Oluseyi Bisiriyu, is a legal assistant at U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Like many in the civilian workforce he is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and the experiences that helped him succeed in the Navy strengthened his desire to overcome the adversity he faced throughout his life. Learn where it all began for Bisiriyu in Part One of this short story series.
Story by: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Fiorillo, U.S. Fleet Forces Command Public Affairs
It was a blistering morning in Nigeria when Oluseyi Bisiriyu walked onto the campus of the University of Lagos for class. He was gathering his thoughts and running through his day when he bumped into a classmate that began teasing him about his name being in the paper. Dismissing the encounter as friendly banter, he walked a few steps further and realized the results of the law school entrance exam must have been released. Oluseyi hurried to the newspaper stand to buy a paper. He hastily thumbed through the pages to discover his friend had been telling the truth.
His persistence and hard work paid off, and he would begin law school in the upcoming months.
Growing up in Nigeria
Oluseyi is the oldest of three children. After his parents married, they struggled to conceive their first child for almost two years.
"In Nigeria, if a couple cannot have children, it is the woman's fault. No matter who was barren, the blame falls on the woman,” Oluseyi explained frankly. “After I was born, my mother was overjoyed, and she could not hide the fact that I was the favorite."
His mother did not want to pamper and spoil him, but she did want to give him the opportunities she didn't have. Neither of his parents went to college, but they both found work as accountants for the Nigerian government.
In the first of two lotteries that would drastically alter Oluseyi’s life, the Nigerian government began to raffle off the opportunity to buy land just beyond the city limits for a discounted price in an effort to expand development.
"We went from living in an apartment to an estate just outside the city limits," he explained.
Once Oluseyi and his family moved to their new home, life began to change. His father resigned from his job to farm his newly acquired land and the household income was cut in half.
"I was going to a private school at the time, but we couldn't afford the tuition, so I moved into the public school system.”
At the public school, Oluseyi excelled in most subjects and finished the school year as one of the top five students of his class. His grades allowed him to sit for the Common Entrance Exam earlier than his peers.
The National Common Entrance Exam in Nigeria is a test required for students to enter secondary school. Oluseyi made the mark and began attending Baptist Boys High School in Abeokuta, Ogun State. This was his first time away from home, and he struggled to manage his newfound freedom.
Oluseyi passed the first term at the school, but struggled towards the end of his second and third.
“It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart, and I never got involved in gangs or with violent people,” he confessed. “I just wasn’t studying.”
The education system in Nigeria is based on the 6-3-3-4 concept with students spending the following years in various schools as explained below:
- Six years in primary school
- Three years in junior secondary school
- Three years in senior secondary school
- Four years in a tertiary institution
Students then advance to junior secondary school automatically. Junior secondary school covers grades seven through nine, completing the basic stage of education. In senior secondary school, students follow either an academic or a pre-vocational curriculum that includes electives such as sciences, agriculture, business studies, crafts, computer education, and social sciences (arts).
In what is the equivalent of a high school sophomore year, Nigerian students are separated by career path to receive more specialized professional training.
Oluseyi was selected into the arts and communication field and began pursuing a career in journalism.
“The first year I failed and I couldn’t move on to the next level.” Oluseyi’s voice lowered as he spoke as if he is still regretful of his mistake. “I was playing and I wasn’t studying. My mom was really hurt.”
He repeated the courses from the previous year and squeezed by with passing grades, but his mom had become tired of his low grades and pulled him out of the school.
“She told me that if I didn’t want to study I could sit at home and watch other kids go to school.”
Working on His Father's Farm
He did just that. He spent the next three months helping his father with the farm work. He was apathetic about the work, but his dad felt different.
“He was thrilled to have another set of hands on the farm,” Oluseyi said. “I thought this was hell. I was so happy to see my mom come home.”
Olulseyi’s mom was transferred to the newly established headquarters in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja and wasn’t around to soften her husband’s stern brand of discipline on their first born. One of their family friends had observed the father and son’s interaction on several occasions and called his mom to express concerns. Oluseyi’s mom returned home immediately. When she returned, she asked if Oluseyi was ready to get back to school. When he said he was, his mother began searching for a new school for him.
In the Nigerian school system, the year is broken into three terms and Oluseyi joined Community Grammar School in Ipaja, during the second term.
“Before I began, my dad told me that this was my last chance for school,” Oluseyi said. “If I failed again, there was no more school and I would be helping him on the farm.”
Feeling success was crucial, and looking to dress the part, Oluseyi decided he would save the money his dad gave him for bus fare and lunch, to buy him new clothes in case his father refused him.
“I decided to walk the six miles to school and keep the money,” Oluseyi reasoned. “I wanted to buy myself a visor to block the sun.”
Just a few weeks into the semester, the sky opened up on Oluseyi about a mile from his house and he found himself amidst a terrible rainstorm.
