Dr. Simon Aihiokhai

Dr. Simon AihiokhaiCurrent Position: Assistant Professor of Theology

Alma Mater: Spiritan School of Philosophy (Isienu-Nsukka, Nigeria)

Major/Undergraduate field of study: Philosophy

What was it like being among the first in your family to go to college?

I was born and raised in Benin City, Nigeria. My parents never went to college. However, their love for education was reflected in how they supported my siblings and me throughout the different stages of our education. My mother's determined will to succeed in life played a vital role in shaping how I turned out. I went to a college-seminary for my undergraduate studies. Everyone knew the rules. If one did not do well in their studies, one was asked to discontinue from the program. However, my success at the seminary was determined by the relationships I had with my professors and fellow students. I fell in love with my philosophical studies because of how I saw the love of knowledge play out on campus. I had professors and family members who cared about my wellbeing. They were interested in seeing me succeed in life. They gave me the tools I needed to do that. Above all else, they helped me discover the beauty in wanting to know. Curiosity is a mode of being truly human.

Are there any unique challenges you faced as a First Generation student?

Being a first generation student is like moving to a new country where everyone speaks a different language from yours. One is always thinking one is not worthy to be there (impostor syndrome). I always wanted to be invisible in class. I did not want my professors to think I was stupid. I did not know how to use the library. All that changed when one of my professors came to class during the first week of my freshman year and told the entire class that we were all going to be co-tutors of the course. Each of us was going to have three hours of class time to present a research paper on a particular topic. At first, I was a nervous wreck, believing I was not cut out for that. However, the said professor invited each of us to his office to spend time with him as he got to know our unique stories. I noticed how he believed in me even before I believed in myself. This made a huge difference. He took time out of his busy schedule to show me around and taught me how to use the library. Also, he encouraged me to seek out classmates who would help me succeed in college. Throughout my entire undergraduate years, I was a member of different study groups. These gave me the opportunity to learn course materials through the perspectives of my peers.

Do you have any advice for FGEN students at UP that are facing challenges?

As I rejoice with you that you have joined us at UP, I want to offer you the following advice: 1) You got to UP because you deserve to be here. 2) Your presence at UP enriches all of us. 3) Have a planner for all of your classes and follow it religiously. Resist procrastination. It is the virus that will destroy your career ambitions. 4) Do not be invisible. Send an email to your professors and introduce yourself to them. Let them know what your needs are and let them know you want them to help you to succeed during your time here at UP. 5) Go to their office hours. If you do not understand a lecture, let them know and they will be glad to offer you the relevant assistance. 6) Show up for all of your classes. 7) Make sure you take care of your emotional needs. Be part of the social life of the community. 8) Live a balanced life. This means you should get enough sleep. Not having enough sleep is recipe for failure. 9) If you are a religious or spiritual person, embrace your spirituality and be proud of it. 10) Give yourself a break. Learn how not to take yourself too serious. Humor helps a lot. Again, have fun as you spend the next four years of your life on the Bluff.

Did a mentor play a role in your experience? How so?

I am a strong believer in the mentorship program. During my undergraduate studies, I had three professors who helped me to become what I am today. One was my ancient philosophy professor who taught me to enjoy critical thinking as a pedagogical tool. The second was my modern philosophy professor who helped me to figure out my career path. The third professor was my professor of Marxist philosophy who helped me to strike a balance between intellectual curiosity and my faith journey.

How do you feel your experience prepared you, both professionally and personally?

College is a safe space where one goes to explore one’s existential questions. For me, it was during my undergraduate years that I realized that I found joy in learning and refusing to settle for simplistic answers to my endless questions. It was a place where my naive beliefs were challenged and refined by others. It was a place where I was assured that there were no stupid questions. To ask a question is already to grasp meaning. As an academic who has chosen to study the role of religion in the world, I see myself as a facilitator for learning in the classroom. By helping my students to seek ways to express their own existential questions, I am also being taught by them to constantly critique my own answers to my questions. Knowing fully well that each student is unique and coming from different social locations, I choose to meet each student where he/she is located. This means that I have to use the "third eye" approach to see what is not on the surface. I have to earn their trust as I seek to know how I can help them succeed in college. Learning is essentially relational. This means I have to model for my students intellectual humility. I want to pass on to my students the attitude to want to know even when one does not currently have the complete answers to the questions being asked. Failure is a reality that faces each of us. What matters the most is not that we never fail. Rather, it is what we do with that experience of failing that will endure. My failures led me to where I am today in my career. They helped to ground me and make me realize that without the support of others, I cannot succeed alone. This is what defines my work as an academic.

Connect with Dr. Aihiokhai