NIGERIANS NAMED IN RARE RISING STARS – UK’S TOP TEN STUDENTS LIST

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Now in its seventh year, Rare Rising Stars showcases the incredible achievements of the best black students in the UK.

Each year, judges Tom Chigbo, Adrian Joseph, David Lammy MP, Trevor Phillips OBE and Jean Tomlin OBE select a cohort of exceptional black students.

This year’s top ten were revealed on Thursday 16th July 2015 at the House of Commons.

According to the organisers , the RARE Rising Stars Project showcases the incredible achievements of the best black students in the Uk and follows the continued progress of previous winners.

RARE says they are very fortunate to meet extraordinary students on an almost day-to-day basis. Beyond helping these individuals identify and achieve their potential, they also recognise that they all have the power to inspire their own generation through sharing their achievements, ambitions and triumphs over adversity. Knowing that there are always more high achievers to be discovered, a nationwide search for the brightest black students led them to some tremendous talents including 4 young Nigerians

ABDUL-KAREEM DAGGASH
MEng Computer Science
University College London (UCL)

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Our number one’s prodigious coding skills, now recognised by some of the UK’s leading technology experts, were unlocked by his childhood love of PC gaming.

At five, he cut his teeth on Age of Empires, finding the intellectual challenge of the strategy game “totally addictive”. At seven, when his family moved from their provincial home town in Nigeria to Lagos, Kareem remembers starting at a new, much better school almost as vividly as he remembers getting a new, much better computer: “Apple was coming up around that time so we got a really powerful iMac – I was able to do so much more with it”.

By the time he was twelve, he’d discovered the world of modifying PC games – tinkering with the coding for some of the games’ fundamental properties to change the way they worked. He decided to give it a go himself and taught himself the basics, attempting at first to introduce a different car into The Godfather. “It failed terribly – so, instead, I decided to change the main character into a Batman model. I was young, and it was fun,” he says.

By 16, he had taught himself PHP for web development and had graduated to coding entire levels for some of his favourite games with C#. This meant teaching himself one of the newest technologies available: “the types of modifications I had in mind needed 3D modelling skills. It wasn’t a big scene at the time but I was determined to work it out”. He was soon working with online groups on huge modelling projects, using his newfound skills to model landscapes and add scripts to the environment to tell it when and how events should occur.

“I’m inspired by trying to create something from nothing, or at least it feels that way. You start with an empty text editor and idea, and when you’re done, there’s hopefully a working program.”

There was a brief hiatus while he did his iGCSEs – naturally, he got the highest results in his school – but when he started his A levels at Brighton College, he returned to computing with renewed vigour. He entered an entrepreneurship competition, setting his sights on the invention of a tracking chip and transceiver for luggage.

“A friend of mine and I knew what we wanted to make and we knew we had two weeks to create a demo – but we had no idea how,” he remembers. He spent the next couple of weeks “cramming the necessary knowledge” into his head, teaching himself how to design a circuit board and a new programming language – Processor, a variant of C++ – whilst his partner learnt about electronic design. “It was really intense,” he says, “and we burnt through about twelve circuit boards before we made one that worked,” but their perseverance paid off: Kareem designed and printed the hardware himself and their team came first, winning £3,333 in the process.

It wasn’t until he started his degree in computer science at UCL that Kareem realised how many gaps there were in his knowledge. “When you’re learning through the internet, you waste a lot of time and get an incomplete knowledge,” he explains. “When you start at UCL, they tell you to forget everything you ever learnt about coding”. He grabbed all the opportunities that came his way, joining “every coding and technology society,” and learnt “a huge amount” from his peers. His dedication has paid off and, at the age of 19, he has amassed an astonishing collection of awards and acknowledgement. First came the prestigious Thales Tech Design competition which his team of three won for their design of Nocturno, a ground spy robot. He then attracted the attention of game developer Lionhead Studios, who travelled to UCL to try out Into the Rift, a virtual reality game he’d coded for.

