Baraqat Hamzat graduated with 4.0 CGPA, equivalent to 76 per cent, from the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Manchester, United Kingdom. She tells TUNDE AJAJA about the things she did differently to attain her goal and aspirations
You once said you couldn’t stop smiling after graduating with a first-class grade, could you share the experience?
It certainly wasn’t easy; graduating with a first-class grade or even a second-class upper division in Chemical Engineering from a top-rated university like The University of Manchester requires a lot of work. There were lots of late-night studying, moments of self-doubt and an overwhelming volume of materials to study within a short time. I worked really hard to graduate with a first-class grade and I worked even harder to maintain it for three consecutive years, especially as the course was getting harder. Knowing I overcame so many hurdles, academic and social, was why I said I couldn’t stop smiling. Initially, I aimed at graduating with a second-class degree as the least grade I should have, but as the years went by, I kept shifting my target and working hard towards it and I’m glad it all paid off.
You mentioned self-doubt, were there times you almost gave up?
I’m sure even my course mates would admit that studying Chemical Engineering was somewhat a roller coaster; it wasn’t a smooth journey. However, there was never a time I considered giving up. Even when it got tougher, that wasn’t an option for me. I only became more determined.
Was there any particular low moment that really got to you?
A particular one was when I was trying to get an internship placement. The application process was extremely competitive and it took a lot of my time and even interfered with my studies. The rejection emails were heartbreaking. There were moments I felt I should stop and just focus on school work instead of travelling for hours every week for interviews, but I kept juggling both and kept learning from my application mistakes. In the end, I ended up with several offers from three big, respectable companies. During my internship at ExxonMobil and BASF, I remember learning so much and really enjoying teamwork. I really value the unique insights and solutions everyone in a team could bring to solve a problem and it is always more interesting rubbing minds.
How would you describe your experience at The University of Manchester?
Amazing! The university is one to be proud of and everyone has such camaraderie. Being such a large university meant there was something there for everyone; so many societies to join, fitness groups, volunteering, etc. The city itself is the ultimate students’ city and it really never sleeps. There is always something to do in Manchester and I love how busy the city is. One of the major highlights of my stay is definitely the numerous events my friends and I attended. The people were very friendly as well.
How would you describe your educational journey up till the master’s degree programme?
I started my education in Nigeria up until primary level. I then moved to England and started from year (primary) five. For High School, I attended All Saints Catholic College for five years, and next was Greenhead College in West Yorkshire for two years. I then got admission into The University of Manchester in 2016 to study Chemical Engineering, and in 2020 I graduated with a master’s degree and a year of industrial experience.
I did an integrated master’s degree which means you can do your first degree and master’s degree programme at once without needing to graduate twice so long your grade average was high enough.
How would you have felt if you had not graduated with a first-class grade?
I would have been gutted given the amount of work I put in, but I would still be thankful that I got the opportunity to work for a year at a chemical plant and would still be graduating with accredited experience attached to my degree.
You once said during your master’s programme that you had 81 per cent on your individual design and a 78 per cent final-year average, could you expatiate on this?
The most defining moment for a Chemical Engineering student is the large year-long project called ‘The Design Project’. A significant part of this is the individual design where your core skills as a chemical engineer are tested. You are tasked to individually design an industrial equipment and you have a stringent set of criteria to meet. It was an extremely taxing exercise. I had to design a water-gas shift reactor from scratch. Reactors are known for being extremely difficult to design, so when I scored 81 per cent, I was astounded, especially because the typical average was around 65 per cent. Overall, 78 per cent was the average grade I had in all I did in my final year in school.
What reading schedule helped you to achieve the goal of graduating with a first-class grade?
One challenge I had was finding what study pattern worked for me and when I did, getting used to the routine was tough. Sometimes, you may work hard and not really see its effect, which could be frustrating. I realised I had to try something different, like change my study space or study style. Little changes like that could make a huge difference. I then found that I was most productive when I studied in the morning or during the day rather than at night. So typically, I would get to the library by 10am and leave by 7pm, with at least 30 minutes break every three hours. The course examination was continuous so we always had to keep our eyes on the ball, so I had to give up my sleep many times.
