With 15 awards to her credit from the Nigerian Law School, Grace Olanrewaju Gureje’s story reads like a fairy tale- finished as the Best Graduating Student in NLS at 22, aspires to get master’s degree from the prestigious Harvard Law School at 24, plans to return to the university to lecture and covets marriage at 26. In this interview with LANRE ODUKOYA, she reminisces about the sprains on the way to being the best version of herself
Was being a lawyer your very first dream early in life or were there some aspirations before law?
Studying law became a choice for me in my junior secondary school because I had to choose whether I was going to art, science or commercial class in the senior secondary school. I thought I was a science material initially because I thought I was going to become a medical doctor, but along the line, my dad asked me what I wanted to study and I told him medicine. He said I was always afraid of darkness and cannot stand certain things. He told me I talked more and liked reading; he emphasized the reading more and never coerced me into making any choice.
And I saw reason in what he noticed. I just found the love for studying law and told myself I was going to study law. So even when I filled my JAMB form, it was either law or nothing else because nothing appeared to be an option. Then I wrote my UTME and got admission to study law at the University of Lagos in 2011. So when people ask me what else I would have done aside law, I think it would be law or law.
Have you always been a first class student from 100-level or was there a point you just caught up?
I’ve had first class right from my 100-level till my year four, but my CGPA dropped in the first semester of my final year, it was at 2.1 (4.49) and I reassured myself that there was one more semester to go and that I could still make it. So, I worked very hard in the second semester and by the grace of God, I had straight As in the last semester and was able to make first class.
Was the drop as a result of any kind of distraction?
I wouldn’t say it was some kind of distraction because even when I got those results, I wasn’t really happy and tried to find what I didn’t do well humanly speaking. And I wasn’t expecting such a result, that semester actually rattled me. I’d done my best, I’d studied, put in my efforts, although I remember losing track of time in one of the exams, and catching up was a bit difficult as time was gone already. It was a two and a half hour exam and we’d spent over thirty minutes and I was still on the second question out of four questions.
So, I knew that exam was somewhat disastrous because I couldn’t do my best but I still had hope that the worst case was that I would have a B but I got something lesser actually. There was another course I didn’t really enjoy in my final year because it was very abstract, it’s called ‘jurisprudence’.
I didn’t really enjoy it and was so upbeat about it. I should have studied that course more since it wasn’t my strong point, I don’t think I put in enough effort to get an A in the first semester. After the first semester my orientation changed towards the course, I just told myself that I was going to do it for the grade even if I didn’t enjoy the course.
When you were in Enugu law school where you joined other law students from across the country, did you meet some other brilliant minds who made you scared that you couldn’t top the class?
Well, as much as possible I tried to avoid competition. I believe in running your own race and giving your very best. Of course, there were people who intimidated me in quote. They were outspoken in class and seemed to have studied a lot more and seemed to have done more class activities and I was lagging behind in many of those things. They came to class and expressed their positions of law and I really saw that I needed to study more.
So, I just saw it as a challenge to me to do better, study better and take my study more seriously because honestly, it is very difficult keeping up at the law school. So sometimes I would just decide to take things easy and go to class even without studying. But when I got to class and saw those who understood the courses more, I saw that as a big challenge to me. Academically, I’ve found out that competition doesn’t really help, all you can do is be the best you can be and let the results speak for you.
You were probably the first to hear about the feat; so the minute the news broke that you were the Best Graduating Student in Nigerian Law School, who was the first person you jubilated with?
I don’t know what word to use in describing what the feeling was when I heard but I was overwhelmed with joy. I was at home when the news broke and it was the day I checked my results that I was told. I didn’t know why it had to be me. I kept asking ‘why me?’ Why not someone else? It wasn’t like I deserved it, so for some minutes I kept asking why? I even asked my brother who is by far younger than I am. It was something I longed for and desired to get but when the reality dawned on me after thinking I’ve only had a first class and whatever comes after that wasn’t really much of a concern. So, the breaking of the news was exhilarating.
Who was the first person you broke the news to?
It was actually my parents. They were seating together and my younger brother was with them.
And how did they take it? They were very excited that all the efforts were not in vain because so much studying went into it.
What would you describe as the most harrowing experience for you while studying law?
There were times when I broke down, healthwise and I had to study so much in between because studying law at the university was a whole lot different from the law school. At the university, you could do away with a few days of studying, come back and catch up, but in the law school, you have to study every day.
