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Chioma Onwuchekwa Sheds Light on the Blessings of Teaching Assitantship

Undergraduate Degree:

BSc. Industrial Chemistry First-class Honors. Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria.

MSc. Degree:

MSc. Energy and Environmental Management - Merit. Glasgow Caledonian University, Glasgow, Scotland.

PhD (in view: 2017-2021)

Environmental Science-Chemistry. Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, Tennessee, US

From Dreading Chemistry to Excelling in It

I finished secondary school in 2006 and I lost a year to JAMB; so I started my BSc in 2007. While I had a first-class in my undergraduate studies, Chemistry did not always come easy to me. In fact, I struggled a bit with Chemistry in secondary school; the year I spent at home prior to starting Uni, I was at Anifa Prep (a JAMB tutorial center that was almost like a school). I owe my chemistry breakthrough to Mr. Adebayo; who was the chemistry teacher there at the time.

Right after University, I served in Nigerian Breweries as a consumer control intern in the Quality control lab. Subsequently, I headed to the UK for my Master's degree and lived there for 18 months; during my Master's, I was exposed to how the environment ties in with chemistry and I honestly loved it.

I came back to Nigeria at the end of 2014 and worked as a QHSE (Quality, Health, Safety & Environment) officer in an oil servicing firm for about two and a half years, during which I was deployed to the then OFON 2 project as an HSE lead for my company. It was interesting to see how I fit in with my chemistry background.

Pursuing Ph.D. and the Challenges

The QHSE sphere does not really favor women, so career progression was extremely difficult. Thus, I needed to pursue my new found passion for the environment in another way. I needed a way to combine my chemistry background with my HSE experience; hence my decision to go on to get my PhD

  • Deciding on my major: In my experience, majors in the US can be a bit tricky to navigate. I found out that the majors or "courses of study" can be either very generic or very specific in nomenclature, so it becomes a bit tricky to navigate and make a decision. It helped that I had a few friends who were already in the US, to help me navigate this. Also, it helps to check the department's website for the major(s) one is interested in; go through the courses offered at every level; that will give an idea of how the course does/does not align with your goals.

  • Getting potential research advisors: As a requirement for admission, some schools require the intending student to have a member of faculty agree to supervise their research. This involves sending cold emails to potential supervisors and in my experience, one does not get a lot of responses; if any. I had a good mix of schools that required this and those that did not. However, my choice schools were mostly those that did not require me to have an advisor before being admitted.

I got a teaching assistantship. This is when the university pays your school fees and you also receive monthly stipends, in exchange for your services in some teaching capacity. In my case, I was an instructor of general chemistry laboratory for freshmen. In the departments of the schools I applied to, as an intending graduate student, you are automatically considered for the assistantship. Now, this varies across several departments even in the same school; and across different schools also.

On the other hand, for schools where this is not automatic, I would recommend that intending applicants reach out to faculty whose research is being funded by some grant. It makes a big difference in the long run.

The Life-Changing experience of Teaching Assistantships

Schooling abroad is very expensive; having to not worry about school fees and living cost is a blessing and I am eternally grateful to my department for funding my degree, especially with the current exchange rate. I feel extremely blessed.

I also got to lecture students from different parts of the world; this greatly improved my communication skills and I realized that I am a good teacher (haha). It sharpened my public speaking and presentation skills, made me less nervous to address people and I also got awarded the best teaching assistant for the just concluded 2020/2021 school year. I am the first Nigerian and international student to have won this award and it was both exciting and humbling.

The Next Steps

I am working towards getting my degree by December 2021. I will be working for Cummins Inc as an environmental strategy specialist; helping the Global Technical Operations team work towards achieving the company wide 2030 and 2050 sustainability targets and goals respectively.

Advice to Aspiring Africans Considering a Fully-funded Graduate Degree

  • Your letters of recommendation play a significant role in admission decisions; ensure that your references can/are willing to provide strong positive recommendations on your behalf

  • Most PhD programs in the US are funded and in most cases, you do not need a master's degree prior to starting a PhD journey in the US.

  • Spread your risks per school choices when applying; Have safe schools.

Eye-opening Moments while Studying Abroad

  • The system is very humbling, so you need to be open minded. You may find yourself taking undergraduate classes to bridge knowledge gaps; embrace it, make friends with your classmates because you have so much to learn from them (whether you like it or not; haha)

  • Please ASK QUESTIONS! I realized that the knowledge culture here is very different and does not really reward being timid. Professors are usually very responsive and even have set office hours to attend to students.

  • Try to get involved in activities that will help you meet people outside of school. Be it church, gyms, volunteer groups, something different because it can get very lonely and you will miss home. I learned this the hard way

  • Try to rest when you can, health care is very expensive.

At Tennessee Technological University, Chioma Onwuchekwa became the first Nigerian and International student to win the prestigious Northrup Award.


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