Celebrating a Woman of Many Firsts

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The Department of Mathematics, University of Ibadan, recently honoured Professor Olabisi Ugbebor, the first Nigerian woman to obtain a PhD in Mathematics, as she clocked 70 years and retired from service at the premier university. Kemi Olaitan reports

She is an achiever of many firsts with no mean feat. Professor Olabisi Ugbebor of the Department of Mathematics, University of Ibadan is the first Nigerian woman to obtain a Ph.D in Mathematics, the first female Nigerian Professor of Mathematics in the University of Ibadan as well as the first woman ever to be elected Fellow of the Nigerian Mathematics Society (NMS). She has also contributed immensely to the academic world in Nigeria and internationally .

Celebration rented the air recently, as colleagues, former students and students of her department, family and friends as well as church members, joined her to mark her 70 years birthday. It was also a day set aside for her to bow out of service from the premier university after 44 years.

The Acting Head of Department (HOD) of Mathematics, Dr. Michael Enioluwafe, whio welcomed everyone on behalf of the department, Faculty of Science and the university, said putting the programme together which was part of a two-day International Mathematics Conference themed, ‘Mathematics : Frontiers, Perspectives and Applications’, was to celebrate a woman who had impacted lives of many.

According to him, ” the Department of Mathematics offer our most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to Professor Olabisi Ugbebor for all the fine work and the many contributions you have bestowed upon the department and university community. You have been an inspiration to the students and to all who have had the pleasure of knowing and working with you. Her powerful personal story has motivated our students, she has given the students a tremendous example by which our own students can form a personal vision.”

In her remarks, the Secretary, Nigerian Women in Mathematics (NWM), Dr. Deborah Makinde, described Ugbebor as one who has blazed the trail and a woman of substance set in Mathematics, adding that this is what other women are following.

She disclosed that the NWM became a reality in 2014 through her efforts when she occupied the Pastor Enoch Adeboye Professorial Chair in Mathematics in the University of Ibadan, and served as the founding President.

“On behalf of the Nigerian Women in Mathematics, I am pleased to celebrate the legacy of Professor Olabisi Ugbebor, the President of the NWM. She has undoubtedly been a transformational leader all through her years of service. Unique among leaders in the field, your career has been marked by continuing fundamental contributions across the field of Mathematical Science. You have been a powerful champion of every mathematical program you partook in and have contributed immensely to professional organisations promoting the girl-child education. You have been famous in helping students find their own mathematical voices and for producing many students.”

Her first Ph.D student and the Director/Chief Executive, National Mathematical Centre, Abuja, Professor Stephen Onah, , who joined the ceremony through zoom, eulogised her contributions to humanity, noting that she has continued to be a role model to the numerous students who passed through her. According to him, her qualities have made her a mother to all with everyone who had contact with her could not, but take something positive from her life.

According to him, “When I cast my mind to our first meeting at the Department of Mathematics, University of Ibadan, almost 30 years ago, it has been a pleasant memory all through. You accepted me for who I was, and till date, for who I am. I cherished this immensely and have never taken it for granted. Without much words, your lifestyle led me to the true knowledge of Christianity. To me, you are in an adorable class of your own. The humanity in you is incomparable, the charm is captivating and iresistible. In fact, I have not been able to find one scene when the smiles on your face was absent. This can only be God.

He described her as a definitive mathematician with a pleasant touch who has endeared herself to all with a pride of place on the sands of time.

“Your ability to accommodate, tolerate, inspire and build all kinds of persons associated with you, make you a mentor of uncommon virtues. You are amiable and a great source of inspiration. By these qualities you have created an ocean of human capital with unbounded domain of operations within which you will continue to dwell.”

Sharing her testimony on Professor Ugbebor on behalf of the Department of Mathematics, Dr. Deborah Ajayi, said she had been an inspiration and encouragement to many, especially the women in Mathematics, adding that she made a real difference in the lives of both students and colleagues through her smiles, motivation, wisdom and positivity.