“I wasn’t in a place to catch a bus so I just had to keep walking in the rain,” he said.
It was during this downpour that Oluseyi had a moment of clarity.
“I realized that the six years I was in the Baptist Boys High School, I had never been rained on because the campus had long hallways and sidewalks with overhead coverage to keep me out of the rain. Here I was, just two weeks into this new school and I showed up to school soaking wet. Everyone was laughing.”
While the rain was washing away his immaturity, he promised himself he would never waste another opportunity like the one he had at Baptist Boys High School.
“That was the first time I had an event that changed my perception in life,” Oluseyi said. The next semester Oluseyi was the only student to pass every section of the school’s comprehensive final.
“They weren’t all A’s, but I worked hard enough to make sure I didn’t have any deficiencies.”
Feeling accomplished after the school year had ended, he knew that if he stayed at home, he was going to be working on the farm with his dad. He started looking for a job immediately.
“I ended school on a Friday and started work the very next Monday.”
While English was the official language in Nigeria, his mother struggled with it. She was determined to make sure her son was more proficient, and he developed an early love for reading.
"I was good at reading,” Oluseyi said with a smile. His deep-set brown eyes confidently confirmed the statement. “I could read all day and forget to eat if the story was interesting enough."
Finding a Mentor
Oluseyi applied to be a bookkeeper for a local bookstore. When he arrived for the interview, he was awed by the size of the bookstore and its grounds. It was an enormous two-story house with seemingly giant dogs roaming the yard. When he walked inside, the entire first floor was filled with rows of books.
During the interview the store owner asked what church he went to and Oluseyi answered, but added that he didn’t enjoy the doctrine. The two continued the interview and later the storekeeper confessed that when Oluseyi used the word doctrine conversationally as a high school student, the storekeeper recognized his intelligence and wanted to mentor him. Oluseyi was hired for the position and began work immediately.
He worked every day from sun up to sun down and it wasn’t long before Oluseyi’s friends came to call, pleading with him to abandon his work responsibilities and go with them. Eventually Oluseyi gave in and attempted to quit his job. The store owner refused to accept his resignation, at which point their relationship began to blossom.
The store owner, the late Fela Davis, told him about his childhood. He was born into a wealthy family and both of his older siblings went to off to school. He instead got a job similar to the one Oluseyi had at the moment.
In between his shifts at work, Davis made a visit to a university and found out how many books they read in a year.
“They told him they read 12-15 books each year. Mr. Davis decided he would read 20 books every year. He began taking long distance courses and creating exams for himself and learning through the skill of summary he had acquired in secondary school.”
In three years, Davis was able to compete intellectually with those students from the university and retired as a director in the Federal Ministry of information over people holding PhDs.
He created a reading list for Oluseyi and gave him a copy of “Word Power Made Easy,” a book designed to help readers develop their vocabulary and offers ways to dissect unfamiliar words.
The book made such an impact on Oluseyi that he still carries a copy with him today.
“This book was the first book that showed me how to communicate.”
Armed with a new reading list and a growing appetite for knowledge, Oluseyi applied to a local federally funded university without luck. After his second admission denial from the university, Davis insisted that Oluseyi work with him at his office, rather than the bookstore. It was then that Davis taught Oluseyi how to manage his income and create savings. Davis also taught him how to behave at social events, including proper dining room etiquette.
“Even when the food did not require a fork and knife, Mr. Davis insisted that I use it,” Oluseyi said. “Being able to use a fork and knife was part of becoming part of the elite, he used to say.”
Oluseyi credits that job, and Davis, as part of the reason for the success Oluseyi has achieved.
“Had I not taken that job, I probably wouldn’t be who I am today.”
As Oluseyi developed as a scholar, he knew he would have to return to a university for a formal education.
“I had it in my heart that I wanted to be a lawyer. My father was a farmer and I wanted to create change for this generation,” Oluseyi said. “I knew becoming a lawyer would drastically change my family’s sociological status in Nigeria and for the coming generations.”
Oluseyi had difficulty meeting the admission requirements of the competitive law program, but alternatively, he was admitted into the Christian Religious Education program on the path to become a teacher in order to get his foot in the door.
Oluseyi never wanted to lose sight of his goal to become a lawyer, so every day before he left campus, he would walk to the main campus of the University of Lagos where law classes were being held and sit in front of the building imagining what it would be like to take classes there.
“I will join you next year,” he said wagging his finger like he was back in front of the building. “I’m coming after you next year.”
This challenge would be one of the many goals that Oluseyi set for himself and would later accomplish.
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (Feb. 27, 2017) Oluseyi Bisiriyu, a member of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command general schedule (GS) workforce, poses for a portrait at the Regent Law Library. Bisiriyu works as a legal assistant and is scheduled to take the bar exam in spring 2017. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Fiorillo/ Released) 170210-N-FG909-038
Click here for Part Two.