News of Destiny Ogedegbe’s academic achievements went viral when social media learned that he had been offered graduate admissions from Harvard and Oxford. He chose Harvard and has relocated to Boston.
He spoke to us about his upbringing in a suburb in Benin City, his undergraduate struggles and academic achievements at the University of Benin, and the life-changing day he received admissions from two of the most selective universities in the world.
What was childhood like for you?
Pretty normal. My mum was a trader. She cooks and she sells but not anymore. Growing up, she had a restaurant at some point and we used to help out in the market. My dad is a civil servant, but he was once a teacher. We grew up in Upper Sakponba in Benin, so it was just an ordinary Nigerian childhood.
You also schooled there?
Yes. I went to a relatively good school initially, but at some point, my dad was hit financially, so we had to switch. This new school was way cheaper, and the quality of education was very poor. It was so bad that I had to become the class teacher for one subject: Government.
Just imagine. Was it clear to you that you were going to study Law?
Not at all. I had almost perfect scores in biology, physics and similar subjects. Law wasn’t even on my mind. I don’t have that story of the kids who saw a lawyer on TV and then decided to study Law. It just wasn’t the case for me. It all came from one of my uncles who studied Law and insisted that I study it too. My elder sister studied International Studies and Diplomacy.
She eventually graduated at the top of her class, but she had always been an inspiring leader to me so I thought I should study her course as well. I filled out a JAMB form for the course, but this uncle of mine tore that form and bought another one, saying I should fill in for Law instead. He had such crazy belief in me because I was also very good at the Arts.
How come he had this much power in your family?
Well, he was the most educated person besides my dad, who was never really around. And my father is an agreeable person; he didn’t have strong feelings about any course. So, my uncle’s strong bias for Law won the day, even though the only subject I got an A1 in was Mathematics.
And this uncle wasn’t even practising Law?
[Laughs] He wasn’t, but he had the largest lecture centre in Upper Sakponba. The centre had lots of students. He was my first employer because I worked for him for some time before going to the University of Benin.
Why didn’t you go to school immediately? You were the best student when you graduated from secondary school, right?
Yes, I was. But we didn’t have money, so it became tradition for the kids in my family to wait for some time. My sister waited and even when it was time, it was still difficult for my parents. I had to wait as well because it would have been quite a mess if we went to school too close together. Thinking about it now, it’s weird that such little money caused such a big problem. [Laughs]
When you finally got into school, did you think you had made the right choice?
At some point, I was very worried. Was I going to be able to make enough money to salvage the financial situation of my family? Things became worse the more I progressed in school. So, I took up more menial jobs along with teaching. I was quite worried and started thinking that maybe I should have just done business and joined my uncle.
One day in my third year, I told my roommates in Hall 4 that I was going to drop out, but they were like no, I shouldn’t leave. And it was strange because I was a model student at the time. I was very popular in UNIBEN because of my results.
I had gotten a GPA of 4.9 in my first year, which was rumoured to have never happened in the faculty’s history. So sometimes I felt the pressure and second guessed my decision. Part of it was financial, part of it was the way I had come to see the law profession. I couldn’t see how I would become great being just a lawyer.
You were thinking of greatness?
Yes, I was. But greatness for me then was so narrowly defined: it was about making money. I just wanted to be able to take care of myself, my family and do little things. It wasn’t about being known and having a mastery at anything that people admire.
When did you realise that Law could be financially rewarding?
It was when I started participating in moot court competitions. I think I was awarded Best Counsel about five times. We had real practising judges come to assess us in some of these competitions. Some of them told me that the way I understand and talk about the issues we argued at the time, was brilliant. They said that if I start practising law, they wouldn’t be able to imagine a scenario where I don’t make it big. This wasn’t something my lecturers would not tell me. As you know, they were focused on grades and moving on.
After hearing this several times from people who had been practising for years, I began to see that, even if the profession doesn’t give a clear pathway to greatness, I had what it would take to transform it to something profitable. Immediately, I understood what they were saying, I fell in love with the the idea of legal practice. I kept travelling for moot court to get that validation.
Looks like you were quite occupied with thoughts of greatness and financial security.
What jobs did you take on while in UNIBEN to help with financial security?
I taught at lecture centres and did some ghostwriting gigs because I had a blog. I also did bricklaying in school during the holidays at some buildings within the campus.
Yeah! Then after school, I worked as an intern for a SAN in Benin.
How much were you getting paid?
I did my NYSC at the same firm and when I just started, I was paid about 150k. When I got retained and promoted, my salary tripled. By the time I was leaving, it was over half a million, if you add the perks. I was there for roughly three years and had gotten promoted.
Crunch time, eh? What happened there?
Not really. I think I fell in love with corporate law at the law school. And I knew that most of our top law firms were really invested in advising companies. As luck would have it, I found myself in the energy practice group I chose to work for after graduating from the law school; this practice is purely corporate practice.
