Austin Obasohan’s voice still carries the rich, singing accent of the small Nigerian village where he grew up, an accent that can, at times, deceive American ears. But when the Superintendent of Duplin County Schools speaks about education, there’s no mistaking his very clear determination to make a difference in the lives of children, a determination born of both struggle and faith.
“The best way to open up the minds of our children is education. If you have knowledge, you can impact the world, you can have conversations that will bring people together,” says Obasohan, relaxing in his office on an unusually warm winter’s day last week.
Born in 1959 in southern Nigeria in the village of Nifor, a farm community not unlike Duplin County, Obasohan’s family struggled to make ends meet. As the oldest son of seven children, much of the burden fell on his shoulders.
“It was a very, very poor community,” he remembers. “I had a lot on me. Not everybody could go to school in my village; it’s not like here where we have free education, you have to pay some fees, and we struggled with that.”
At age nine Obasohan’s parents sent him to work for his father’s uncle, a man of means who offered to pay their son’s school tuition in exchange for his labor.
“I was like a houseboy or something. The deal was I serve them for four years and then they pay my tuition for four years,” he says.
Though he’s loath to label it as such, Obasohan’s years of indentured servitude sound little different from outright slavery.
“I never got to really eat the food that I cooked, I barely had what was left. So one day I start frying these eggs for them, and it smelled good in the kitchen,” he recalls. “Because of fear and my respect for authority, I knew I better not take anything to eat, even though nobody’s watching me while I’m cooking.
“So one day I got mad and I fried an egg for me and I ate it. Man, they came and they saw me and they whipped my tail.”
The arrangement with his uncle ultimately ended in acrimony.
“Man, it still gets to me, even today, to think about it,” Obasohan says. “When it was time for me to go to high school he disappointed us and told us he doesn’t have any money, that the money he planned to spend on me he was going to spend expanding his wife’s business.”
After returning to Nifor, the teenager was forced to stay back a grade to give his parents time to raise money for his sister’s education. And like one of the tall tales told by grandparents all over the world, Obasohan actually did walk four miles, one way, to school each day, rain or shine.
“I walked those miles everyday because education was so important and I didn’t want to let my father down, and I knew the only way I could handle the load behind me was to get my education,” he says emphatically. “I know the only way I can get out of there and restore a sense of pride to my family was make that sacrifice.”
For years, Obasohan walked those miles in his bare feet — he wouldn’t receive a pair of tennis shoes until the 12th grade.
“We would walk and do our homework on each others backs,” he says, mimicking the maneuver. “At night there was no electricity, so we had to be creative.”
Like a lot of children small of stature and limited in resources, Obasohan also suffered at the hands of bullies.
“When I was little I was so short, so small. I thought I was going to be 5’2” max. I got whipped so bad in school by these big guys, they beat me up good. I had no economic class, I had no voice.”
Obasohan used the abuse as motivation to defeat his tormentors the only way he knew how — academically.
“So after I got beat a lot I said ‘Man, what am I going to do.’ So I turned that anger into getting more serious at academics. Now those guys wanted me to help them with their schoolwork, so they became my bodyguards.”
That drive would eventually propel the young man from his home country in search of opportunity. He would land first in the United Kingdom, where he earned his bachelor’s degree from Sussex College of Technology. Touching down in the U.S. in 1981, he received his doctorate from Appalachian State University, and his specialist and master’s degrees from Virginia State University.
Obasohan would go on to work as a teacher and assistant principal in New York, Virginia and North Carolina.
“That first year of teaching in 1981 (at the New York Career Institute) I said ‘Man, this is it.’ And I’ve been married to it ever since,” he says.
Coming from a deeply religious family, Obasohan said he drew comfort from his faith during those early days in the States.
My mother always told me ‘If you just find the Christians, the people who have the same faith as you, then adjusting to the culture will not be difficult. It’s the same way all over world, whatever faith you chose, it’s the same way of worshiping the same way of doing things.”
In 2008 Obasohan took over the superintendent’s job at Selma City Schools in Alabama. Two years later, he was hired by the Duplin County Board of Education to head up the county’s school system.
Obasohan said his goal was always to serve as an administrator, a role he knew would allow him to implement policies benefiting students and educators alike.
”I was seeing the professional practices that were occurring, the policy implementation that was occurring in the schools where I was working, and I knew I wanted to treat these kids better than that,” he explains.
As the father of three children with his wife, Uyiosa (daughter Modesty, and sons Justice and Trust) Obasohan has seen the sacrifices he made during his own childhood pay off in front of his eyes.
“I tell them the stories of what I went through. They don’t have to walk to school, and I’m just so happy we were able to give them a better life,” he says.
The young boy who once bore the brunt of cruel classmates has grown into a passionate defender of bullying victims.
“People don’t understand what bullying does,” he states. “Bullying is a way of oppressing others, taking other people’s rights away, and it’s just wrong. It really destroyed me when I was growing up.”
Now in his seventh year at Duplin County Schools, Obasohan said he remains as committed as ever to providing the best educational opportunities for each and every student.
“Myself, and my community had no resources at all,” he says of his early life in Nigeria. “I want every child to know that circumstances do not define your destiny. It is how you respond to your circumstances. Every challenge I went through I saw as an assignment to make a difference.
Obasohan said he still lives by the words of his 90-year-old mother, who he talks to by phone every day.
“My mother always told me: ‘It’s better to say this is the spot where a man was killed for standing for what is right, than to say this is the last spot where we saw the man before he ran away.’”
“You can’t choose an assignment you’re not willing to die for; education is what I’m willing to die for.”