Gomiluk Otokwala…name doesn’t ring a bell? Not to worry, soon it will! From very humble beginnings, the Legal Practitioner with a first-class brain has proven time and time again that determination, passion, persistence and hard work will surmount real or imagined obstacles, every time. The once-upon-a-time village boy who is a member of the New York Bar is being sought after by international corporations. The 2012 Future Awards nominee bares it all in this heartfelt interview with KonnectAfrica.Net, and we are so thankful he agreed to tell. Read, be inspired and share.
KA: So spill the beans. Where did you grow such an awesome brain?
Gomiluk: I am from the Andoni LGA of Rivers State. We speak Andoni, also called Obolo. The Andoni people live in southern Rivers State by the Atlantic Ocean, and are mostly into fishing. My parents though were teachers and it was under their warm love and care I grew up with my siblings in Rivers State
KA: Do tell us about yourself…
Gomiluk: I am currently the third of five children; Two of us are Lawyers, two are Accountants and the other is a Peace Scholar. I grew up with my siblings and had much of my education through secondary school in Andoni. My parents are Christians, so growing up was essentially about church, school, family and community. The lessons I learnt in school and at church were often repeated at home because my mum in particular was a major player in both settings. No one had much but we were all content.
KA: Childhood for you was…
Gomiluk: Childhood was fun. I didn’t grow up in the city so that shielded me from some of the horrors of city life, like gangsterism. I had tales by moonlight with other kids and old women, occasionally did fishing, thought Jerusalem and Israel were in heaven, and was quite shy. There wasn’t much negative influence (these days you hear of militancy) but my parents made sure we didn’t derail. Home discipline was enforced strictly.
KA: Have you always been this genius kid?
Gomiluk: By the standards of my time and environment, I was considered precocious. I started reading at a very early age and that wasn’t necessarily because it was taught at school.
KA: Tell me about Law; were you one of those children who envision themselves in a wig and gown from the moment they are 10?
Gomiluk: As you can imagine, I didn’t know any lawyer growing up. I cannot remember how but I just decided to become a lawyer. I think I decided in Junior Secondary School 1 but my Mum often says I started saying it in primary school. I don’t doubt it. My parents were supportive of my choice. By the time I took the University Matriculation Examination [UME], law was the clear choice and I was admitted. During the program, I found more and more reason to love the law, particularly the logical element of it. After the program I loved it more for the flexibility which I think only law graduates enjoy in making career choices.
KA: Now very carefully guide us through your education/training. We don’t want to miss as step when it is time to educate our children *laughing*
Gomiluk: I didn’t attend great primary and secondary schools. We often didn’t have subject teachers especially in secondary school because teachers wanted the comfort of urban areas. What appeared to matter more was the guidance of my family. My mum was my home teacher especially in primary school. She told me in primary school that Monday was the introduction of new topics and Friday was test. If I didn’t understand anything she was often there to answer all my questions. And she didn’t tolerate bad behavior at all. In secondary school, adolescent traits make things a bit more complicated so I’m grateful I was carefully guided through it. To make up for the deficiency in school too, I was supported with all the materials I needed to do my own reading; of course,to the extent that they were affordable.
Gomiluk: Before I went to a tertiary institution, I often felt I was the disadvantaged one in class. I studied in what might have been the least developed secondary school among my classmates. I helped myself by not talking about it at all and assuming that we all had the same opportunities. When people mentioned schools with high sounding names, I generally acted like it didn’t matter to me. In a sense I felt that coming from “behind” forced me to work harder. I often aimed to be at the top. At first it was hard to imagine that I could perform better than the extremely brilliant classmates I had come to know.
More importantly, coming from “behind” fired my resolve to attend whatever I considered the best institution within reach. That’s how I applied and got admitted to the University of Nigeria and later Harvard.
KA: What study techniques did you employ as a student, or do you just have an awesome brain?
Gomiluk: Hmmm. The general rule for me was that I needed to become friends with whatever I was required to know. Put differently, I needed to internalise it in such a manner that even if it came in disguise, I would still recognize it. I don’t like learning by rote or cramming. I feel it puts one at the same level with any number of people with no analytical abilities but photographic brains. The rule for me was therefore to do whatever I needed to do to thoroughly understand the concept.
That was why I started to read law reports and summarizing them. For each course material, I would try to summarise as many of the relevant cases as time permitted. Only by that level of familiarity can you confront various permutations of facts.
My second style was to as quickly as possible know what the lecturer required. Thirdly, I always wanted to do more than an average classmate would do. Four, I tried to make studying as stress free as possible. I didn’t function well at night so I slept well and read in the day. At first there was the mad rush to join the TDB (till day break) reading bandwagon. I quit after a few horrible attempts: you often lost the night and the day.
Next, I tried to properly internalise the subject; when possible I tried to read background materials and a lot of other sources. It’s like looking at an elephant from different sides. It helps to give you the complete picture.
And I played a lot too. It helped to be engaged in other activities. School politics, ‘parapo’ and class activities. Those activities distracted me, but in retrospect they helped me pay maximum attention when I had time to read.
KA: How did you react when you discovered you made a first-class in the Nigerian Law School?
