Nkechi Madonna Adeleine Agwu


Born: 8 October 1962 in Enugu, Nigeria

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Nkechi Agwu was the daughter of Jacob Ukeje Agwu (16 August 1925-7 June 2008) and Europa Lauretta Durosimi Wilson who was a school teacher. Jacob Agwu was the only surviving child of his parents, five of his siblings dying in infancy. After showing excellent abilities at school he taught at the primary school he had attended for three years before training as a teacher at St Charles College, Onitsha. He taught arithmetic and geography before going to Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he earned a B.A. in Economics and Geography in 1955. He went on to obtain a Master's degree at the University College, Ghana. While in Ghana he met Europa Lauretta Durosimi Wilson who, in fact, was from Freetown, Sierra Leone. They were married in December 1957 and had five children. At the time Nkechi was born, Jacob was Senior Assistant Secretary in the Premier's Office, Enugu, Nigeria. She was born in the Parklane General Hospital, Government Reservation Area, Enugu. Her parents were Christian and Nkechi was baptised a few weeks after her birth in the Holy Ghost Cathedral, Ogui, Enugu, Nigeria on 4 November.

Nigeria became an independent country in 1960 ending its time as a British colony, so Nkechi was born into independent Nigeria. The Biafran War, however, broke out in July 1967. A military coup in 1966 was a significant factor in the outbreak of war which was fought between government forces and the state of Biafra which was seeking independence motivated by ethnic and religious differences. Jacob Agwu was a Biafran and supported Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War, helping with the logistics of supplying their army. Nkechi Agwu writes in [1]:-

My ancestral village, Alayi, was devastated by Nigerian soldiers during this war. ... Prior to the capture of my ancestral village, Alayi, by Nigerian soldiers, my elder brother Oba would usually drive us there in the mornings to avoid the day bombings of Umuahia by Nigerian war planes, and bring us back at night. Knowledge of my ancestral village, Alayi, is the only good memory I have of this war. My siblings and I visited Alayi more times during the war than in the entire years of my childhood before the war.
One day their home in Umuahia was badly damaged in a bombing raid by Nigerian planes. In 1968, Europa, Nkechi and the other children left Nigeria and were evacuated on the last Red Cross refugee flight for Biafrans. They were taken to a refugee camp in Femando Po, Equatorial Guinea, but the plan that Europa would return leaving the children did not work out as there were no further Red Cross flights. After a few months at the Femando Po refugee camp, they were granted visas to enter Sierra Leone, but only on condition that Europa accompanied her children. They were taken from Femando Po by ship to another refugee camp in Monrovia, Liberia. Next a plane flew them to a third refugee camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where they arrived on 4 October 1968. They intended to live with Europa's mother Hannah, Nkechi's maternal grandmother, but when they reached Sierra Leone they discovered that the grandmother's house had been burned down. Being homeless, the family were split up and Nkechi with her mother and younger brother Ifeanyi were housed with the Leigh family at Congo Cross. Europa was the only one in the family with an education, so she had to find a job and make a home for her family. This made Nkechi realise just how important it was to receive an education.

The Biafran War claimed over 2 million civilian lives but it ended in January 1970 when the Biafrans were defeated. Some months after the war ended Nkechi's mother Europa returned to Nigeria. They had been refugees for four years living in hardship. Because of his involvement in the war Jacob decided to leave the Nigerian Civil Service and took up farming. His influence on Nkechi and her siblings was an important factor in how her life developed. Jacob Agwu [2]:-

... always had time for his children ... He instilled in them virtues of hard work, discipline, integrity and a love for knowledge and learning. ... His philosophy was that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach him to fish you feed him for life. He believed that education was critical to life and development.
Although Nkechi's mother returned to Nigeria, Nkechi remained in Sierra Leone attending the Fourah Bay College University Primary School in Freetown. She graduated from that school in 1973 and began her studies at the Annie Walsh Memorial School in Freetown. She spent two further years, 1978-80, at the Freetown Secondary School for Girls before returning to Nigeria.

Agwu was fascinated by mathematics as she grew up and saw mathematics in so many things around her. For instance she said [5]:-

... my own grandmother [Omamma] taught me to play a cultural brick game that is popularly known as Mancala; we call it Okwe. Even though she never went to school, she was an expert player. I was convinced my grandmother was a mathematician because she could see 10 moves, 20 moves ahead.
Agwu studied mathematics at the University of Nigeria, in Nsukka, graduating with a B.Sc. (hons.) in 1984. She was awarded "Best Graduating Student" in the Department of Mathematics. She had undertaken an honours project "On the stability of solutions of constant coefficient second order equations and systems," advised by James Ezeilo. She was also taught by Isabelle Adjaero, the only woman on the Faculty, who had studied at the University of Connecticut in the USA for her doctorate advised by Eugene Spiegel. Both Ezeilo and Adjaero encouraged Agwu to go to the University of Connecticut for postgraduate study. Adjaero wrote a strong letter of recommendation to Eugene Spiegel and Agwu was accepted onto the graduate programme at the University of Connecticut and offered a place starting at the beginning of the 1986-87 session.

