic qualification was merely a dream, akin to building castles in the air. I have always ranked in the best students throughout my academic journey. I mean from my days in nursery school. However, there was always a lingering sadness, knowing it might all come to an end as I headed for the higher academic levels.

The son of a peasant farmer and wood seller, and a hawker, could not boast about their academic aspirations because they were always certain that their journey towards higher education would terminate at the point where the family chooses between food and school expenses. This is how my story began!

Nursery and primary school days weren't as challenging, but D15 per term still posed difficulties. I am sure my parents would have preferred not to pay a penny, given the struggles of providing three square meals for us. The burden even intensified when I enrolled in junior secondary, while my two younger siblings were in primary school.

The uniform expenses, books, and school fees weren't exorbitant, but the combined costs were overwhelming for a family that had never contemplated buying a full bag of rice at once. Nonetheless, my parents remained determined, sacrificing so many things, including food and clothing, to provide us with the education they never had. They never relented.

While my father gathered wood to meet the daily bills, in addition to the farm products, my mother used the money my sister and I earned from hawking roasted groundnuts and any vegetables she could grow in the backyard of our two-bedroom mud house to complement the expenses.

So it was absolutely normal for us to endure some days with only a single meal, sometimes plain rice with jumbo and pepper on the side as appetizers. It was also very normal for me to walk to school barefoot, without even a penny in the pockets of of raggy uniform. I got used to it to the extent that I would neither wait nor ask for anything when going to school. I had to manage with whatever I'd seen with me at the time. Yet still, I could not make any sufficient excuses for not going to school, even on an empty stomach.

Fast forward to grade 9, the grade at which I would sit for the WAEC (GABECE) for high school entrance. Although my parents were confident that their son would excel in the exam, their smiles were always short-lived. I often overheard them express concerns about how I would attend high school, given our financial predicament. And even people in our neighborhood speculated about my potential dropout due to our financial struggles.

Despite these challenges, I never lost focus or refused to be happy. Guess what! I completed my 9th-grade exam not only as the best student in my school but also as the best in my district (Kombo South). I was celebrated, although some with mixed feelings. It was time to face a new challenge as I headed to Gambia's best high school, #Nusrat Senior Secondary School.

Actually, before the grade 9 results were released, I worked as a laborer on a fencing project and used the earnings to buy clothes in anticipation of my journey to the Kombos for schooling, knowing full well that my parents were already choked by the anticipated school bills. No one at home discussed academic expenses. It seemed better to work in silence than to talk about something we couldn't change.

My parents, however, never gave up and promised that I would go to school, regardless. While in our dilemma, shortly before resuming school, providence smiled upon us. I received partial academic support from an NGO which covered 50% of my first-year high school fees. This relieved my parents, but still left the remaining 50% of my first-year school fees, book and uniform bills, as well as miscellaneous expenses, on their plate. My father disclosed to me, later that year, how much he borrowed from a neighbor to meet the additional cost while he would supply them with wood as a means of repaying the debt.

I was never concerned about extras or lunch; I was fine walking for about an hour, daily, between Sukuta (at an unpaid guardian's house) and Bundung, where Nusrat was located. I was also okay with surviving on half a loaf of bread with boiled potatoes (on my rainy days) and tap water throughout the day. This became my routine and I was never fed up. Even if I was, I couldn't change the narratives anyway. So I kept going.

At the end of my first year in high school, I emerged as one of the best students, winning the Principal's Merit Award, which exempted me from paying tuition fees for the subsequent academic year. Simultaneously, I met a philanthropist who supported me with book and uniform expenses for the remainder of my high school years. That gave my parents some relief.

After senior secondary school, I graduated with 9 credits, the highest number of credits attainable, and subsequently enrolled at the School of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences at the University of The Gambia. However, my dream of becoming a medical doctor ended in 2012 when I couldn't pay tuition arrears, and my scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education was rescinded when my parents couldn't sign the bond, as I was told. My father's severe illness requiring two major surgeries, weighed on the entire family at the time. So I had to change path, from the science to the business!

Between 2013 and 2014, I pursued an Advanced Diploma in Banking and Finance at the Management Development Institute (MDI), which led me to my first job as a System and Control Officer at Guaranty Trust Bank (Gambia) Ltd in November 2015, a position I held for just five weeks before moving to Mega Bank as a Business Development Officer.

After about a year at Mega Bank, I gained admission to the University of The Gambia for a BSc in Economics but I still had to defer my commencement date to January 2017 due to funding issues. My earnings at the Bank, while relatively better, were only sufficient to support my family and needy siblings. So, the cost of university tuition remained a nightmare until I managed to secure a government scholarship after my first semester. At this point, my parents, one of whom (my father - May Allah have mercy on his soul) passed away during the second semester of my second year at UTG, were not financially worried about my education again but they always got worried if I will ever get adequate funding to the completion of my first degree.

While working at Mega Bank with exponentially increasing workloads as I climbed the ranks, I still graduated from the UTG as the Best Student at the School of Business and Department of Economics, also winning the silver medal for the second overall best-graduating student of the December 2020 cohort. This was massive. Nonetheless, I knew that the struggle was far from over. Nothing would be more frustrating for an academically ambitious man than facing the dilemma of funding postgraduate education. It takes a fortune to fund oneself.

Between December 2020 and April 2023, I submitted over twenty-five scholarship applications to over 15 different institutions and funding agencies, most of whom will either not respond or will just send you a "sorry, you were not successful" message. It got to a point where I nearly gave up on my desire for further education. Some of my closest friends could attest to this. I was already worn out! It was not until June 7, 2023, after three long years of waiting, when I received an email from the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK, an institution I will forever be grateful to, informing me that I had been provisionally selected for their scholarship for a Master's Degree in Economics at the University of Kent. I didn't know how I fell on my knees, bowed my head and thanked Allah for this, and the rest of the day was filled with tears. I couldn't explain why I was crying, but I knew the struggle was real!

However, there was not the end! Since it was a provisional selection, I had to fulfill some conditions, which got me even more stressed and weak! I was severely tempted to give up on some things that seemed impossible to get but my intuition told me to never relent! So, I kept pushing, so hard at some point that the university told me that they were not responding to any of my "chasing" emails. I understood their perspective, but I was equally anxious that the slightest delay could cost me this life-changing opportunity.

But guess what! Alhamdulillah! Today, I am a student of Master's in Economics at the University of Kent, a prestigious and globally recognized institution known for nurturing ambition. This is a life-changing opportunity I could only merely dream of in the past. Up to my first years at UTG, I could never imagine studying in such a prestigious institution, more so in the UK. I couldn't be more grateful to the funding partners and the University of Kent, as well as my family, friends and loved ones, for making this incredible journey a resounding one for me. Certainly, it is a win for all of us!

THE MORAL of this real-life story is clear. I want to inspire young people, especially Gambians, to stay steadfast in their pursuit of success. Times change, and situations can become extremely challenging, but the path to self-actualization is often rough and bumpy. Don't expect smooth sailing, especially if you haven't been born with a silver spoon. Stay focused on your goals, and don't let tough times deter you from your dreams and ambitions.

Many people who have known me in the past few years might think I've had a comfortable life, but those who know the real story understand that I am only leaving the testimony of an adage that says "no condition is permanent." If I can come this far, I believe anyone else can!

Be Strong! Be Ready! Be Focused! Do not give up on your aspirations!!!

Saikou Jeng

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