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‘We need to subdue extreme poverty through productive collaboration of all talents regardless of gender’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
16 April 2022   |   4:20 am
My early life was nothing near a bed of roses. I was a regular girl in a regular rural environment in the eastern part of Nigeria. I knew hardship and deprivation.

Dr. Felicia Nnenna Agubata is the Assistant General Manager (Terrestrial Services) at the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA). She has over 18 years of experience in aviation, project management and communication engineering. She is a graduate of Computer Science and Engineering, and holder of a Master’s degree in Electrical/Electronic Engineering (Communication Engineering) with distinction. She also holds a doctorate degree in Communication Engineering. Agubata is a member of the Council for Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN); member of Technical Board of Directors of Prototype Engineering Development Institute (PEDI), Ilesha, Osun State and a Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (FNSE). She is a former Director, International Federation of Air Traffic Electronics Association (IFATSEA), African Region; member of Board of Trustees, Women in Aviation, Nigerian Chapter and an associate member of UK-Based Chartered Institute of Arbitrators (ACIArb). Dr. Agubata is the 15th President of the Association of Professional Women Engineers of Nigeria (APWEN) from 2018 to 2019 and a passionate Dream Gap/ STEM advocate. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for mentoring young STEM students as well as her drive for engineering solutions.

You have an interesting career. Take us through your journey?
My early life was nothing near a bed of roses. I was a regular girl in a regular rural environment in the eastern part of Nigeria. I knew hardship and deprivation. But it did not matter much because most people around me were in either similar or slightly better situation. I was good in sports and academics. I was a helpmate and eventually a partner to my mother in her business. I was therefore well regarded and admired by schoolmates, play mates and parents alike for sporting and academic excellence as well as for being a useful hand to my mother. I was the business manager of her petty business. I am still a work in progress in the hand of my creator and nothing near a final product. There are just so many skills to acquire and bars to scale in all spheres of life – professional and personal. The headwinds are strong, but so is the determination within.

What attracted you to communication engineering?
From early ages, I had aptitude for practical works or application of principles to problem solving. Specifically, I like repeatable solutions based on proper analytics or computations. It was therefore natural or logical for me to settle for a career in Engineering. It could have been Civil, Mechanical, Aeronautic, Chemical, Agricultural, just name it. I settled for Computer Science and Engineering at first degree and subsequently Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Master’s level and Electrical/Electronic (Communication option) at PhD. I am glad that I did. Given another chance, I will go the same route again.

In your years of practice as a professional engineer, how have you evolved?
My transition from being a theory-driven engineer to a hands-on professional was gradual. Post-university education (first degree), I was privileged to do my NYSC at Innovative Systems Limited at Anthony Village, Lagos. Whilst at Innovative System, I was exposed to practical experience in trunking, cabling, networking, troubleshooting and resolution of system challenges. On completion of the one year National Youth Service Scheme, I got a job with Compuleb Company Ltd. and there I learnt the sales and marketing side of things. It is an experience I value so much. I learnt how to look at issues from end to end or in segments like customer standpoint, resellers and end-users. Whilst at it, I learnt in particular how to empathize which is the core of customer service around which every and any other thing can be built. At NAMA, things are fairly well structured. Trainings were extensive and intensive both locally and outside. It was therefore fairly easy to gain general and system- specific competencies. I also gained traction in my academic qualifications by enrolling for a master’s degree and a Ph.D eventually. Today, I can say without fear of contradiction that I am a hands-on engineer with broad knowledge of my field. I am ready for the work today whilst also equipping myself for the work that will evolve tomorrow. As humans, we must continuously adapt and retool ourselves. No resting on our laurels. Most importantly, I work for self-fulfillment or actualisation. I can defer material gratification because it is of secondary importance.

