Career People and Place

An interview with Swanta Blessing Bonat: A Nigerian lady who resigned from paid job to help rural school children access quality education

Swanta Blessing is the Executive Director (ED) of Community Outreach for Educational Change (COEC) -a non profit organization.

In this edition of Youth Always (YA) with Aderonke Azeezat Ogunleti, the ED speaks on her background as a teacher, the many why(s) behind COEC, and the impacts created in the last 5 years.

She charges youth to harness soft skills and digital skills to increase their chances of acceptance in the global market.

YA: Tell us about SWANTA BLESSING, Who are you? – highlighting education, places you’ve worked, family and what you do at the moment?

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Swanta: I am a certified and licensed teacher with the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria and currently the Executive Director of Community Outreach for Educational Change.

I’m popularly known as Teacher Swanta, I have worked in 8 schools spread across Plateau State, Kaduna State, Kebbi State and the FCT in the capacity of a Class Assistant, a Class Teacher, House Mistress, Hostel Administrator, School Administrator and School Manager respectively.

I recently started my own school in January and can now add School Owner to the mix (winks).

Additionally I’m a nomad teacher, teacher trainer, education consultant, rural education activist and serve on the board of Thinking Cap Literacy Initiative. But lately, I find myself wearing many hats as the need arises (laughs).

I had my first degree in Education (CRS) with the second in Christian Education. I have undergone series of trainings and workshops which have given me the license to dare the odds in the profession.
I love adventures and solving problems. I love quality conversations, eating good food, singing, sewing and interior design.

I am the 4th of 6 children and single.

YA: What is Community Outreach for Educational Change? Why COEC? For how long have you been running it?

Swanta: Community Outreach for Educational Change (COEC) is a Non-Profit organization founded in 2016.

With the firm belief that a child’s location should not determine the quality of education s/he gets, it is dedicated to the cause of ensuring that children – particularly those in rural and disadvantaged areas – acquire quality education. As result, COEC exists to influence the total school experience for children and creates a platform for quality classroom experiences, intentional role modeling, influencing and changing narratives and ultimately championing educational best practices as a response to the 4th SDG.

COEC started like a dream. I had taken up a Hostel Administrator’s role in one of the international schools in Abuja and eight months in, we were planning the graduation of my girls in the SS3 class when I realized that most of them already had admissions waiting for them in universities within and outside Nigeria. I mean, they hadn’t even graduated yet, but things were playing out well for them because they are mostly privileged children and have enjoyed great education most of their lives. My heart was troubled as I couldn’t ignore the fact that children from low income homes had it differently and had to struggle harder to get a fair chance at progressing in education and life. That was it “oh.” I decided that instead of only focusing on doing something through the “big dream” that was still very far from my grasp, I could start with the little that was already in my hands.

Swanta Blessing Bonat school

I put in my resignation immediately, went for a workshop on literacy, bought a literacy curriculum package and moved back to my rural hometown to see how much I could help rural children have access to basic literacy skills that will make learning easier and bridge the gap between them and their counterparts in the city. Before I knew it, things became bigger than I thought and today, that dream is registered as Community Outreach for Educational Change- COEC and has gone beyond giving basic English Language literacy skills to school children.

We’ve been at it for almost 5 years now!

YA: Many times you have talked about how your mother is one of your major inspiration, what platforms, childhood experiences and skills contributed to you having this initiative?

Swanta: I believe that the call to “teacherhood” came to me with a burden. When I realized that I was meant to be a teacher in 2007, I started connecting the dots and became conscious of the issue that plagued me while I was growing up in my rural hometown. You see, my parents knew the importance of good education and I think that having all girls made their resolve even stronger to ensure that we attended great schools.

My dad passed on and left the scene quite early but my mum toiled and made sure that we went to the best private schools she could afford. Not many children in my community had the chance that my sisters and I had. More importantly, because I was a sensitive and observant person right from childhood, I noticed the differences and the imbalance between us and the other kids whenever we return home for holidays and had to interact with them.
Those days, I dreaded going home because there were always stories of girls my age and even younger getting pregnant and mostly shipped to the boy’s family for “marriage” and young boys becoming addicted to substances and turned beggars, thieves or thugs.

Education was not really the priority for many and it bothered me that young women especially, did not seem to have any other options than early marriages that turned them into baby making machines (farmers’ wives/petty traders for those that are lucky) till they kiss the dust.

It was unsettling to say the least but I saw the power of education because I was experiencing it first hand and saw how it was making me different from the others. I got the conviction that I was going to turn out differently no matter what and then ensure that I do something about it later on. I connected all these problems to the lack of a good education quite early in life and vowed to get more kids from rural communities educated, empowered and liberated just like I was opportune.

This conviction influenced all my decisions from then on and has brought me thus far.

YA: Your initiative has been a solace to many, especially in areas of feeding students and providing education for rural kids. Tell us more about your engagements over the years through COEC?

