INTERVIEW: Olom Okonta earns his Ph.D degree

 Dr. Olom Okonta Ikaworld: Congratulations
on your PhD award. Please tell our readers about your academic journey
in the
USA and what motivated you to pursue a doctorate study.

 

Dr. Okonta: Thank you, Dr. Onyeche.
All the Glory is to God. Well, like Americans say, “it is a long story.”
For
years, men created all kinds of stumbling blocks to preclude me from
earning my
PhD degree, but God finally gave it to me, anyway. As the saying goes,
you
cannot stop a man whose time has come. I am sorry for being this
blunt-speaking, but I’m calling it the way it is. My
academic journey to America actually commenced in Nigeria
several years ago when one of my best friends in Secondary School Mr.
Sunny
Ojebase (deceased) brought the then Nigerian Daily Times to my house in
Agbor
with my name in it! I had been awarded a scholarship by the Nigerian
Government
to study in the United States of America. It was a shocker. I can recall one of
my favorite mathematics teachers at Ika Grammar School those days, Mr. Ikeji,
had helped me to apply for the scholarship program; but, I had forgotten about
it until my name showed up in the newspaper. My father was exhilarated and
flabbergasted with joy and happiness since he no longer had to pay my way
through college. Armed with the Nigerian government’s Letter of Introduction
and a free plane flight via the then Nigerian Airways, I was landed in New York
City all by myself en route to The State University of New York. At such a
tender age, only Alvin Toffler’s book, “Future Shock”, could vividly explicate the
level of shockwave I received for being suddenly dropped into a gargantuan city
such as New York from a de-minute town in Africa (Agbor). The rest, as they
say, is history.

 

I matriculated at the State University of New York, Fredonia campus
with a co-operative engineering double major (Mathematics and Civil Engineering).
The program was a 5-year one between The Ohio State University, Columbus and
The State University of New York, Fredonia, where upon the student attended
both universities and would receive two (2) degrees at completion. The program
was a little harder than I had anticipated. The people were so intelligent in
technology and the sciences. But, I fought it hard, very hard, like I have done
with every challenge I have faced in my life. I kept asking myself: what am I going
to tell my parents if I do not complete this program? In the end, I completed
the program. I was awarded both degrees: B.S. in Mathematics from the State
University of New York, and B.S.C.E. in Civil Engineering from The Ohio State
University. The Nigerian Government paid for my studies through both
universities. I lived in the university dormitories as a government scholar
through my entire studies at both universities. I was always studying my books.
I never worked. God bless the Nigerian Government.

 

My graduate program was somewhat different. I knew what I wanted
by this time. And, above all, I had been acclimated and was gaining a better
understanding of where I was. Several universities gave me admissions for
graduate studies in mathematics, but Texas (Prairie View) A & M University
gave me both an admission plus a graduate teaching assistantship that enabled
pay for my Master’s degree program. So, I graduated with an M.S. degree in
mathematics. The Nigerian Government did not pay for my master’s degree
studies, because the scholarship program had ended after I graduated with my
bachelor’s double-degrees. California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) gave
me an admission to study for my Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics, and I was
entering my second year when I discovered the wonders and computer-mediated
technologies that go along with studies at Capella University (www.capella.edu). I was blown away by
this university, because its programs are better designed for the 21st
Century and beyond. I immediately sought admission and transferred all the
courses I had taken at CSULB there. I studied IDOL (Instructional Design for
Online Learning) in the Education department called ODL in the British or
Nigerian system. We took mathematics to another level called computer-mediated
e-mathematics and e-classrooms. My dissertation research topic was: “Effects of
Online Interaction via Computer-Mediated Communications (CMC) Tools on an
e-Mathematics Learning Outcome.” I graduated with the Ph.D degree on January
11, 2010.

