Onyinye Sylvia Igwebuike’s story

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Onyinye is an aspiring public health professional of Nigerian descent. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria and currently residents in the same city. Although she is from a relatively large family of seven, none of her siblings have ever aspired to a graduate degree in any academic discipline.

Onyinye is very passionate about public health. She believes that a person’s background and environmental limitations should not act as a barrier in the pursuit of their dreams.

She enjoys volunteering and believes she has the will, intellect and motivation to bring change to the world. Onyinye believes that in her own unique way using public health as a vehicle for that change.

Onyinye described that Nigeria’s healthcare system has been plagued with substandard infrastructure and a very limited number of skilled, competent, committed and qualified professionals. Much of the problem appears to have been caused by a perennial underinvestment in the health sector in the past 40 years. Nigeria’s 2020 budgetary allocation was a meagre 3.6% despite a 2001 declaration by African Union states to commit a minimum 15% of annual budget to the health sector! 

Regardless on the unflattering nature of these statistics, from her perspective, the gaps represent an opportunity for her to ultimately combine her work as a public health professional with advocacy. This is for improved budgetary funding to her country’s health sector.

Onyinye let us in on Nigeria’s health sector on something that might interest us. In conducting her primary research as part of the requirements for her undergraduate degree in Microbiology. She isolated and identified Staphylococcus species from wound samples in the eastern parts of Nigeria using the Analytical Profile Index (API) kit.

While collecting the swabs for the ensuing laboratory work and academic paper, she got real insight into the public health challenges faced by local communities. Most health officials relied on for her research worked in a bureaucratic manner without regard for urgency and seemed very unmotivated. Further, a number of these health personnel were not constantly trained and owed a backlog of salaries spanning up to four months, in some cases! But there have also been stories of real valor in the medical community.

Take for instance the Ebola epidemic would have ravaged Nigeria were it not for the intervention of a female doctor named “Stella Adadevoh”. Stella Adadevoh not only identified the index case but also quarantined our patient zero and lost her life because of exposure to the virus.

Onyinye shared that although she may sound rather controversial however, permission granted to express her views. “I think the COVID-19 pandemic is a cloud with a silver lining” Onyinye said. While the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of Nigeria’s local healthcare system. The restriction of movement outside the country has forced our elite to begin a conversation on prioritizing healthcare funding in Nigeria, as quite a few prominent Nigerians have died from infection by the virus.

Onyinye shared why she is so passionate about public health. From an early age, she was very passionate about helping vulnerable people and remembers being concerned about the sanitary conditions in her local community. However, her journey as a volunteer in the public health space started when she was a teenager. 

Since then, she has volunteered with different NGOs seeking to address preventable public health challenges such as malnutrition, hunger and environmental health.  Over time, these experiences have solidified her conviction that underserved communities can only truly prosper if Nigeria builds a good public health system for them. 

That is why she applied for a public health graduate program at Boston University (a top 10 institution in the public health field). Her idea is to get a world-class education and develop the skills, knowledge and professional network. That will enable her to become part of the solution to the public health challenges in Africa’s local communities. 

Onyinye shared some of the challenges she experiences as a young woman in Public Health .The real challenge for her has always been that tendency to almost always have to prove herself before being given as a voice as most people simply assume. “You’re a woman and are probably just another ‘pretty face’ in the room”.  Although this is not often said, the vibe amongst new colleagues or stakeholders makes it palpable 9 out of 10 times.  Onyinye shared an interesting excerpt from the 2013 report by Rock Health called “Women in Healthcare” it’s context to the challenge of being a female health care professional. “Although women make up the health care workforce, they hold only 19% of hospital CEO positions, and they head only 4% of healthcare companies.”

In addition, and updated version of the “Women in Healthcare” report published in 2017 found that close to half of all female correspondents working in healthcare believed it would take 25 years or longer to achieve gender parity on the job.”

Onyinye also shared with us why more women should be in leadership roles in Africa. She said despite constituting a significant percentage of Africa’s demography. Women still represent a minority proportion of the continent’s formal workforce in general and leadership. This narrative needs to change! Apart from the need for diversity, it is a known fact that investments in women tend to generally outperform those in men, on the continent.

There is an old proverb amongst her tribesmen, the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria that could be loosely translated to mean, ‘when you educate a boy, you educate a man; when you educate woman, you educate a nation.’ She believes this is true as women tend to be aggregators even in the family setting.

It’s as if nature has imbued the female species the innate desire to nurture things, no wonder the term, ‘mother hen’ is used in describing women sometimes. But, yes, there is empirical evidence to support the fact that investing in the girl child is good business! Female dreams are valid and should not be allowed to die owing to, child marriage or a lack of education and gender-based discrimination as is often the case of the continent.

Onyinye shared her life changing moment with us, that “U-TURN moment” where literally her life changed completely.

My life changing moment was the near-death experience of s childhood friend and neighbor, Jidennna. You see, in my childhood years, we lived in a densely populated area of Lagos which was mosquitoes infested. Jidenna’s poor parents could not afford medicines for their sick child and gave him local ‘herbs’ when he had a bout of malaria. He almost died, save for the timely intervention of a medical outreach team that was visiting our community.

Looking back, I believe that was my ‘Aha moment,’ when it became clear a health-related path would be my life vocation, even though I remained unsure which path I would eventually take. As soon I came of age, I started by volunteering at a not-for-profit organization where I continued to nurture my passion and interest in the local health sector.

I knew more needed to be done – that we needed more committed professionals with world-class teaching and research experience to be part of the solution to our present and emerging public health challenges.

Buoyed by confidence from a strong undergraduate degree, I took a shot at the public health program at Boston University, a top ten school in the field. I was accepted and awarded a 35% scholarship ($28,728) and needed to come up with the balance of 65% ($59,000).

I applied for a student loan, but this was rejected for reasons I suspect had to do with the onset of the COVID-I9 pandemic. At this point, my heart was shattered and I lost every glimmer of hope. I was just on the verge of giving up before I decided to talk to a few of my connections on LinkedIn who advised me to explore the option of crowdfunding.

I think the whole journey towards an MPH at Boston University continues to refine me, making me resilient and the same time encouraging me to believe that one’s circumstances should not limit their dreams. The crowd funding process has made me some amazing friends who believe in me and my dreams. I am confident that in the end, I will look back laughing at how an abiding faith in the good in others saw me meet my goal of raising enough money for the MPH at Boston.

 To fund or contribute please click on the link:

https://gf.me/u/xzcuy3

Onyinye’s Words of wisdom to young people in Africa

Dear youth of Africa, please permit me to start by quoting from Denzel Washington’s speech during the recent NAACP Image Awards “Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship.”

I know we constantly face daunting challenges in our everyday live as young Africans. Sometimes, it could be overwhelming seeing hope on a continent where poverty still ravages much of society, gender equality is almost a mirage and where corruption remains endemic across many borders.

I say to you, do not despair as your resolve to make a difference will indeed translate to change if you hold out long enough to not only fulfill your dreams but become an inspiration to other young people. Although the journey ahead might not be easy, keep pushing, keep striving and learning. Challenges are part of the journey, giving up isn’t! You can do more! Your dreams are valid!

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