You have an innate desire to mentor and guide young STEM students. How are you achieving this?
Passion is complex and compelling. I am that kind of person that craves to encourage and guide. What shall a lit candle lose, if used to light unlit candles? Perhaps, my background, experiences and modest background are compelling to invest time, emotions and energy on youngsters. I am also encouraged by the fact that I am able to connect easily with these youths and would seem to be able to get them to see science (STEM) and it’s potentials for them as individuals and for our society alike. I am able to situate STEM for them within the context of the emerging world. Today, I have various groups I mentor using various channels, especially zoom sessions, conference calls and sometimes direct calls or contacts.

What do you consider a major challenge in ensuring that more young people embrace STEM?
The challenges are many; some are environmental, attitudinal, ignorance and misconception. What we have tried to do during my time at helm of APWEN and even now is to train the science teachers and expose them to modern teaching aids and kits, provide tools and award scholarships to pupils when feasible. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has been immense in supporting these initiatives. Again, where misconception is the barrier to their embracing STEM, we provide them the real facts or pictures through local examples they can relate with. Sometimes, we show them people they know and see on televisions that rode on the back of STEM to attain good heights in life. They are inspired by the power of verifiable examples that probably attended schools they are familiar with and bear names they can relate with and can situate within their councils or local government areas. Essentially, our approach towards getting the youths to embrace STEM is multi-pronged and often simultaneously applied.

During your tenure as APWEN president, what would you say you did differently?
During my tenure as APWEN President, we were pro-action and proactive; we were literally fearless and did quite a lot to promote the interest of the girl-child, especially inspiring them to study STEM and to pursue a career in engineering.

Specific milestones include launching the APWEN flagship programme tagged ‘Invent It, Build It’ for primary schools in seven states across the six geopolitical zones in Nigeria and awarding scholarships from primary to university level for 81pupils selected across the six geopolitical zones sponsored by NNPC. The states are Bauchi, Ogun, Borno, Kano, Edo, Kogi and Anambra. We constructed ultra-modern science and technology laboratories with motorised borehole in six geopolitical zones in the country. We also held the ‘Introduce a girl to Engineering’ programme for secondary school students at Okerenkoko, Delta State.

How can more women embrace engineering opportunities?
Women need to inspire and motivate each other. Those who have attained appreciable visibility in the profession must model and mentor the younger and upcoming ones. Associations must act as pressure groups and use their various planks to galvanise members and push in one direction. STEM advocacy for the girl-child must be sustained to enable us catch them young. Most importantly, experienced professionals need to stay in the profession to inspire and encourage others. We must discourage women from quitting the profession to engage in other pursuits that are not necessarily more rewarding on the long run.

You wear many hats. How do you combine them, including family life, and still be at your best?
Multi-tasking would seem a natural attribute of humans. We somehow have an intuitive knowledge of the demands on us. Some are able to manage these demands due to their personal energy level and sense of duty. My approach is to accept the reality of who I am. In that regard, I am a woman, a wife, a mother, an engineer, an employee and most importantly a human. I am not a machine; I am somebody’s child. Each header has associated responsibilities that must not be neglected. I always go for fair balancing and prioritising. My duties as a wife and mother are foundational. Unless you get both duties right, you will struggle to achieve and sustain successes in the other areas. If you get it wrong, you will be penalised and may end up feeling empty despite the accolades and exterior projections of a satisfied person. Having a supportive nuclear family is a critical success factor in life. I count myself lucky in that particular regard.

What do you hope to see Nigerian women do differently?
Nigerian women must take stock; re-evaluate the journey thus far with a view to changing the narrative at the level of political participation and acquisition of skills that will leverage them into top decision making positions and processes. There are far more women than men outside the corridors of influence at both formal and informal sectors. Push for inclusion must gain momentum. The idea is not to compete with men but to compliment and enrich the pool of talent available at national level in order to improve human experience and lift more people out of misery. We need to subdue extreme poverty through productive collaboration of all talents regardless of gender. Currently, things are not adding up in that regard. Knowledge, skill-mix, political participation and collaboration should be key focus areas.

What is your life mantra?
My thought guide or mantra is ‘Stay focused and committed to being my best version in all situations and circumstances’. In so doing, I fulfill my purpose.