Gomiluk: I consider it one of the most significant milestones I have attained in my academic career. All I wanted at the time was a first class, with or without an award. I was at the Court of Appeal when I received a call, informing me I had made a first. Excited would be an understatement. The point is that I already had a first class at the undergraduate [LL.B] level and many lecturers urged me to repeat the feat at the Law School; so I felt I bore the burdens of my own ambition, my family and the University I represented at the law school, UNN. I was even more excited to discover I was the second best overall student.
KA: With all the first-class results you have bagged, do you ever just take a breath and relax?
Gomiluk: I have remained grateful to God for making those achievements possible. They helped to catapult me to where I am, and I know I could do better. But right now, I don’t wake up reminding myself I made a certain class of degree. It’s now about how you can prove yourself in the real world. So, yes I have stopped basking in the euphoria. It mattered more in the earlier days of applying for a Masters at Harvard and my first few jobs. It does boost my confidence to remember that with fewer resources, I could achieve all of that.
KA: What drives you?
Gomiluk: It has changed over time. In secondary school, I wanted to make my parents proud, especially my Mum who was a member of staff at the school I attended. At the university, it was more about establishing that regardless of where I came from, I could still excel. At Law School, it was more about establishing that the excellent performance at the university wasn’t a fluke. In general though, nothing thrills me like distinction. I am not comfortable being part of the crowd, the run-of-the-mill, the average or – to use the words of scriptures – the lukewarm. I am happy to excel, and to see my family and friends excel.
Gomiluk: It’s been mostly family – my mother, older brother James, cousins (especially Dr Otokwala). In 2006, I discovered Professor Fidelis Oditah and he became something of a “personal idol.” My close friends in undergrad, Iheanyi (Chambers Leader), Samson Aja, and Stanley Egware did a great job of moulding me without realizing it.
KA: What was your experience as a student of the University of Nigeria juxtaposed with your study at Harvard Law where you undertook your Master’s program?
Gomiluk: To be honest, Harvard Law blew my mind. But then it is what it is. Yet, I am grateful for the University of Nigeria. I still believe I attended the best law program in Nigeria, measured at least by the rate at which our students (to my knowledge) constantly outperformed other law graduates at the Law School. So, yes – UNN was a good preparation for Harvard and life. At the LL.M level, I studied Corporate Law and Governance, with International Finance and Arbitration.
Universities in Nigeria have a lot of improvement to implement, not the least of which is curriculum review. We had to choose from over 300 courses at Harvard, and you can imagine that many of these subjects are still lumped together in our universities regardless of the manner in which law has evolved. Our schools have to be more responsive to the needs of this century.
KA: You are a member of the New York Bar?
Gomiluk: It was part of my graduate school plans to become a licensed attorney in the State of New York. I started during my Master’s program – took a class or two as part of the preparation and did the ethics exam. After the LL.M, I prepared fully for the New York bar exam in the summer of 2010. It felt daunting at times, but I often reminded myself that I had passed the Nigerian bar and dozens of law exams with varying degrees of complexity at the undergraduate level. I took the exam once and was admitted in January 2011.
KA: In what areas do you believe Nigeria/Africa is ailing in the educational sector?
Gomiluk: We need to do better at funding education. And when I say this, I mean not just the government, but also alumni and philanthropists. Harvard raises millions of dollars yearly from its alumni. Imagine if you and I and our classmates contribute an average of N10, 000 annually to help our alma mater faculty stay competitive. That’s an easy N4 million from one class alone. You will be proud to send your own children to the same school. We cannot always whine from a distance, and blame government.
Sadly, I suspect that young ones these days are not much interested in reading. They just want to download quick primers online. We didn’t have much online social networking activity in our days. These are challenges that school authorities should tackle; it’s today’s reality and schools have to evolve by providing online learning tools, apps and virtual learning as necessary.
Finally, I have to say we should figure out how to provide funding for students in need. It is a pathetic situation. Many very bright students drop out or perform woefully because they are busy struggling to stay alive. They can barely afford school fees, much less buy standard textbooks or other essentials. Scholarship schemes and in particular educational loans are crucial. I doubt there’s a student loan scheme in Nigeria. I know of a promising law graduate who spent three years at home before he could afford Nigerian Law School fees.
KA: Where does Gomiluk envision in his career and life in the next decade?
Gomiluk: I am happy with my progress so far. I want to attain professional expertise in the intersection of law, finance and economics. My aim is to dedicate my life to the service of humanity, in particular the less fortunate members of society who need opportunity to blossom.
KA: You absolutely have to have a mentorship plan! Do you?
Gomiluk: I already do that on an informal basis. Plans are afoot for a more structured platform for the same purpose.
KA: Life is…
Gomiluk: God’s precious gift; don’t stay on the side lines. We are all stakeholders and no one has a better right to be here or a better claim to what life has to offer.
KA: Inspire an African youth with one sentence.
Gomiluk: “God gives us the ingredients for our daily bread, but he expects us to do the baking.” Everyone has the right to succeed and to pursue happiness.
Thank you so much. Your story is truly inspiring!!!Thanks for sharing.