The next big creation he worked on, named Bolt, Push, Rush, was shortlisted for the UK National Imagine Cup Competition finals. Then came the Thomson Reuters Hackathon, where his four man team’s 24 hour coding spree secured yet another win. This was to prove a significant moment for his career prospects – so impressed was the Chief Technology Officer of Thomson Reuters by Kareem’s talent that he offered him a graduate position, not realising he was only in the first year of his degree. He settled for inviting him on a summer internship instead.

His academic achievements were the source of his next victory – as well as achieving a 73% average in the first year of his degree, he was given the Computer Science award for his first year Android App project and earned a staggering 93% in his Computer Architecture Course. Most recently, he formed part of a team awarded the Braintree Prize in Bloomberg’s Launch Hack competition.

“You have to take the thing you love doing most and just focus on that. You probably won’t be the best, but at least you’ll have loads of fun trying to get close.”

Kareem’s talents have seen him pursued by the CEO of Noomsa, a start-up music service for which he now codes. He has also impressed at Myriada, a start-up financial prediction platform. On his first day, he “ended up fixing a lot of the bugs they were struggling with”. He’s currently at the final stages of his application for Cyanogen, a rising technology company that aims to compete with Android and Apple, and is also keen to pursue the relationship he’s built with Thomson Reuters. One thing’s for sure – wherever he ends up, the future is bright for this promising young coder.

OLUREMI ABATI
Foundation Degree in Music Production
Haringey College of North East London
Arts and Academia

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Oluremi Abati’s blindness has meant he has spent much of his life fighting for access to the most basic of human rights.

One day, when he was eight years old, Oluremi was sent home from his school in Nigeria with a bad headache. Three days later, he had lost his sight. His family, concluding that black magic was involved, immediately took him out of school. For the next ten years, he was locked in the house, subjected to beatings and accused of causing deaths and illnesses in the family.

Finally, when he was 18, his father agreed to let him go to a rehabilitation centre. Oluremi threw himself into the opportunities afforded to him by this move, slowly learning to read and write in Braille and starting a course. “I hadn’t had any sort of education at all since I was eight, so it was very hard,” he says, “but I was determined”. Then came strike two in his education: unable to pay the fees, he was forced to give up his studies.ground rather than the dining table.

His time at St Olave’s School in Orpington uncovered two talents: rugby and comedy. Being a player in the school’s first XV made the former more obvious; the latter was only truly realised after his Year 12 performance of the first ever stand‑up routine in the school talent show’s history.

“I was tired of sitting at home doing nothing. I just wanted to learn.”

Whilst waiting to be granted asylum in the UK, he made another attempt to access education, applying for a music production course at Haringey College. His interviewer was, he says, sceptical; they’d never had a blind person on the course and didn’t think he’d be able to keep up. He advised him to consider another course, but Oluremi was insistent.

The college eventually offered him a place but remained adamant that he would only be able to manage a level two diploma. Within weeks of starting the course, however, his tutors were so impressed with Oluremi’s ability that they offered him a place to study for a foundation degree. They told him he would have to find £22,000 to cover the cost of a support learner, which they were certain he would need. Oluremi engaged a lawyer to fight his case and successfully appealed for his fees to be charged at the standard rate of £5,500.

He has achieved a distinction in every subject – without a support learner – and his tutors are confident that he will be able to achieve his goal of becoming a teacher. His personal tutor says that Oluremi’s level of commitment to study is “on a level I have rarely come across in my years working as a teacher” and describes his “refusal to let his disability hinder his progress” as “incredible”.

“My novel is about how the powerful try to subdue the weak when they try to achieve things that seem impossible.”