She worked for one year as a statistician in the Federal Office of Statistics (1984-85) and was then appointed as a lecturer in Kaduna Polytechnic in Kaduna in 1985. She delayed her start at the University of Connecticut, spending two years lecturing at the Polytechnic before going to the United States in January 1987 to study for her Master's Degree. She had delayed her admission because of lack of finance. Her studies were funded by a Mathematical Association of America travel award and an award to fund the study of the uses of the history of mathematics in teaching. She arrived in New York in the middle of a snow storm, the first time she had seen snow. Starting the graduate studies one semester late gave her a difficult start but after exceptionally hard work she was awarded her Master's degree in 1989. She carried on at the University of Connecticut aiming for a Ph.D. in pure mathematics but soon gave up and decided to change to mathematical education. This was impossible at the University of Connecticut so, in 1990, she went on to study for a doctorate in mathematical education at Syracuse University in New York. Her advisor at Syracuse was Howard Johnson and Agwu was awarded a Ph.D. in 1995 for her thesis Using a Computer Laboratory Setting to Teach College Calculus. She wrote [1]:-

At Syracuse University, I worked as a teaching fellow and as a teaching associate in the Mathematics Department. I received a few honours at Syracuse University such as the Future Professoriate Award, a Creative Dissertation Award, and the Chancellor's Meritorious Service Award for Student Leaders. I served in a number of student leadership capacities, which included service as a President of the African Students Union, as a President of the Association of International Students at Syracuse University, and as a Mathematics Department Graduate Student Organisation Senator.
After the award of her Ph.D., Agwu had hoped to return to Nigeria but, having been forced to resign from Kaduna Polytechnic when she went to the United States, she had no job to return to in Nigeria. Consequently she decided to remain in the United States and was appointed as a graduate teaching assistant and a Coordinator of the Teaching and Learning Center at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York.

Agwu married Nicholas C B Ogbonna and had a son Ngozichukwuka Jacob A D Agwu born on Friday 9 October 1998. Nicholas Ogbonna had worked as a Red Cross volunteer for Biafra supervised by Agwu's mother. Sadly Agwu had to spend time away from her husband and he suffered from diabetes which was treated with insulin. He died from complications arising from the diabetes.

At the Borough of Manhattan Community College students had to take one course which was writing-intensive. Agwu said [3]:-

That gave me the impetus to teach Discrete Mathematics as a writing-intensive course. Doing so would offer me a unique opportunity to bring forward some of my ideas around mathematics and the many ways it connects with my students' lives. So I started to look at things I was familiar with from my specific cultural perspective, as a Nigerian, a Sierra Leonean and an American, and their relationship to the mathematical concepts my students needed to understand.
How did she do this? [3]:-
To put her teaching philosophy into action, Agwu introduced games, cryptography, African doll-making, textile design, genealogy trees and graph theory. She had her students study the structures and floor plans of Nigerian palaces and the lives of female mathematicians and plot their own biographies as graphs.
From 1997 to 2002 Agwu studied the history of mathematics, particularly writing biographies of African or African-American mathematicians and scientists. She received professional development in these areas during these years from the Mathematical Association of America's Institute in the History of Mathematics. She chaired a Mathematical Association of America team which developed historical modules in "Linear equations and polynomials". She was an author of the paper Dr J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr.: the man and his works (mathematician, physicist and engineer) (1997) and Dr David Harold Blackwell, African American pioneer (2003). In 2000 she was the first to receive an award from the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges to develop a course to teach statistics using biographical material.

In July 2009 Agwu was elected as president of the New York City branch of the American Association of University Women [4]:-

As its president, Agwu leads its efforts in advancing the mission of the American Association of University Women through advocacy, research and education. She describes her agenda for the branch: "I especially want to ensure that the New York City branch reflects the value promise of the American Association of University Women as an organization that breaks through educational and economic barriers so that all women will have a fair chance." Under her watch, the chapter has initiated a number of programs precisely to equip women and girls with skills to help them break through those barriers. There's a mathematics and computer literacy program that is aimed not only at high-school and college students, but also at adults interested in developing their mathematical and computer skills ...
In 2014 Agwu received a Carnegie Africa Diaspora Fellowship which allowed her to spend three weeks in Nigeria on the project Culture and Women's Stories: A Framework for Capacity Building in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Related Fields. She said [3]:-
The goal is to develop curricular materials that are culturally based and gender sensitive and to train educators in Nigeria to use them to teach mathematics and other STEM disciplines. The idea is to foster student innovation and creativity linked to the science and technology of their cultures.
Let us end by quoting from Nkechi Agwu [1]:-
I am Nigerian, Sierra-Leonean, African-American widowed woman, who is a survivor of the civil wars of Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the 9 11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks. The trajectory of my life includes experiences of displacement, homelessness, living in refugee camps, single parenting of a child with hearing and speech needs and many other issues that from all indications could have set me up for failure. However, despite the odds against me which included being the sole black female student in the graduate mathematics programmes of the University of Connecticut and Syracuse University, while I was a student there, I was fortunate to have access, opportunities, and avenues to excel in mathematics and other areas relevant to public service in STEM ...

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (5 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Entry in the list of African women PhDs

Other Web sites
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  2. MathSciNet Author profile
  3. zbMATH entry

Main Index Biographies index

JOC/EFR March 2019
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School of Mathematics and Statistics
University of St Andrews, Scotland

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