Damilola Olatayo has always been something of a prodigy, so it is no surprise that she has been praised as one of the outstanding members of this year’s graduating class at the University of Texas at Austin.
She graduated high school when she was 15 years old, not long after she survived malaria, which is often deadly in her native Nigeria. When she graduates later this week, the neurobiology major, Gates Millennium Scholar and newly minted White House intern will move from the 40 Acres where she left her mark to continue her mission to to study global medicine.
Olatayo will also no doubt continue the community engagement and activism that created a legacy of student leadership at UT.
In addition to her studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Olatayo said she was inspired by the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to expand the reach of a mentoring program she started at Garza Independence High School. The Garza Initiative started when Olatayo took a tour of the high school, and created a mentoring program for seniors there to shadow UT students.
She met and started working with Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement, on the Thematic Faculty Hiring Initiative at the end of 2011. Olatayo was the student government representative for the Diversity and Equity Student Advisory and Action Committee (DESAAC). That work resulted in the first African American hired in the College of Natural Sciences, Dr. Peter Onyisi.
Olatayo said that Dr. Vincent was very supportive of her work with the Garza Initiative and through UT Outreach Austin — also a part of DDCE — she created Students for Education and Community Advancement (SECA).
“It became SECA because of DDCE,” Olatayo said. “I had meetings with Dr. Vincent, he loved the idea and he supported it totally. He wanted to make sure that the organization had DDCE’s support.” The support of Dr. Vincent’s, as well as that of Neighborhood Longhorns Program Executive Director Patrick Patterson, was instrumental to getting the organization off the ground, she said.
SECA has now has 300 students and is led by Courtney Coleman who has been working to expand the group’s mentoring and tutoring word to incorporate new initiatives like the Pen Pal program. The Pen Pal program works through a collaboration between UT Outreach and SECA. UT Outreach selected students from 13 schools in their jurisdictions to participate in the program, and they pair students selected by guidance counselors with UT students via email or phone. “You don’t have to be committed to our organization, we want you to be committed to the students. It’s all about the students. It’s a really rewarding experience, because students said that they wouldn’t have graduated without having that extra mentoring and having someone who looks like them tell them they could do it.”
Working with Dr. Vincent also provided Olatayo with the confidence to work on Prop. 1, she said. “Being on DESAAC taught me that we have a voice and that we can influence change and make things happen. DESAAC is important, and it’s important that Dr. Vincent continues to want to listen to students.”
Dr. Vincent said that Olatayo brings a unique combination of experiences and worldviews to everything she does “as a global citizen, a scientist and a social justice activist.”
The influence of mentors like Shannon Allport, Dr. Soncia Reagins-Lilly and Dr. Vincent, has helped Olatayo to continue changing and improving the world around her. She has been awarded a prestigious White House internship. When it is over, she has plans for the next year to travel the world studying policy in Paris, then global medicine in Thailand. She’s planning to earn a master’s in public health or nursing, but for now she’s simply excited to have a year full of new experiences to figure it out.
“It has just been amazing to go to a university where academics are important, but we also take the time to place a value on diversity and tolerance,” Olatayo said. “We’re living that every day.”