Taking a couple weeks off could have significantly diminished my grade, thus the greatest efforts were consistency and resilience. This of course took a lot of my time but it soon became a norm. In addition, being diligent and consistent with my academic work made the biggest difference for me and everyone around me got that same degree because they were also committed to their academic work. I found that paying an intricate attention to details while studying, asking questions, doing a lot of practice and reviewing what we were taught helped make the difference from a second-class upper to a good first-class grade.
You said you were elected by fellow students at some point to liaise and strengthen the relationship between industries and the Chemical Engineering society, could you speak more on that?
Yes, I ran a campaign and was elected to be the Industrial Officer of the Chemical Engineering Society. I embraced this particular role because I had over 12 months experience working in the chemical industry as an intern and I had gone to several interviews and developed industry relations. This allowed me to help bridge the gap between the university and chemical companies that wanted to recruit students or sponsor the department. For example, last year, I organised an exclusive tour for my fellow students to visit Heineken’s expansive brewery. This not only provided deep insight for the students, it also resulted in Heineken recruiting some chemical engineering graduates from the university. I’m happy to have been part of an initiative that brought that about.
Do you recall what attracted you to engineering and chemical engineering specifically?
As a child, I enjoyed fixing things and getting my hands busy. I wanted to know how everything was made. I also really enjoyed science and mathematics. That curiosity and dexterity led me to engineering. When I was 16, I had work experience at an engineering company, Cummins Turbo Technologies, which confirmed to me how much I would enjoy engineering. I narrowed my field down to chemical engineering after doing some research and speaking to people in the field. I was attracted to its large array of career opportunities and its direct approach in solving the world’s energy demand problem. I’m also happy that my parents are very understanding and supportive and they trust me to do the right thing. I knew I wanted to be successful from a young age and I knew I would need to do more than wish for it.
Beyond your main course, have you been able to acquire skills in other areas, given the dynamic nature of the current revolution?
My interest in computers and technology has been growing exponentially and programming is an attraction for me. Technology is a big part of our future now and when I saw all the great things that Facebook and National Aeronautics and Space Administration had been able to achieve using technology, it really stirred my interest, so I set out to build my programming skills. In addition, in recent times, I have been taking certified online courses on strategy consulting and corporate finance. I have also been teaching myself how to code using Python. This is in addition to the soft skills such as leadership and communication skills which I continuously develop through my extracurricular group activities. I have always wanted to learn multiple languages such as Arabic and having Arab friends has made that process a bit easier, so I am also working on learning a new language like Arabic. Studying in a foreign institution has many benefits. I now have friends from Greece, India, China, Egypt, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Australia, Cyprus and many other countries. Sometimes, I taste their food and I get them to try my jollof rice and plantain (laughs).
Would you say you are a social person or you didn’t have time for anything outside your academic schedule?
I’m a very social person and I enjoy making people smile. I had a good social life in school; I think it’s so important to be able to strike a healthy balance between academia and social life. In addition, I love shopping, coding, food photography, reading about skin care and occasional hairstyling.
What are your aspirations?
Ultimately, I want to be a philanthropist, helping as many underprivileged people as possible. Along with that, I would like to have my own successful business and be at the top of my career path. I have always wanted a job at an international engineering company like ExxonMobil, one that would always challenge me and provide the opportunity to travel. ExxonMobil provided just that, so it has always been my dream job. I also really liked the unique career progression that ExxonMobil offers and felt it aligned with my ambition.
There are students who believe that being in a relationship is a distraction, what do you think?
That’s interesting but I don’t necessarily think so. It really depends on whether the person you are in a relationship with is also as studious and ambitious as you. If that is the case, you will be fine. Sometimes, it’s good having a support system or someone who drives you to be better in moments when you are least motivated. If you need to have one, you just have to find someone who has similar or higher academic aspirations like you and make your boundaries and priorities clear from the outset.