Some blogs had carried the news of my first class in UNIBEN and in Law School, so I had some many interviews and offers from about nine law firms in total. I chose one based on the advice of some of my mentors.
Let’s talk about your applications to Harvard and Oxford. When did you first have the idea for grad school?
The first time the idea got into my head, it was my friend Vincent who told me to consider applying for grad school. I told him it was too early and that I was okay working still.
I wanted that financial security I got from working. Many of my colleagues at the law firm came from relatively more financially stable homes. That was not a luxury I had, so financial security was always on my mind. I started the job with ₦23k in my bank account, things were that tough back then.
So, I was very conscious about the money I was making. I was taking care of one of my siblings who just got into university, I was giving my mother money monthly, I had other siblings to think of and I had to really save. I didn’t want anything to jeopardise the set-up I had created. Just leave me let me make all the money that I wanted to make. But Vincent kept insisting. Eventually, some of my other friends like Faith joined in. I decided to pick only two schools.
If anything was going to make me leave the financial security that I now had, it had to be the best of the best. It just didn’t make sense to me if I went somewhere that wouldn’t upscale me to better opportunities.
That’s a strong, reasonable argument.
Yeah. But my applications were supposed to be a test-run since I had never applied to grad school before. The deadline for Harvard was 20 December and I started applying by 1 December.
What are the stages for a Harvard application?
The first thing they want to see is your references: academic and professional. They emphasize that referees must be people who know you and can credibly confirm your worthiness, so generic references are discouraged. I reached out to professors who knew me well in school. They all wrote me spectacular references. One of my professors from Uniben happily wrote a spectacular reference; we had become close from my 200 level when I would go to his office arguing constitutional law issues with him. My project supervisor who is now a Professor at the University of Bradford, in the UK, also she wrote me a beautiful reference as well.
For professional references, my friend and senior colleague at work, who is also an alumna of Harvard Law, came through. She is the first person to bag first class in UNIBEN and she repeated the feat at the Law School as well. I was the second person and so we had a lot in common academically and professionally. Plus, we are goof friends, so you can magine the kind of reference someone with that pedigree would write.
Omo. I can only imagine.
You then have to write a personal statement. It has to address a high-level legal issue and it was here that working for my law firm was great. It had exposed to some of the most complicated transactions in the energy and project finance sector. I was on teams that advised companies like Dangote’s and top oil companies on major deal. So, it was easier for me than, say, someone who only knows these things theoretically. My essay proposed the innovative use of Orphan SPVs [Special Purpose Vehicles] to address a specific set of international financing hurdles faced by Nigeria in the quest to solve critical infrastructural deficits.
Then you had to connect all of that to something related to why you want to get an LLM. You have to do all of this in 1500 words, so you are being tested for your ability to write a concise but extremely impressive statement which not only describes your passions but explores your intellectual or experiential depth. The connection cannot be disjointed. I had to come up with a compelling story that highlighted the audacities behind my academic and professional successes, my interests in corporate & project finance, and how all of that marinates cohesively to form a motivation for pursuing a Harvard LLM degree.
That sounds like a lot!
I guess. When I was done and sent it to my friend who had gone to Harvard, she told me that it would take a “divinely orchestrated misfortune” for them not to accept me as a grad student.
The third part is your CV. They would also ask for your social media handles and your employment documents. They want to look at the entire person. They want to see that you have leadership capacity.
How long did it take you to write the essay?
About a week. I was writing and deleting, writing and deleting. It had to be perfect. It had to be concise and compelling. They don’t know me and this is the only thing they would read to have a sense of whom I am. I finally submitted on 19 December, one day before the deadline.
Cutting it close. How was the Harvard application different from Oxford?
Oxford’s application was a bit more academic-centric compared to Harvard’s.
It means Oxford doesn’t care about your social life and experience.
If you have a double first class like I do, even if you don’t have really show leadership qualities or you have never taken on some grandiose community service, you can still get into Oxford. Oxford’s application required less information in general than Harvard’s, but it’s just as intense if not more intense. You have to prove that you are a proper scholar. They are even satisfied if all of your references are from academics. My essay was on the constitutionality to otherwise of state-generated power in Nigeria.
Oxford requires you to submit a longer legal essay compared to Harvard. The legal essay alone is 2500 words. This is because they consider the BCL [bachelor’s in civil law] programme to be the most academically challenging in the world and so they will tell you specifically that your essay must be well-written, highly analytical in a way that shows that you have the intellectual strength that prepares you for the sort of academic rigor you will be subjected to.
That you sabi book.
So how about money?
Oxford’s financial aid is embedded in the application. They would ask you tricky questions. Luckily, I got the Wiedenfeld Hoffmann scholarship but it did not cover the full expense. It was about 70 percent.
When did you get the admission notices?