Swanta: Since 2016, we have been to rural schools and created a platform for quality classroom experiences, intentional role modeling, set up school management systems, libraries and relevant learning resources, crowd funded for the renovation and redesign of classrooms for early years learning and ultimately championing educational best practices as a response to the 4th SDG.

Our Teacher Volunteer Network helped us to directly influence learning outcomes, improve enrollment to school and provide learning materials, school uniforms, sandals, pipe borne water and a reconstructed well for clean drinking water in schools.

We have also held various teacher retraining programmes through a weekly Teacher Development Forum and an annual Teachers’ Meet.

Swanta Blessing Bonat school donation

Through our campaigns namely #GetASchoolChildOffTheFloor; #FedToLearn; and #PayARuralTeacher we have provided classroom furniture, 100 mattresses for hostels, salary support for teachers and have fed 184 school children free meals (Breakfast and Lunch with Eggs).

Our Scholarship Hub has placed 13 deserving rural kids in better advantage with our The Teachers’ Meet.
Through our Extreme Makeover – School Edition project, we carried out the total rehabilitation of a classroom into a Literacy Centre equipped with painted and decorated walls, Cable TV, a plasma, a mini Library, bulletin boards, a curriculum package and classroom furniture to enhance the teaching of basic literacy skills.

We also just started COEC Model Schools in rural Southern Kaduna to uphold our commitment in giving quality education to children in rural communities.

Notably, through all these, COEC has reached over 10,000 school children and over 500 teachers spread across over 6 States and various schools.

YA: Do you have sponsors? How have you been able to pull through so far?

Swanta: You won’t believe that I have come this far because of people’s good will and support. Kindhearted individuals within and outside Nigeria. I left Abuja with no money but a literacy curriculum package to start this journey but now when I look back at the many projects we have done, I am overwhelmed with gratitude to all the people constantly believing in me and this vision. The general response has been remarkable. There are people donating to this cause without even knowing me personally.

Each time I keep wondering why people that have never met me will part with huge amounts of money for projects they are not sure will be done. But each time I think about it, I am reminded of the fact that there are more good (than there are bad) people in the world and in Nigeria as well.

Hmm, the journey. The journey has been tough. It was especially tough readjusting to life without an income and leaving the comforts and some of the luxuries of city life to rural living. But in all, I am one that always counts the cost and I love being where I can give maximum impact. So I’d say that the journey so far has been filled with more joys and triumphs than with let-downs. The impact we have been able to make in the lives of the teachers and especially the students we have interacted with is what keeps me here in spite of the challenges.

Donors have been trying their best to stand with us through the years. Only recently have things become a bit difficult and this is because of the economic situation, slowing down a lot of processes and activities.

Swanta Blessing Bonat school

In all of these, we still got a seed grant of $1000 from The Pollination Project). Today, we solely depend on donations from well-meaning individuals to carry out our projects. Of course, this can be frustrating too since the money does not come in bulk but in small amounts.

The down side from this is that it interferes with the process of implementation and how fast we accomplish projects. But we are hopeful that people will not get tired of investing in the lives of these young ones because these children are our present and future.

YA: How have you been able to balance your professional life, personal life, family and impact?

Swanta: I will say I have not really struggled to balance anything as I have only had one life. Most of my family and friends see me as a workaholic and it isn’t great but because I had to move from one rural community to another for the past five years. Most times, I have to focus on the work. My personal life especially the social aspect has been on hold. My current resident is a typical rural community. Sometimes, one feels like one has deliberately been cut off from life.

Unlike life in the city, one cannot really live as ome desires. Again, there is something about not earning a consistent income. It limits your options. But family and friends have really come through for me. They did not understand at first why I would make such a decision to leave paid employment to nothing and sacrifice this way but I have always been an independent mind since my teenage years and my family got used to me not seeking permission to pursue whatever I want.

Now, they are the ones upholding me and sometimes seem to believe in this vision even more than me. They have gotten used to my lifestyle: how I get up and go to where I am needed. It has gotten to that point that I get teased. If I can remember too well, someone once said he found it hard to believe I’d be at my current location for a while.

According to him, he won’t be surprised to hear that next year I am in one village in Maiduguri working on another project. But then, who knows? He just might be right. (winks)

YA: What skill(s) would you advice youngsters/recent graduates to harness asides having a University degree?

Swanta: Personally, I would say Soft skills (especially People Skills, Communication Skills and Emotional Intelligence). Soft skills cannot be overemphasized because unfortunately, these are not skills that are inculcated into our culture of learning in school and so one has to acquire them independently. Your certificate is useless without soft skills because those soft skills will help you interpret your certificate and present yourself to the global market. Simply put, soft skills determine how you are perceived and accepted into the global market.