 

Graduating with a Ph.D degree from Capella University was probably
the most challenging endeavor I have undertaken in my life. There is no
elevator to obtaining the Ph.D degree, you have to take the stairs! My mistake
was I had underestimated the program in the beginning. After I had completed
the course work with a GPA above 3.0, and survived and did not get kicked out
of the university as was done to others whose GPA did not make it to 3.0, I was
jubilating and thought it was all over. Little did I know that the hardest part
of the Ph.D program is in the TWO COMPREHENSIVE EXAMINATIONS AND THE DISSERTATION;
especially the dissertation: You have to conduct a research study into an area
that no one else has done before. Now I see why statistically over 40% of the
PhD candidates who complete their coursework never graduate with the PhD
degree. It took me almost a year and half with continuous registration and
extremely intense studies every term to complete the two comprehensive
examinations, and another five years (2005 to 2010) to complete the
dissertation! The program was so tough that I had seriously considered
quitting, something that I normally don’t do. I gave quitting a serious
consideration, because I was contemplating on whether the endeavor was worth
the colossal efforts required and whether I needed to go through such a high
level of stress just to acquire a degree. Also, I thought that I would be too
old by the time I successfully completed the program in 2010. But, my academic
advisor straightened-up my thinking when he asked me “how old will you be in
2010 WITHOUT the Ph.D degree?” That question got me! Anyway, I couldn’t quit,
because a lot had been invested already: a lot of money (thousands of dollars)
was already paid to the university every term (mandatory registration) and if
don’t register in a term you are cut off from the program permanently and you
lose everything! I was stuck between a hard surface and a rock! I met some
Americans who went through the program and they revealed to me that I had to
abandon everything thing else in my life, including my family, if I wanted to
graduate from the program. I had thought they were joking, but that was exactly
what I had to do as well. One of them told me that he had to abandon his family
and moved to another state, and just got finished apologizing to his family
after graduating. You cannot work or do anything else when you are in this
program: it’s a serious endeavor. I spent all my time in the USC (University of
Southern California) Library, and I did not know what was Christmas or New
Year, or any other holiday, or social events for many years. Cutting out
watching TV was one of the things I had to do and learned from the time-management
techniques taught at Capella University. I’m sorry if I have scared anyone
reading this regarding studying for the Ph.D, but I’m being honest about what
happened to me. Actually, the above narration is just a tip on the iceberg of
everything that really happened; I really “suffered” before I received my Ph.D
degree. At one point, I had seriously considered filing a lawsuit against the
university, but my Mentor saved the situation. She said, “look, you cannot win
this: you seem to want to fight everything. They always win. You would lose,
and they would label you; and YOU WOULD NEVER GRADUATE.” I said but, Professor,
how long am I going to keep doing this? She said as long as it takes, which is
why I am in this with you. I wrote a total of over 280 pages in my dissertation
work but all the professors in the Dissertation Committee, the Department
professor, and the University professor pruned, and pruned, and pruned, and
revised and re-revised, and re-re-revised the dissertation contents…to death
for over a total of over 100 times for almost 2 years until only about 120
pages were left! Each time they revised it, I would go back to the USC Library
for weeks, sometimes months. I thought it would never end. What is left in the
dissertation is actually what they want, not really what I want. [In
fact, one of the professors said that there was a voice he was not hearing in
one the chapters that I had written. I said maybe he was having some kind of
medical problem!..no, I did not tell him that]. I have almost twelve
(12) pages of references (books) in my dissertation. But, I have learned a lot
from the program and now I dare say that obtaining the PhD education has made
me a better person and has opened doors that I didn’t even know were closed. To
provide full response to your question, my parents motivated me to complete my
doctorate degree.        

 

 

Ikaworld: Those of us
who could not attend your final presentation and defence of your thesis are
curious to know what the day was like for you. Kindly take us through that day.

 

Dr. Okonta: Dr. Okonta: The day I
defended my dissertation was a day I will never forget. Believe it or not, one
of the professors forgot to show up on time for the defense! The dissertation
chairperson had to hunt him down until she caught up with him. His reason for
being late was that he had too many Ph.D-mentees to supervise and so there was
a mix-up in his schedules. All the professors MUST be present for the defense
to take place.  

 

That day I woke up feeling good, and the day started well, because
I was extremely careful in preparing myself adequately and optimally for what
was coming. I knew from experience that if I did not take care of my mind and
body in a balanced manner, I could experience a “burn-out”, something I have
experienced in the past: it wasn’t fun. I knew the very delicate situation I
was immersed in, and faced losing everything and waiting another 6 months for another
opportunity to defend the dissertation if did not pass the first time.