“I was blessed to meet Mama Ugbebor when I came in to register in Mathematics department in 1981 as a prelim student and she was assigned the task of registering prelim students. With encouraging words and smiles, she did the work. We admired her as the only female lecturer in the department. Later she taught me a few courses at the undergraduate level. She taught one of the courses with pregnancy. Later, when I was employed, we were the only two female lecturers for several years. To me, Mama Ugbebor was and is still a model of a strong, hardworking, active mother, lecturer, senior colleague and Christian mathematician.”
From her church where she is a Deaconess, the Senior Pastor, Oritamefa Baptist Church, Ibadan, Reverend Remi Awopegba, described Ugbebor as a role model to her generation for countless reasons such as passion for everything and anything she believes in; absolute devotion to her faith; fear for God and fearlessly before men; integrity as a lecturer; meticulous nature and attention to details; creative and mathematical mind and discernment and spiritual insight.

Other qualities he noted, are her strength, tenacity and resilience in tough situations; warmth, kindness and hospitality to all and sundry; humility despite success and uncommon achievements; discipline, firmness yet humane in all matters; sense of duty and hard work as well as being a deep and very passionate person.

Awopegba said, “she is one woman that speaks with passion, and you will always see this displayed anytime she is ministering. She ministers the word powerfully, with all the grace and ability in her. She has passion for impacting lives. Mama Olabisi Ugbebor keeps impacting lives of both young and old, male and female, students and workers. Numerous testimonies abound concerning her exploits in this regard. She is a counselor, advisor and rehabilitator. She has been very useful and productive in the counseling and deliverance ministry of the church.”

Paying tribute to his wife, her husband, Mr. Curtis Ugbebor, said her life spans many areas of human life but would rather eulogised her on what he called trilateral acronym of ACR with A standing for achievements, C for Christianity and R for relationships. According to him, her academic achievements are numerous such that her contributions in the field of Mathematics are globally acknowledged and can be sourced by reference to her many scholarly publications in various journals from different parts of the world.

He added that as a workaholic, her daily schedule is so demanding such that he always hope she does not suffer from physical exhaustion.

“She is extremely thorough when proof reading her students’ work; this is because she always aims to bring her students to such a standard of excellence that they can favourably compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.”

“She does not relate to people on the basis of their educational, economic or social standing but purely on humanitarian considerations. She is friends with the poor, illiterates and the low-income earners. Such lowly placed citizens feel at home in her company. People generally find her as someone who is come-at-able and never reneged on promises. Even when under the cosh, she does not display maladdress towards anyone, nor does she disesteem people on the basis of their pecking order. She is loved by students from various ethnic nationalities in Nigeria because of her absolutely detribalised nature.
“She is known to care so much about other people’s welfare, never solipsistic. If any help is within her power to render, she does it immediately, never procrastinating or being a dictator, forever living in the land of manna. In a world where people do not care a hoot for the needy and the poor, she is ever willing to offer them a helping hand. People generally are never at ease in her company because she never displays arrogance in her interaction with anyone. Notwithstanding her prodigious intellect, Professor Olabisi Ugbebor attitudinises and exemplifies unassuming humility.”

In a tribute titled, ‘Leave It All on the Field – A Tribute to Selfless Service’, her son, Ifeloju Ugbebor, described his mother as the embodiment of achiever who manages to get more done in a day than is required in a week and always getting things done by putting in her best every time.

He disclosed that it was quite difficult to fail in her class as she engages every student by asking many questions during a lecture period with a correct answer earning one mark towards the continuous assessment.

According to him, “Mama has the uncanny ability of knowing all her students by name, and if you are quiet in class she will call on you to answer questions. There are no stupid answers in Mama’s class, in fact through this intellectual engagement everyone participates and learns better. By the end of the semester most students have a half of their continuous assessment scores ready, and because everyone participated and answered questions, it is difficult to find someone who knows absolutely nothing of the subject matter.

“Mama works late into the night modifying syllabi, correcting theses and making sure that knowledge transfer is effective and efficient. When she has a MSc or PhD student, mama does not break step, she is there with them all the way. This kind of selfless service is crucial for effective transfer of knowledge. It is literally all or nothing. When it comes to matters of knowledge transfer, academic or otherwise, it is simply all or nothing. You must give 100 per cent of yourself, this is the only way to ensure that the ball does not drop down the line.”

In her response, Ugbebor gave glory to God for all her achievements, noting that without Him she is nothing.