Ondo State-born Dr Boubini Jones-Wonni obtained a degree in Biological Sciences with first class honours from Miles College, Alabama, USA before proceeding to study Medicine and Surgery at the Howard University Medical School, Washington DC in 2018, finishing with a perfect perfect CGPA of 4.0. She tells GODFREY GEORGE about her academic journey and achievements
You have had stellar performances, graduating top of your class, from primary school in Nigeria to college in the US. What do you attribute these feats to?
To be honest, I am often surprised by the favour of God. I definitely work hard but God is primarily who I always look up to for help and He always comes through for me.
Is it true that you took your entrance exam into secondary school from Primary Three instead of Primary Six?
Yes and I have my parents to thank for that. They believed in my abilities and my primary school, Bankys’ Private School, was also an excellent place to actually hone one’s abilities. I initially took the exam at Primary Two but did not pass, so it was a pleasant surprise to pass in the following year.
What kind of home are you from?
I come from a large family with six siblings. My father, Dr Jones-Wonni, is a physician, and my mother, Elizabeth Jones-Wonni, is a magistrate. They both impressed on us the value of education in numerous ways – sharing their personal and seemingly insurmountable struggles in their journey, allowing a safe space to dream, and providing opportunities for me to be exposed to different career paths and ways to navigate the world.
It is not everyone who has the opportunity for their father to teach them Further Mathematics in the three months between JSS 3 and SS 1 or a mother who was kind about the numerous times I kept her waiting while tutoring other students during my secondary school years.
You bagged your first degree at the young age of 18. Did you feel that this would be a challenge for you?
At the time, it was not a particular challenge. Since I skipped Classes Four to Six, I had consistently been one of the youngest in the class.
What were some of the reactions you got from people around about your performance at different levels and how did you manage people with negative energy?
People are quite understandably shocked but are often very supportive. Individuals who have the so-called “negative energy” are people I shy away from because it is not worth it.
How were you able to bag a degree in Biological Sciences in three years instead of the conventional four years at Miles College Alabama, USA?
College education in the United States allows you to take a range of classes and subsequently credit hours every semester. The goal is to complete an average of 120 credits before you can apply for graduation. Due to the advice I received from mentors and advisors, I took a lot of classes per semester and even up to seven classes in one memorable (but coffee-addled) semester.
How were you able to benefit from the Presidential Amnesty Programme for the Niger Delta? Are you an ex-militant?
The Presidential Amnesty Programme was instrumental in my education, but I did not benefit as an ex-militant. Within the programme, there is a portion allocated to children of impacted communities in the Niger Delta region. I sat and passed the qualifying examination in 2014.
You were very young when you left Nigeria for the US; what was your experience like in the US?
I was quite young at 15 years old, but the community I found at Miles College, church, etcetera, made it doable. I am especially grateful to the creators of WhatsApp and other video call-enabled social media apps that allowed me to remain connected to my family despite the distance between us.
Was there any culture shock you experienced on your arrival in the US?
The most benign thing was the date format. In the US, it is written as month/day/year whereas in Nigeria it is day/month/year. I remember signing my first official document incorrectly to the amusement of my dean (a Nigerian-born individual). More interesting were the blurred lines between positions of power. While in medical school, I could get lunch with one of my professors and some residents would insist that I call them by their first name rather than ‘Dr’.
What are some parallels or differences you can draw from the educational systems in Nigeria and the US?
In my time as a student, I particularly realised that my education in Nigeria was very memorisation-heavy with extra marks awarded if you remembered exactly what the professor taught, whereas I was fascinated to see that the US system was more focused on your interpretation of the knowledge. So, while in college, we could write essays even in science classes and be tested on understanding rather than rote memorisation. Of course, there’s a time and place for memorisation as well.
What is your study pattern like?
This might be my favourite question. While in university, I was thrilled to learn that the art of studying was intensely researched by scientists, and there are research-backed techniques for studying efficiently and effectively. I personally utilise spaced repetition, which is simply increasingly leaving some time gaps between each study session so that when you review you strengthen your memory. I also highly utilise practice questioning because it challenges me to determine if I truly understand each topic. I also try to teach and reason through the concepts whether by myself or with others because it helps to highlight weak points in my learning. For a medical school class, it’ll go something like this: One, I decide how I am going to learn the material whether through videos, textbooks, etcetera. Concurrently, I test my knowledge with practice questions to ensure I actually understand the material. Lastly, I cinch it all with my spaced repetition device of choice, Anki, a flash card app that has an in-built algorithm, to space out my learning sessions so that I review the material just as I am about to forget it.