 

As an experienced professor, the “cobwebs” didn’t really bother me
even though I had crammed and crammed to my optimum capacity the previous week.
So, when that time came and the Chair literally rang the bell: ready, steady,
go! I was let loose like a lion out of a cage in pursuit of an antelope. You
must understand these professors are experts in this field with over 40 years experience
each doing the same thing over and over. In fact, one of them was the
university’s Distinguished Professor and the erstwhile president of the
university. Anyway, I am the expert now, and quoted and quoted and did all I
could to impress them for hours. In the end I was asked to leave and the
committee deliberated for some time and came back to pass me with a unanimous
vote. And, it was all over. All the professors praised my work. One of them said
“Okonta did a fantastic job. The dissertation was impeccable, and his slides
were some of the best we have seen.” They were the first to say
“Congratulations Dr. Okonta”! No more sleeping at the USC Library! No more!            

 

 

Ikaworld: Some of our
readers who are not conversant with the American academic system and titles who
know you as Professor Olom Okonta now hearing you have been awarded your PhD
degree will be confused. Please kindly explain why you are called Professor and
now a Doctor (PhD) at the same time.

 

Dr. Okonta: “Professor” is a job
title such as “Rev.”, “Chief”, “CEO”, “President”, “General”, “Officer” and so
forth. It is not a degree. The PhD is a degree. The PhD is not a job title. For
this reason, there are many Professors who do not have a PhD, and there are
many PhD holders who are not Professors. “Professor” is reserved for an
individual who teaches in the classroom at a College or University. Generally,
a college teacher must work through the ranks from Assistant Professor to Full
Professor. I was awarded the title up to Associate Professor of Mathematics and
Computer Science and Head Natural Science Teacher by the Board of Governors at
Paul-Quinn College, Waco, Texas in 1987. Since that time, I have been teaching mathematics,
statistics, and computer science every semester at several colleges and
universities across the United States. Additionally, this academic system is
practiced in most universities the World over. It is not restricted only to
America. For instance, I know of several Professors and Vice-Chancellors in
Nigerian Universities who do not possess an earned PhD degree.        

 

 

Ikaworld: You are an
academic as well as a business man. Please tell us more about your business
venture and how you manage to keep a balance between business and academics.

 

Dr. Okonta: Thank you, Dr. Onyeche.
This is a tough one. In an interview I granted your Website a few years ago, I
discussed in details how my business (www.okcok.net) is run and what
percentage of my customers are Ika, Nigerian and non-Nigerian. Running a
business is entirely different from school work, it has tested my shrewdness.
It represents a paradigm of the “real world” phenomenon that has not been
vapid, nor has it been intractable for me. Unfortunately, as previously
mentioned, Nigerians constitute only a negligible percentage of my customers.
Those of us (especially Nigerians) in the Diaspora don’t seem to trust doing
business with one another; especially if your business is not a “traditional
one” such as medicine or law. The worst is a technology business such as mine.
A Nigerian (especially the Ikas) would rather drive miles to do business with a
White, Indian or Chinese computer company than come to my store in the neighborhood.
But, as The Almighty would have it, I am more educated, experienced and
knowledgeable than all these other companies. Interestingly, Americans
(especially African-Americans and now, Whites) constitute my ardent customers
and they trust me more than other computer technicians. They are the reason I
am still in business. They like my book, “How to Use Your Personal Computers
Made Simple for DUMMIES.”(1998, re-printed in 2000). After fixing their
computers, they usually would exclaim, boy…you are a genius!: Other technicians
said it could not be done! The percentile breakdown of my customers is roughly:
6o% African-Americans; 30% Whites; 5% Hispanics; 1% Chinese; 1 % Africans (less
than 0.5% Nigerians); and 3% others.

 

One of the reasons I have managed to stay in business is because I
no longer receive frivolous lawsuit now (the past 10 years) that non-Nigerians
are mostly my customers. In business, we (Nigerians) are our own worst enemies.
According to my record, a White person has never filed a lawsuit against my
company in its 18-year existence in Los Angeles. Regardless of the magnitude of
the problem, we always found a way to resolve it amicably. But, a Nigerian
customer is different. First of all, a Nigerian would come into my store
WITHOUT money in his pocket! Some of them would refuse to sign the job-order
form, and others would refuse to pay the diagnostic test fees. Still others
would keep negotiating down the set, non-negotiable fees. Some would say, “I beg make you do’-am for me now! Are
you not a Nigerian?” Sometimes I would retort: “Do you work for free?” One
Nigerian (an Ika-man!), bought a computer from me and after using it for almost
4 years, brought it back and said he wanted a refund! I said no, you need to
upgrade your computer because a 4-year computer is old in today’s world. But,
he would not listen. He got upset, banged the door and filed a frivolous lawsuit
against my company.

