EXPOSED! What You Didn’t Know About Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
EXPOSED! What You Didn’t Know About Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

EXPOSED! What You Didn’t Know About Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

2 years ago
2 mins read

“The world needs your smarts, your skills,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala tells MIT’s Class of 2022 as she shared her journey through her alma mater – the most interesting, being her personal life which not many actually knew before now.

Did you know the Head of the World Trade Organization was actually heavily pregnant with her first child, when she wrote her thesis? Doubt it.  But yes and very yes so.

“In fact, I’m convinced that they only let me get away with the defense because of that baby. I let them know I was due any moment, and that I could have the baby that day, maybe right there during the defense. They looked terrified…”  recounted Okonjo Iweala  MCP ’78, PhD ’81, Director-General of the World Trade Organization while delivering the commencement address of the 2022 graduation ceremony of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As if borrowing from her own life struggles, she also told the graduates: “In these uncertain times, in this complex world in which you are entering, you need not be so daunted, if you can search for the opportunities hidden in challenges.” She urged them to go “into the world to embrace the opportunities to serve.”

An expert in global finance, economics and international development, Okonjo-Iweala remains the first woman and first African to lead the WTO.

She had earned a master’s degree in city planning from MIT in 1978, and a PhD in regional economics and development in 1981.

But who would have thought that this woman with this bow-legged credentials and milestones had to struggle through school. But she did!

“MIT has helped make me who I am today,” Okonjo-Iweala affirmed, gingering the graduands to go and conquer their world.

Actually, Okonjo-Iweala began her address by paying tribute to MIT President,  Rafael Reif, who earlier this semester announced plans to end his decade-long tenure in that role. She described the graduation event as “bittersweet day” because of Reif’s departure, while continuing to reveal to the world a rare personal story she had masked all these decades.

Her narration continued: “I was heavily pregnant, virtually nine months with my first child when i defended my dissertation. Writing the dissertation itself had been rocky, with lots of tearful weekends as I struggled with my data in SPSS.”

“Does anyone remember that? I clearly remember Allen telling me after I first submitted my first chapter that it was below my usual standard and that I should tear it up and start again.”

The WTO DG, who was formerly head of the World Bank said: “I spent all weekend in tears before picking myself up and starting over. “

In an apparent move to employ some comic relief to help digest what used to be not too tasty tale, the Former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Nigerian Economy joked: “By the way, this is a good trick to try. But I’m sorry it won’t work for you men.”

She spoke warmly of the way MIT had helped her while she was a graduate student struggling to pay the bills. She was assured that the Institute would do whatever was needed to make sure she could complete her studies, she recalled, saying, “They had my back.” Noting that this year’s graduating class had their own educational journeys challenged by the global pandemic, she described how her own early education was interrupted for three years by civil war in her home country of Nigeria.

She also noted the recent tragic shootings in Uvalde, Texas, saying: “I feel grief as a mother and a grandmother.”

In the case of the global response to the pandemic, she said that only 17 percent of people in Africa and 13 percent of people in low-income countries have been fully vaccinated, compared to 75 percent of people in high income countries.

“Since we all know that no one is safe until everyone is safe, the risk of more dangerous variants and pathogens remains real because of this public policy lapse and the lack of timely international cooperation,” she said.


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