Lincoln Ajoku ’03 on the Pursuit of Education, Purpose, and International Development

Lincoln Ajoku ’03

Lincoln Ajoku Headshot

Lincoln Ajoku’s journey serves as a testament to the transformative power of education and the pursuit of meaningful purpose in a career. Born in Manhattan to Nigerian immigrant parents, Ajoku’s upbringing in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood instilled a deep appreciation for hard work and education. Witnessing the sacrifices made by his parents to provide for the family and the influence of his grandmother on the value of education, shaped his early outlook on higher education.

Growing up during challenging times in New York, marked by crime and struggling public schools, he developed a passion for addressing disparities in healthcare and education, which guided his path to CCNY, where he began at the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education. Through self-exploration and faculty support, Ajoku found a new passion which ultimately led him to major in Economics and minor in International Studies at the Colin Powell School. These decisions opened doors to his exploring such diverse topics as microfinance, economic policies, and education across regions.

His advice to current and future students is to develop a core set of positive values and purpose, seek guidance from mentors, and learn from failure.

Where are you from and what is your background story?

I was born in Manhattan to parents who emigrated to the United States from Nigeria. We grew up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood until my teenage years, when we left the city. But during that time, I learned from the powerful example of my parents and their sacrifices, working long hours, attending university at night (my mother studied at Brooklyn College for her undergraduate degree), and raising me and my siblings. My grandmother was also central in our upbringing because while she never completed her primary education, she always encouraged and instructed my siblings and me on the value of education along with the possibilities it could open up for us.

We grew up during a difficult time in New York — rampant crime, unsafe streets, and struggling public schools. As I grew older, I became aware and concerned about the large gaps that existed for basic services such as healthcare and education. I was motivated to do something about these disparities in places like New York or Nigeria and around the globe through my studies and my future career, and that guided me as I was applying for college.

What brought you to CCNY and to the Colin Powell School?

I took a circular route to CCNY — I originally was attracted by the then-Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education; that’s how I originally got into the school. I thought I wanted to be a doctor as I believed this was the best way to serve people and address some of the challenges people in marginalized communities face. But as I continued in the program, I realized my heart was pulling me in another direction — towards issues of economic development, education, and politics. I listened to my heart and made the difficult decision to leave the program.

But I was having this compelling experience at CCNY, so at the same time, I realized I did not want to leave to go to another university. I took time to look into various programs of study and what major I wanted to pursue. After some conversations, I decided to major in Economics with a minor in International Studies. And I am glad I made that decision because it’s shaped everything I’ve been able to achieve professionally since then.

What is your passion or purpose behind pursuing what you did at City College?

Once I knew that I was going to study Economics and International Studies, I felt a newfound ability to explore a wide range of topics in these fields. I could consider the field of microfinance and what it meant for women entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, for instance, or the economic policies that help propel rapid economic growth and transformation in the so-called Asian tiger countries. Being able to consider education policies across regions and what that meant for economic development. These were the range of topics I was passionate about during my time at City.

To fuel my passion for these topics during that time, among many people, I was grateful to have the encouragement and support of Dr. Stanley Friedlander and Prof. Kevin Foster in the Economics Department; for International Relations and Political Science, I had the invaluable guidance of Dr Marina Fernando and now-President Vincent Boudreau. And then there was the Honors College, led so ably by Robin Villa and Lee Linde, where there was never a silly question and there was seemingly no limit to the possibilities of experiential learning.

What is your current profession/position?

I work in International Development, in education in emergency/humanitarian contexts to be exact. I am an Education Specialist with UNICEF in Nigeria.

Briefly, how has your career unfolded? How did City College and/or the Colin Powell School help you to get where you are in your career?

I wouldn’t say there was a template. I’ve moved between different roles but at the center of my career was a focus on “dedication to service,” to paraphrase the great educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Specifically, I wanted to work in fields where economic development was prioritized and so this led me to work in different areas of education to help students build their skills and civic knowledge; researching international trade agreements and their impact on Latin American countries; and working in humanitarian settings, particularly to help those areas affected by conflict to have a return to normalcy, especially the resumption of economic activities.

Practically this has meant working as a teacher, providing technical reports regarding education policies and budgeting, and working in several NGOs and international organizations on programming for education and livelihoods. I’ve had the chance to help design and evaluate complex interventions for education and social protection for vulnerable communities around the world, including in Haiti, Somalia, and Bangladesh, as well as manage diverse teams to achieve results in emergency settings.

What I did at City College — studying Economics and International Studies and with help from the Honors College — helped me see the possibilities for an enriching career in international development. Whether that was through study abroad, in which I completed a business course in China; researching political and economic integration in the African continent; or becoming a Jeannette Watson Fellow where I got to take part in some meaningful summer internships — CCNY helped shape my outlook on the world.

Do you have any significant memories or accomplishments from your career or time at City College / Colin Powell School that you would like to share?

One of my favorite experiences at City College was the opportunity to do an internship and study tour in Rwanda with other CCNY students, following my graduation. The summer program was organized through the CCNY International Studies Department and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology in Kigali, Rwanda. I had the opportunity to intern at the Rwanda Ministry of Finance, helping with research for their strategies for economic development and poverty reduction. It was a defining experience for me and a truly remarkable way to end my time at City College and embark on my career in international development. It was moving to see Rwanda try to pick up the pieces after the 1994 genocide through a mix of efforts at reconciliation, education, and economic development. I credit this experience for launching my career in international development.

What are your future aspirations for your career?

I am currently studying for a doctoral degree in Leadership and Change at Antioch University. I appreciate this course of study, as it gives me a chance to further my theoretical underpinning to my work in international development and the humanitarian sector. Ultimately I am interested in using my experiences in international development and humanitarian contexts to help train the next generation of professionals and leaders in this field. I think it is important for those entering this field to be aware of the contexts of the countries they are working in, as well as the historical issues including poverty, racism, discrimination, and economic policies that have impacted development outcomes in many of the countries of the Global South. That could then inform unique approaches and new, creative solutions to the economic challenges some of these countries face.

Do you have any advice you could give to current or future students?

My main advice to current and future students would be to develop a core set of values and purposes that are positive and meaningful and that motivate them for their career interests. These core sets of values can range from empathy, to serving others, to putting family first, or addressing injustices in society through one’s career. These are the pillars that will keep someone steady when things get rough, as they do from time to time. If a student does not have this feeling of purpose or maybe is not sure what it can be, this is a great time to find professors, mentors, and leaders to talk to and learn from their examples on the values that guide them.

I’ve found in my career, both in a good sense and in challenging times, the importance of having that core. That allows for some flexibility with the different types of career opportunities that may come up, putting me in a position to take advantage of them.

Two books for students that I highly recommend are full of practical advice for careers and life: Ethical Ambition by the late Derrick Bell, which draws upon his career in academia to frame important questions students should be asking themselves as they embark on their careers, and Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, by Daniel Shapiro, which helps people examine their values, tensions and conflicts and negotiate through these elements to achieve personal and professional goals.

I would also say something about the importance of persistence and learning from failure. These days, failure is seen as something fashionable, especially in some celebrity quarters, but the reality is it can be dispiriting and not a luxury that everyone can afford. But learning from failure, as difficult as it can be, especially at the moment, can be truly powerful for future success.

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