If you miss out a day you’d know you have a lot to cover. And there was a time I fell sick and couldn’t study much. Even during the exams period I almost couldn’t write a particular exam because I wasn’t sure I had the strength to do that. I wasn’t feeling strong enough. I was shaking all over and my hands were shaking and I almost asked a medical officer for glucose because I didn’t want to faint in an exam hall. My inner strength just told me I could do it and I was able to write a 3-hour paper without eating anything since daybreak.
That was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. And the incidence in my final year when I had only second semester to prove whether I was going to finish with a first class or not was quite daunting. I had my project and we had classes like Monday to Saturday at that time. Many of the courses were at 8am and it was very difficult for me to get up at 8am because I probably had studied and researched into the night. But because of the setback I had, I was determined to give it all I could give and I was committed to church fellowships so there wasn’t so much time I had to do what I loved doing. I had to cut off a lot of activities for that period of time to get the grade I’d always wanted. Those experiences were nerve-breaking because there were times I felt like giving up.
The news of your feat broke at a time there was so much buzz on the young lady who insisted she must be called to the bar with Hijab covering her head. What’s your opinion on that saga?
I honestly believe that change must start from somewhere regardless of who is instigating the change.
But then there are rules and people would say that the constitution says we have freedom of religion which includes your right to dress the way you want to dress. People also argue that it really doesn’t affect anybody if another wears Hijab, you can say okay, a person’s right stops where another person’s right starts. Considering the fact that the Council of Legal Education and the Body of Benchers have their rules on dressing, you’d realise this issue is a very sensitive one. Even in the law school there are certain things people can’t wear for just that period. Well, let the judges decide- that’s the way it is now. Since they’ve decided to go to court, the constitution is there, the rule is there, I think she should just wait for the court to pronounce on this issue.
Of course, the judges will not limit the matter to a particular religious sect, it would now be an all-encompassing thing. Some people have said maybe traditionalists should dress in their regalia, those who belong to certain faiths should dress in certain manners, so, it’s highly controversial. I’ve tried to reason it out and I know that if it’s not handled properly, it may result in protests.
What was your experience like with young men in school? Did you have a romantic tie with anyone along the way?
I wasn’t in any romantic relationship because I felt it requires a lot of commitment. Even at this stage in my life I’m still trying to bring myself to the fact that I’m not getting any younger and there’s so much talk about marriage these days and it makes me feel people should just leave me alone. I’d barely left school. Of course, I had admirers but God gave me wisdom to handle them- those that later became friends and those that I had to tactically avoid at some point were there too.
You mean you’d never had a romantic relationship with anyone all your life?
Yes, I have not.
So how did you feel seeing your friends being romantically involved with men?
I had just one such friend at a point but she pulled out because it wasn’t helpful. I believe that it’s a matter of maturity and time. For example, I had a roommate in Year Four who was in her final year then and was planning her wedding. And she’d been in the relationship since her 100-level days, of course, she was prepared for marriage. Even on her birthday, her fiancé came around, I met him and we were introduced to each other. The same lady finished with the best result in her department. She was the best student in Department of Insurance that year.
So, I saw it as a case of knowing what she wanted and she had a supporter as a fiancé not someone who would just unnecessarily distract her. In fact, during the exams, she would go to the market to shop for wedding things. And I was wondering how she was able to do that with final exams approaching. There’s no principle saying you cannot have a relationship while in school as long as it’s not setting you back.
Where are you going from this point of your life?
I’d do my Youth Service and proceed for my master’s degree.
Where would you be doing your master’s degree?
Harvard Law School
Are you ready for it financially?
I hope to apply for scholarship and in the nearest future; I’d go for my PhD, and start lecturing. I would really love to impact. I would practice and lecture too. I really love the academic part of law because it’s a great platform. I had amazing lecturers in school that really inspired me. I’d see it as giving back. People give up on their dreams too easily these days and it is these young people I want to inspire. If a lecturer is like a mentor to the students, it would really help to make the student believe in him or herself and do better in life.
How many are you in your family?
I’m from a family of six, four children, three boys and a girl. I’m the only girl and the eldest child.
Where are your parents from?
My mum is from Ogun State and my dad is from Osun State.
Would be going into a romantic relationship now?
Well, I’m waiting for the right person.
How would you recognise the right person?
I have the spirit of God and I would know when he comes. But seriously, I’m not in a hurry. If it’s down to me, marriage should happen in another four years. In which area of law would you like to major? Corporate law
What other things excite you about life?
Mentoring excites me because I like to see people excel. Most times I just think about how I can help others become better people because I’d come across many discouraged people who wished they could have done better in school, others who wished they had some information earlier and so on. Mentoring really interests and intrigues me.
What do you parents do for a living?
My dad is an educational consultant and my mum is a teacher in a secondary school.