Presidential Scholar Award Recipient Stephen Awoyemi on Cultivating Service-Driven Work

Stephen Awoyemi earned his MPhil in Conservation Leadership from University of Cambridge and his MSc in Zoology from the University of Ibadan. He is currently conducting fieldwork in Nigeria as an Environmental Sciences and Policy PhD candidate at Central European University (CEU). Awoyemi has held multiple leadership positions. As the Regional Coordinator of Africa within the University of Cambridge's Conservation Leadership Alumni Network, he cultivated and supported opportunities for personal and career development.

We spoke to him on the occasion of his 2020 Presidential Scholar Award. This is an edited interview conducted on October 19, 2020. 

What does this honor mean for you? 

This is a very powerful opportunity because it opens more avenues for making an impact and the responsibility that comes with that. “How can I contribute?” is always my mantra. This award offers a platform for participating in that way.

What was your route to CEU? 

My introduction to CEU was during the Society for Conservation Biology Africa Regional Conference in Morocco in 2016, where I learned about the possibility of doing a PhD at the CEU. When I eventually got to CEU, I discovered how much the university excels in the social sciences and that was very exciting for me. Originally, I did zoology, working as a conservation biologist, and after many years, I transitioned to the social sciences which is really my academic home. Getting to CEU and discovering that alignment made a really strong impression.           

Stephen Awoyemi (second from left) during the 2019 CEU graduation ceremony.
Stephen Awoyemi is second from left; during the 2019 CEU graduation ceremony.

What do you think is the most important factor in being selected for this scholarship? 

I think proper reflection is important as well as self-evaluation. It's also important to get feedback from your colleagues, friends and especially your supervisor, so that they can share their perspective about your quest. All of that together will help guide you in determining if this is the right opportunity and how to apply for the award.

What was the response by those around you when you shared the news of your award? 

I’ve had other scholarships and fellowships, but this is the first recognition of leadership that I'm getting in my life and it's very significant for me. My family and friends were excited and really happy for me.

What else would you like to share? 

Currently in my fieldwork, I'm looking at the decline of vultures in Nigeria within a sociological study regarding how vulture populations are impacted by belief-based use. First, I will say that vultures are important to the ecosystem since they provide important services by eliminating waste and carcasses, thereby making them efficient sanitation service providers. They also help with health in terms of potentially preventing infectious diseases such as anthrax and rabies. Unfortunately, African vultures are among the most threatened birds in the world, a major reason being that they are traded for belief-based use.

There's a lot of cultural relevance regarding vultures such as beliefs in certain communities that they can cure various ailments, mental illness and even provide good luck in the lottery or business. While there is no particular scientific evidence that vultures contain such capacities, the cultural beliefs that surround vultures is based on a rich cosmology, especially among the Yoruba people. For ethnographic research, I spend up to six days with each vulture trader to be immersed in the study and listen to their beliefs, motivations and other underlying factors for trading vultures. For my PhD, I am investigating  the cultural factors that influence patterns of behavior of traders and buyers of vulture parts for belief-based use, and based on my data, I aim to find a way to mitigate the challenge and present solutions to policymakers.

The Presidential Scholars Fund was established by CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff and his wife Zsuzsanna Zsohar. It supports four Presidential Graduate Research Awards for exceptional Master's and Doctoral students whose research shows promise for the next generation. The Fund also awards two scholarships per year to incoming bachelor's students demonstrating exceptional academic credentials and leadership promise. Bringing the graduate and undergraduate scholars together, the Rector hosts an annual dinner for the Scholars and meets with them regularly throughout the year.