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‘My impact in young people’s lives earned me Mandela Fellowship’

By Chuks Nwanne
08 February 2020   |   4:23 am
Radio was a childhood fantasy for me. Growing up with five other siblings many years ago, my father's transistor radio set sparked my curiosity about voices...

Okorodudu (right) decorating Mike Foley, Lieutenant Governor of the State of Nebraska with the Delta Akwa-Ocha during the fellowship programme in the united States.

A graduate of Mass Communication from the Delta State University, Abraka, Austine Okorodudu is a broadcaster with Trend 100.9 FM, Asaba. He was among 56 young Nigerians out of 11,000 applicants selected for the 2019 Mandela Fellowship in the United States of America. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, Okorodudu, who is passionate about youth development, shared his experience during the fellowship and his media career.

What actually informed your decision to become a broadcaster?
Radio was a childhood fantasy for me. Growing up with five other siblings many years ago, my father’s transistor radio set sparked my curiosity about voices in the box; radio! As I listened to the news and other interesting radio drama, I could only but wish I were the one behind the microphone informing, educating and entertaining others.

So, it has always been a dream for you?
It has always been a natural flare for me. I, however, started with TV; I had a stint at the defunct Minaj Broadcast International (MBI), before moving to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and now Trend 100.9 FM.

How has the experience been as a broadcaster?
It has been interesting I must say. I’ve found a high level of fulfillment working on the radio, especially with interesting and talented bosses like Niyi Ojemakinde, Ijeoma Uba and Agatha Amata, CEO Inside-Out Media, owners of Trend FM and Rave TV. Looking back, I can say I was a green horn when I started radio at Trend FM under the tutelage of these people I mentioned, but today, my career has taken a new twist.

You are also involved in youth development projects, what’s your interest in this area?
Youth development is another story all entirely, howbeit pathetic. It was precisely at JSS3 class in 2001, while we were preparing for our exams that we heard the sad news that our Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK) teacher Mr Isreal, who was also a pastor in a local church, impregnated one of the brightest girls in my class; she eventually dropped out of school. That event didn’t mean much to me until 2013. I was rounding off my NYSC in Anambra when I ran into her at the Onitsha Main Market hawking sachet water; I was heart broken. I thought about others, who may be in her shoes and the rate of moral decadence in our society. This is what inspired me to start Ideals and Realities youth Empowerment Foundation (IRYEF).

What’s the focus of the foundation?
I’m working to equip vulnerable young persons with basic life building and vocational skills, in order to assist them in making well-informed decisions for a better future, using the Peer-to-peer mentoring model, I started the School Invasion Project (SIP), which entails disseminating age sensitive sexual and reproductive health information for free. After visiting a few schools and interacting with the students, I discovered that the issue was beyond lack of sex education; there were cases of young people in my community seeking self-expression through gangs, drugs, cultism and other vices. To tackle these, we developed a multi-platform approach including Students Productive Life Initiative (SPLIN), which focuses on self-discovery, mentorship, leadership, career readiness, financial literacy and talent development.

It has been held in four schools across two states in Nigeria, benefiting 650 in-school youths. There’s also I Need to Know- TeenzSummit, a yearly leadership summit, which allows teenagers and youths to meet, connect, learn and network with high profile mentors such as Prof. Pat Utomi. Over the course of four years, 3000 young persons have participated in the life-transforming programme.

We also have the Equip the Future radio series. This programme, which targets teenagers and adolescents, reaches about 5,000 young people across five states in the South-South and Southeast zones of Nigeria weekly. This work is important to me because, if the youth, who are the future of Africa, are denied attention, the continent’s economy might plummet. So, that’s what I’ve been doing over the years, aside my broadcasting career.

You recently participated in the 2019 Mandela Fellowship programme, how did it happen?
I stumbled on the criteria for the fellowship through a friend in 2014. Reading through it, I honestly thought I was qualified. So, I started turning in my application each year from 2015. In 2019, I was fortunate to be among the 56 selected out of 11,000 applicants from Nigeria to participate in the highly enriching fellowship. My rejection each year gave me the opportunity to work on myself, knowing well that the fellowship, which is merit based, was highly competitive as well. I can say I was selected based on the impact I was making in the lives of young people in my community through my IRYEF and the work I do on the radio.

Could you share your experiences while in the United State?
Wow, it may be difficult to contain the entire experience during the fellowship in one swipe. However, I can say it was mind blowing. I was at the University of Nebraska in the city of Lincoln. The people were welcoming and willing to learn from young Africans, as much as we were ready to learn from them too. From the academic components of the programme, site visits, community service and mentorship, I can say the fellowship lived up to it’s biding.

Overall, I learnt, secured partnerships, established network of friends/contacts across Africa and America. I now also have access to Alumni opportunities and have gained visibility for my work on the radio and through IRYEF. One of the most exciting for me was taking Clifton’s Strengths test, as well as meeting with eminent Americans such as Dr Ben Carson in Washington DC during the summit.

What exactly is the fellowship all about?
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders initiated by former US President Barack Obama is the flagship programme of the U.S. Government’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Since 2014, nearly 4,400 young leaders from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa have participated in the Fellowship.

The Fellows, between the ages of 25 and 35, are accomplished leaders and have established records of promoting innovation and positive impact in their communities and countries. Each year, the Fellows participate in six-week Leadership Institutes, studying Business, Civic Engagement, or Public Management at U.S. colleges or universities. During their time on campus, Fellows connect with Americans and enrich local U.S. communities, while sharing best practices.

It seems you made it a point of duty to be proudly Nigerian at the event, particularly your outfits?
The programme is one of the exchange programmes of the U.S. Department of State, which means the experience was meant to deepen my knowledge of foreign cultures and strengthening international relationships. To achieve this, the ‘proudly Nigerian’ thing comes in. Despite our challenges as a nation, Nigerians are top flyers across the world.

Are there lessons from the fellowship?
First, I like the emphasis on diversity and inclusion; living and learning in a multicultural setting is another one. I must say I fell in love with their Culture of Time; I love their respect for Time. Again, I love their response to emergencies, an attitude that could best be described as proactive, not reactive. Above all, the ultimate lesson is that no nation is complete; every nation has its own peculiar challenges (hunger, corruption, insecurity). Nigeria is not as bad as portrayed in the media; if we all work for the growth of our nation, we would be better for it.

As a Mandela Fellow, what’s next? How do you intend to impact your immediate environment?
Paying it forward and giving back to society is key to all fellows. Upon my return, I have made it a point of duty to engage the different stakeholders in my work circle. Some of my colleagues and I have put up programmes to enlighten others about our experience and also guide them through the application process. I’m currently working on the structure and organisational framework of my foundation to allow for better deployment of programmes. There are some plans, which I won’t want to unveil for the now, but we will continue in that trajectory of impact because that is the way to go.