Oluremi plays the saxophone, the piano and sings, and has performed twice at the Royal Festival Hall. He won a medal in the London Metro Tennis for the Blind tournament in 2013 and is a member of the Tottenham Blind Football Team. He has recently finished writing his first novel, The Story of the Broken Heart, which follows a young African boy confronted repeatedly with seemingly insurmountable obstacles who eventually becomes a king. It wasn’t until two or three months after he finished writing the book that he noticed the parallels with his own story. The difference, he points out, is that he is not a king. Perhaps not – but he is certainly one of the brightest and most brilliant stars these awards have ever seen.

STEPHANIE IFAYEMI
Politics and International Studies
University of Warwick

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When she was 16, a life-changing talk by the Dalai Lama triggered Stephanie’s determination to lead change on an international scale. “He spoke of how the new generation are the leaders of tomorrow,” she says. “There was a large audience, but I felt like he was speaking directly to me”.

Until then, she’d known only that she was determined to be financially independent having witnessed her mother’s experiences in the wake of her parents’ divorce. “The speed of the transition from our comfortable life in Surrey, to seeing my mum as the sole provider for the four of us, made it very hard,” she says, “but it also opened my eyes to the struggles of others and the conflicts and issues in the world”. So, when she heard a talk by Haiti-based human rights lawyer Mario Joseph about the country’s recent earthquake, she determined to do something to help. Despite her young age – she was 16 at the time – she wanted to be on the front line of the emergency response.

“I want to experience a world where I can say I’ve contributed to bettering the lives of many. Hard times build determination and inner strength that you should use on your journey.”

Not one to let a little thing like her youth, lack of funds and lack of experience stop her, she wrote a proposal to four law firms. So impressed was DLA Piper by the teenager’s plans that, alongside a £1,000 donation to the cause, they offered to host a fundraiser at their offices. She secured speakers including Lord Lesley Griffiths and the Mayor of Barnet and attracted 70 attendees, raising a further £3,000 in the process.

Stephanie used these funds to fly herself and a friend out to Haiti to help the relief effort. Once there, as well as working for the Haitian Institute for Justice and Democracy and the Bureau Des Advocats International, she set about tackling the rape epidemic. “It was so hard hearing how young the victims were,” she says – but the work was also rewarding. One of her proudest achievements was helping secure the conviction of a man who had fathered a child with his 11 year old daughter. Working with the girl was, of course, “harrowing”, but Stephanie remembers getting goose bumps as she watched the judge condemn the man’s actions and sentence him to life imprisonment.

Her extraordinary experience in Haiti gave her a taste for international development, and she is now President of the Warwick International Development Society (WIDS). As president, she has rescued the society from the brink of ruin, overseeing a more than twenty-fold increase in sponsorship (from £890 to £20,000). Her work has seen her meet with Secretary Justine Greening and the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund to discuss her activities.

“More than anything, I’m inspired by change, and I want to make it happen on a global level.”

The society’s Summit event, for which she secured speakers including Norman Finkelstein and Sir Richard Jolly, attracted an audience of 250 and was regarded as one of the university’s “Best Conferences”. In the long term, Stephanie hopes to join Kofi Annan as a prominent black figure in the international development sphere – an eminently attainable goal for this determined young woman.

CHIDI AMADI
MBBS Medicine, previously BSc Pharmacology (First Class Honours)
King’s College London (KCL)
Student Politics, Community Activism, Business and Academia

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Richard Serunjogi

The sheer quantity of Chidi’s leadership positions, academic achievements and innovations defies belief. As well as co-founding a free school – a process he began in the first year of his degree in medicine – Chidi has 15 GCSEs (ten of which were A*s), a First in BSc Pharmacology, is Deputy Chair of the British Medical Association’s Medical Student Group, is Director of the UK’s largest student-led Think Tank and has made important strides in his quest to get a pioneering new drug to treat Crohn’s disease licensed in the UK.