Unfortunately, we are on a dangerous journey as young people who want to ‘live their truth’, give savage replies on social media and still expect to be respected at the table where serious conversations are held. Now, don’t get me wrong. Living one’s truth is very important and I am living mine. But there is a huge difference between having a bad attitude and living one’s truth. There’s the temptation to parade bad attitudes as truths and I see that in many young people. Having soft skills will help you strike a balance.

Digital skills are a must for every young person in this century. Again, most of our schools will not arm you with these skills so it is up to you to acquire them. Ensure that you own a laptop and a smart phone and KNOW how to maximize them to empower yourself. I have been recruiting staff for years now and we have had to let go potential employees because they lacked digital skills. When I say digital skills, it goes beyond having a smart phone and knowing how to be on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Swanta Blessing Bonat school

We are already at a point in human history where digital skills determine success and growth. I cannot scream this enough: arm yourself!

YA: What advice would you give to youths out there, in terms of building their career and community development? We would love you to be as practical as possible.

Know You. Know what makes you tick. Choose a path. Ignore limitations. Always show up.

Build a social capital because after your skill and talent, character is THE fuel that will keep propelling you to cover the distance towards your destination.

First, you can never go wrong with good planning, focus, determination and being deliberate. What have you planned for your career? Focus on it and be determined to accomplish it then become deliberate in picking your experiences.

While at it, remember to equip yourself with the necessary tools for each experience. Because of my plan to use teaching and education in a certain way, I resolved to choose my experiences and only go for the experiences I need(ed).

I wanted to experience working at all levels or aspects of education and school systems. So I started as a Class Assistant, then became a Class Teacher, then a House Mistress, then a Hostel Administrator and now a School Administrator. Some of these experiences, you have to create/take them yourself because no one will give them to you easily on account of the fixation of years of experience over competence. Don’t get me wrong, years of experience are good but sometimes, they do not automatically translate to competence. So, do not be afraid to challenge yourself and the system by taking the stage sometimes.

I have been able to gather these experiences only within 7 years. There are times that the temptation came to deviate because of BILLS, but I had to keep at it and ignore because I had thrown something into the future that is still waiting for pick-up and only certain experiences will get me there.

Importantly, pay attention to details and focus on the process. It was easy for me to transit from being a class teacher to school administration because I paid attention and learned most of what I know about school administration by understudying the school secretary at the first school I worked with in Abuja. She did not know I was paying attention to her job and how she did it but I was and I learned a whole lot. So, as a young person and at each level of your career, pay attention and know that the process is equally as important as the end result.

Conclusively, we as individuals are the ones that will champion community development. We are the community and I always say that the time to take action is now. The time is ALWAYS NOW. We can start from where we are with whatever we have at hand. Making a difference does not really require much.

It only requires that one takes action. It took me one sleepless night in Abuja to realize that I had been complaining about the state of education in Nigeria and my rural community and had been planning big on ways to go about solving the problem without thinking of the now.

Swanta Blessing Bonat COEC

I was focused on the big plans I had and the right time to take action that I kept putting off being in the present and doing what I can do while on my way to the big plan.

So I told myself that if nobody was going to do it, I will do it. I will act now and stop complaining. I left Abuja and look how far I’ve come. Everyone needs to find out what they are capable of and embrace it. We can complain all we want but till we do something about it, we are not ready to solve the problem. If you can’t do it yourself, empower someone else that can. Not all of us must resign from our paid jobs to save Nigeria but we can all do something within our limitations to change things.

I have education and the teaching profession as my tool. What is yours?

YA: Golden, golden. I must commend your energy and audacity at this point. Salutes! One last question before we go. You will agree with me that so much has been said about mentorship as a missing block in the current dispensation. This has also been linked to the drastic fall in the development and growth of our ever increasing youth force. How do you see mentorship in the equation of nation building? Who are the mentors that have helped shaped you? Are you open to mentorship?

Swanta: Mentorship is great as it can serve as a strong motivating factor towards success. This can also provide some sort of accountability and support network for the mentee and help monitor progress.

With what I have learned over the years and what I know now, the journey would definitely have been easier if I had someone to hold my hand from the beginning.

It is important to learn from people that have gone before you in your area of interests either directly interacting with them or studying them from a far. I do not have direct mentors but Oprah Winfrey is one woman that challenges me to become the best version of myself and I look forward to meeting her and visiting her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

I am open to mentorship and have tried pulling young people to learn under me but found out that sadly, some were not willing to put in the work and become the best version of themselves. My desire is not to replicate and nurture more Swantas but to pour myself into others who are passionate about what they do so that they in turn can use THEIR unique voices to champion change. I am only open to people that understand and uphold this principle.

SEE ALSO: An interview with multiple award winning poet and journalist, Ridwan Adelaja, on making a career switch in the 21st century 


Swanta Blessing Bonat school donation
DONATE HERE to support school infrastructures for children in rural communities

About the author

Youth Art Initiative

Youth Art Initiative (YAI) NG is a youth-led social enterprise with an ambition to develop the youth force and their immediate communities through the facilitation of various empowerment programmes.

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