 

I enjoy what I do, though. I am much more relaxed now than ever
before. The past several years, I have rarely run into problems with customers
anymore, because I prevent the problems before they occur. I keep the game
strictly business: Business is business. I don’t mix business with pleasure. I
am able to keep a balance between academics and business because I teach
part-time. But, I answer my phones almost 24/7.

 

Some would argue when I say this: America was built from mixing
business with academics. America’s advanced development network stands on the broad
shoulders of small businesses. But, small businesses would build and market no
perfect products without the knowledge and research results from the academic
sector. For example, Dr. Operheimer, an American Scholar/research physicist
known for the creation of the Atomic Bomb, made America famous in annihilating
Japan in the Hiroshima saga. Bill Gates of Microsoft, the richest man in the
world, gleaned computer programming knowledge from Harvard University en route
to the daunting task of creating computer programs such as Windows and other
associated software in a business milieu.

 

Lastly, according to the Nigerian University Commission’s (NUC)
Website (www.nuc.edu.ng), currently there are
108 universities in Nigeria, 27 of them are federal. But, in California alone,
there are over two (2) thousands colleges and universities. The University of
Southern California (USC) produces more PhD’s in one term alone than the entire
Nigeria has produced the past 4 years. For a country of over 150 million
people, Nigeria does not have enough universities to train the minds of her our
citizens. Illiteracy is one of the major problems causing our under-development
because of a lack of adequate number of universities. One State in Nigeria (for
instance Delta State) should have over 108 universities, not the entire nation.
Unlike most Nigerians think we DO NOT produce enough PhD’s and certainly not
enough educators to overhaul our peoples’ mindset. This is the reason we do not
have enough research or researchers to produce results that the business
community needs to develop and build our society (as America did).

 

I know some would argue, but we do not even have enough businesses
to assimilate the graduates we have hitherto produced. I understand that, but
as the saying goes anyone who questions the value of education should try
ignorance. The formula is this: When one acquires an education, one is
immediately thrown unto the next plane of gaining a higher perspicacity of the
so-called the “real world” phenomenon. But, if one goes a step further and
acquires education abundantly, in an environment that supports education in
abundance, the above-mentioned scenario is more-so true to the extent that unfettered
minds appear that can efficaciously mix business with academics. When that
happens, more businesses are created and therefore job creations become
inevitable. That was what America did. History is replete with nations that
have faced similar under-development impasse that Nigeria is struggling with
today. But, business and job creations cannot be and have never been achieved
via the barrel of the gun. It’s a mental thing.    

 

 

Ikaworld: What is your
plan for the future?

 

Dr. Okonta: As the saying goes, man
proposes, but God disposes. I believe that man is the arbiter of his own
misfortune. I believe in God, but also I believe in man; because man has caused
a lot of problems that were not the intention of God. For instance, man caused all
the under-development problems all over Nigeria. It was man that turned off
light everyday in Nigeria, not God. It was man that left all our roads and
structures dilapidated; it was man that looted our treasury to the Swiss Bank;
it was man that left our hospitals with incompetent doctors and unsafe
environment. The list goes on.

 

I have several ideas going through my mind regarding what the
future holds for me at this point in my life. I have practiced many years as a
scholar-practitioner and solved community problems as a Civil Engineer, as a
Professor, as a computer Business Owner, and now I would like to give back to
the community. By so doing, I would help to solve or at least, to alleviate
some of the society-problems enunciated above.

 

I also would like to point out that I am currently working with
Diasporan Organizations such as CISA (Council of Igbo States in the Americas) whose
objectives include working with and actualizing the D3 Initiative propounded by
Governor Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan. As humbly as could possibly represent, I would
like to report that I was recently (last week) appointed as the DSG (Speaker of
the House) in charge of Igbo Assembly in the Diaspora. I am proposing to the
Board of Presidents the following Projects this fiscal year (2010):

 

1.  Free Medical Mission to
Asaba, Agbor, Onitsha, and Issele-uku.

2.  Actualization of the
Delta Diasporan Direct (D3) Initiative proposed by Dr. Uduaghan

3.  Education, Training and
Counseling Mission to Delta and Imo States.

  

I am humbled and trying my level best to let the Almighty God use
my knowledge and experience to alleviate human suffering.

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