I got the admission responses the same day in March. I got Oxford’s email first. When I checked it, I went to the bathroom and said to myself, “Omo! Na you just write one application get this thing.” [Laughs] It was surreal! I told a couple of friends and my brother.
Two hours later, I received an email from Harvard. I didn’t check it for two days!
Anybody would be nervous.
I was more certain about Oxford because they are more linear. Besides, they don’t get a lot of applicants. They get maybe 1500. But Harvard gets 20,000 across the world. No matter how smart you are, you cannot be too confident. And it is not the type of application that comes with “Congratulations!” as the subject of the email. You have to open the mail and click a link.
So, I didn’t want to dampen my excitement for Oxford. I needed to enjoy it first. But something interesting happened. One of my seniors who attended Harvard about two years ago, messaged me and said, “Congratulations on Harvard”. I was so surprised. How could he have known? It turns out that Harvard Law alumni usually are notified, and so they have a way of knowing those that got in yearly. It was a Saturday. I went to my laptop and clicked the link. When I saw “Congratulations”, In my head I was like, “This guy, you don hack this thing o!”
Harvard was not even a dream. It is the manifestation of an ideal that God was throwing me into. At every step of the way, I realised how much of a blessing it was. I remember going to the US embassy to apply for my visa.
When I told the interviewer I was going to Harvard, he asked if I was serious. He then looked at my documents and was blown away. The fact that he, an American, was that surprised gave me an idea of what had happened. He started calling other visa officers to come see what he was looking at.
Come and see Nigerian wonder!
LOL. He told me he had been interviewing people for over a year and he had never interviewed anyone going to Harvard. I explained to him that four Nigerians were accepted this year and some would have gone to the embassy in Abuja. He kept telling me about how, even in the US, people just don’t go to Harvard. And his reaction was even muted compared to what I have seen so far in the US.
I walk into a coffee shop, hit up a conversation with random people and when they see my ID card, they shout, “Oh, you are in Harvard!” Then they start asking questions about what it feels like, they want to talk to you. You then begin to fully appreciate that this is more than submitting documents; it is a life changer. You fully appreciate that till you die, it is always going to be there that you got into Harvard. Permanent as it is, and just as blissful.
What would be your advice to people applying to graduate schools abroad?
For students, just assume that you haven’t achieved anything and that you are building a portfolio from the scratch. Imagine you want to convince someone that you are who you say you are. What would you do? First, you would need to position yourself to be known for at least one thing. You may not have the experience, but you can convince people with knowledge. For me, I started to write and publish in journals after school. I worked with many academics, I took on projects alone and saw them to the finish.
Writing is one way to strategically position yourself. Write about your preferred areas and put them online. Spread bits of yourself here and there. Then get acquainted with academics, try to offer help to them, like research assistance. They have the keys to what you want. I was a research assistant to two professors even as far back as the Nigerian Law School. I built a relationship with at least five academics. I did not even think I would need them, I just did. These people are important for references because the schools you are applying to, will believe them over your personal statement. Obviously, you can say anything about yourself in a personal statement.
People are too interested in the fact that they did not get a first class degree. It’s important but you can generate a lot from scratch, besides your academic records, and stand a very good chance. Just look at a paraphernalia of things that can buff up your professional and personal portfolio. Volunteer to useful community services. They are not only looking for great grades. They are also very interested in people making who have applied themselves and have made impacts. A school like Harvard wants to feel lucky to have you. They take people whom they believe are prestigious or will be, and they want to be a part of that story.
Also, look for people who have achieved what you want. There is no abstract reasoning or intelligence that can sufficiently cater to the experiences others already have. Sometimes you don’t need to be too close to them. But you can observe enough to be able to connect important dots that will explain how they became the right choices for these schools. For people who have been working for some time, you have to be able to sell yourself. Nobody will come and excavate layers upon layers of you hidden knowledge or sellable experiences. Nobody has the time for that. You have to figure out how to become known. Leverage on your experiences and put yourself out there. I know partners at law firms that applied to Harvard and didn’t get in and it may be because they haven’t figured out how to stand out even if they have been working well for years.
One last question. How much do you stand to earn after your Harvard programme? You have heard great things right?
Yes. It depends on where I eventually work. Harvard organises a career fair for LLM candidates, but that’s for later in the program. I have heard good offers; a law firm here offering to pay $100,000 yearly. I was speaking to a partner in one of the law firms, we got talking from LinkedIn. He told me that they are very happy to interview Harvard graduates, and that they pay up to $250,000 yearly for entry level associates.
That is about ₦10m a month in Nigerian Naira. I have also had a company in the US offer $2000 a week; got to know them from LinkedIn but I am not interested in in-house roles, not yet. The programme ends in the middle of next year and the career fairs are from around February, so things would get clearer by then. But, yes, from the conversations I have had so far, the money is good, like blood money. Crazy money.