One of Chidi’s early forays into the world of leadership came when, at 15, he masterminded an Oxbridge access scheme for his secondary school’s black pupils. The teacher he was working with was so impressed by his efforts that, when she decided to set up a free school a few years later, she asked Chidi to be co-founder. “She knew that I would know how hard it was to want to study, to want to focus, but to be surrounded by people who didn’t,” he says. “My secondary school was a good school, but you had to have more – something from your family, or inside you – to succeed”.

The vision, then, was a free school that would give students from all walks of life access to the rigours of a highly academic education. Whilst his course mates were getting their heads around the demands of first year medicine, Chidi was putting together a team including a lawyer, a banker and educationalists. He has juggled the demands of his degree with the “politics and turmoil” of the free school process – it was, for example, “very difficult” to find a building – and the oversubscribed school finally opened in September 2014 with 120 Year 7 pupils. Chidi maintains an active role as a governor and trustee, and sits on the sub-committee of curriculum and finance.

“You have to believe in yourself, and surround yourself with people that want to see you do well. Whether they are parents, mentors or friends, they will support and encourage you when times get tough.”

Meanwhile, Chidi has been on a mission to revolutionise the UK’s treatment of Crohn’s disease. He has spent the last three years working to get Thioguanine – a drug already licensed in the States – licensed in the UK. The first step in the process is to get research published by respected journals; Chidi has already been published in two, and he has two more publications coming up in the likes of The Gut, ECCO and Digestive Disease Week. He is confident that the drug will be licensed within three years.

Chidi has also accrued an impressive catalogue of leadership positions. As Deputy Chair of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) Medical Student Group – a body which meets annually to provide policy recommendations to the BMA – he leads representatives from medical schools around the country, works with them to devise motions to be debated at the group’s annual conference and liaises with government departments.

As Director of Education Policy in King’s Think Tank, the largest student-led think tank in the UK, he has overseen conferences about free schools and created policies to be published in journal The Spectrum. He was also elected Director of the Health Division of KCL’s Business Club, a role in which he organised three events for more than 500 people each. Finally, he contributed to getting KCL library’s closing time extended from 11pm to 3am during exam periods and arranged for internet access in the university’s “cold spots” in his role as Intercalated BSc Year Representative of the Medical Student Association.

Chidi is still working to raise aspirations amongst African-Caribbeans. Since 2011, he has been Academics Ambassador of the Protégé Leadership Academy, a charity set up to raise the achievement of black students. He has told his story at the charity’s events and arranged for some of the students to visit him at the hospital. He also tutors 12 black students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in biology, chemistry, maths and economics at GCSE and A level.

“For me, it’s about remembering that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I genuinely believe that anything is possible with enough time, dedication, motivation and consistency. I have a vision of where I want to be – a clear picture in my mind – and that image keeps me focused on what I need to do.”

In 2015, Chidi met with Prime Minister, David Cameron, and former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and reported outside Number 10 Downing Street on BBC Question Time and on BBC Radio 5. These activities have given him a platform to discuss a variety of topics and speak for and on behalf of young people.

This array of achievements has been recognised with an impressive collection of awards. His GCSE grades and A levels earned him two London Schools and the Black Child Awards and a Borough of Lambeth Achievement Award. He received the King’s College London Musgrove and Peacock Scholarship Award for one of his second year papers. He was Star Graduate Winner of the Year in Young Black Graduates 2013 and, in 2014, came first in the education category of the UK Black Youth Achievement Awards.

Chidi is going into the final year of his medical degree this September and is looking forward to becoming a doctor next summer. He plans to become a consultant before moving into medical politics. He firmly believes that he can achieve whatever he sets his mind to and, with his track record, who can doubt him?

“My previous successes inspire me to keep going – if I ever think something is impossible, I remind myself that I’ve jumped over tough obstacles in the past and I can do it again!”

The RARE Rising Stars continues to champion role models from all walks of life. The ten stars showcased are testament to the passion, ressilience and commitment flourishing among black students in the Uk today.

CREDIT TO RARE RISING STARS 2015

Jummy Ariyo
July 2015

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