How were you able to handle male attention such that it didn’t culminate into a distraction?
I believe one should identify personal goals and determine this without even the influence of family and loved ones and then determine what fits in that picture. Your personal vision of success at age 25 will be different from one at 15, and it is left to you to determine if “male attention” is the priority at each moment.
Has it always been your dream to be a medical doctor?
Yes, it has. Even when I was not very sure of my plan for my life, everything seemed to steer me towards medicine.
What really drew you to medicine?
One of my earliest memories was an advert on TV explaining how to cross genotypes to determine the likelihood of having a child with sickle cell anemia. The book knowledge was brought to life when I understood that my cousin (who sadly passed away) had sickle cell anemia. Additionally, the fact that medical fairs organised by an uncle and executed by my father, a general practitioner, helped the people I saw in my village, the children with kwashiorkor, made me identify that I wanted to be in a position to serve them as well. I also consider myself an avid reader and voraciously read Ben Carson’s books as a child, which stoked the flames of wanting to become a health care practitioner.
Was there a time in your academic journey in the US that you felt like giving up?
Unfortunately, there were too many times when I was very close to doing just that. I have had a tumultuous time in the US. One time was in the months before I completed my undergraduate education in 2018. At that time, I was still pending my medical school acceptance but running at the back of my mind was the fact that medical schools in the US typically have only one or two spots for international students and I was unsure of what the next step would be if I did not matriculate into medical school. Other memorable times were difficult times in medical school during which I juggled work and school to ensure I was able to cover my living expenses but at the cost of study time.
How did you ensure that your grades were not affected?
I always say to my family and friends that God has not failed me in the past, so He will not change now. I really leaned on God, knowing that I can only see the life right in front of me, but God sees beyond, so all I can do at each moment is make the best decision with the knowledge I possess while extensively listening for His guidance.
What were some of your best courses and why did you like them?
In my pre-clinical years, I truly enjoyed my haematology/oncology and endocrinology modules. When I started my clinical years, I enjoyed my internal medicine, paediatrics, psychiatry and obstetrics-gynecology rotations. I love piecing things together and seeing how the knowledge we have acquired in all the years of humanity can be put together to restore the dignity of the ailing person.
What area would you like to specialise?
I will soon begin my training in internal medicine and possibly sub-specialise in haematology-oncology.
What is the ultimate dream for you?
Ideally, I want to be at the forefront of work done with the sickle cell anemia population while working on a consistent way to ensure patients without access to health care can be reached by physicians consistently.
You were engaged in so many activities while in school. How did you juggle these with your academic work?
It was definitely hard at times because there were times during which I had to sacrifice sleep in order to ensure the research was done on time. However, I always suggest to my mentees that the first few months of anything should be committed to learning how to do things well, even in school. Subsequently, you can then determine what the day-to-day schedule looks like so you can eliminate time-wasting activities in order to add extracurricular activities, which are also needed to ensure well-roundness.
How do you socialise?
That commonly happens through game nights with friends, dinners, movie nights, and exercise. More recently, I have been exploring museums as a shared experience with my friends as well.
What would you not be caught doing while on campus?
I have unfortunately run the gamut while on campus: working out, eating, sleeping, and of course, studying.
What would you say was the toughest moment for you living abroad?
I think it is the sense of being alone even when surrounded by others as if you are the only one you can lean on. I have been privileged to have been blessed by numerous people who have gone above and beyond to help me and my family, so it is not accurate but yet often felt.
Do you have plans of returning to Nigeria after your degree?
I have grandiose plans of establishing a long-term system that helps patients in the riverine communities of the Niger Delta access health care professionals quickly, so I am excited to find out what the future will bring.
What advice do you have for students who aspire to be like you?
It is humbling to be in this position of giving advice but a quote I ruminate often on by Will Durant helps: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” It reminds me that my goals will not be reached if my habits don’t align with them. Therefore, even if it was my goal to become a world-class photographer, I will not achieve it without making it a habit of taking pictures and ensuring each day births a better photograph.
The strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities in Nigeria has been on for several months. Have you ever imagined how your academic study would have been affected if you had stayed back in Nigeria for your tertiary education?
I will not hesitate to express gratitude that I have not had my studies halted due to strikes. But I am also saddened because my peers are experiencing this. It is very unfortunate.