Determination, Hard Work … and Courage
18-year-old SIS student to receive master’s degree this term

By Cynthia D. Gordy


Obehi OtaigbeAs a young child, after figuring out that her name meant something other than ‘You come here,’ Courage Obehi Otaigbe asked her Nigerian immigrant parents to explain their choice for her name.

“They named me Courage because they were saying that it takes courage to come to a whole new country,” said Otaigbe, whose parents came to the United States as young adults.

The name is fitting for the soft-spoken Otaigbe, who, at 18 years old, is on the brink of completing a master’s degree in Pitt’s School of Information Sciences. She modestly lists her remarkable academic achievements—from enrolling in college courses at age 13 to receiving the Bachelor of Science degree in computer information systems at 17—as if they are nothing out of the ordinary.
Despite always being the youngest person in class, Otaigbe remains focused and unfazed.

Having Nigerian parents who “believe in the American Dream” has played a major role in Otaigbe’s scholastic determination. Receiving an education, working hard, and setting goals were key values in her upbringing. But the Woodbridge, Va., native primarily credits the urging of her father, a professor of business, economics, and sociology and Woodbridge Campus dean at Strayer University in Virginia, as the reason for her being a teenage graduate student.

“He encouraged me and provided incentives, like paying me,” she said, laughing a bit guiltily before explaining. “I wanted to get a part-time job in high school. Instead of doing that, he would just pay me however much I would’ve gotten from a regular job for taking college classes.”

While her friends worked after school taking orders at fast-food restaurants or folding shirts at shopping mall retailers, Otaigbe took computer information systems courses at Strayer. She earned $5.50 an hour.

By the middle of her senior year, she realized that she had nearly enough credits for a degree. She took three more courses and a series of placement exams during her last quarter of high school and accepted a bachelor’s degree simultaneously with her high school diploma.

On a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, Otaigbe will complete SIS’ Master in Information Science program this spring. Her current research at Pitt’s Visual Information Systems Center involves geographical information systems (GIS), a computer software tool that, among its many uses, gauges the level of harmful chemicals in the air.

“You know the plant that exploded in Bhopal?” she asked in an attempt to clarify her work. Otaigbe was referencing the 1984 chemical plant explosion in Central India that released a deadly gas. “GIS can be used to determine if there are still toxic chemicals in the air of the surrounding area. Or if farmers are producing less crops, GIS is used to figure out why.”

While she admits that her studies are time-consuming, Otaigbe makes it a point to allow for other activities. She has made friends her age through involvement in a number of the University’s undergraduate associations. She has run on Pitt’s track team; written for an independent, student-produced newspaper, The Pittsburgh Standard; tutored elementary school students in the Office of Student Affairs’ Pitt Project; and copy edited for Blackline, the official publication of Pitt’s Black Action Society.

This semester she also has kept busy applying to law school, which she plans to attend this fall, when she will be 19. There she will work toward a third degree, in intellectual property law.

Otaigbe unwaveringly shuns suggestions to slow down and relax before shuttling off to school again.

“It doesn’t seem like I need a break; I don’t feel overwhelmed,” she said.

Considering that she once concurrently shouldered the workload of both high school and college classes, moving right along appears effortless to Otaigbe. The fact that she is noticeably younger than her classmates is also nothing new, so she feels none of the jittery anxiety that one might expect.

More exactly, Otaigbe is prepared to reach her goals with zest, determination, and, in keeping with her eponym, courage.