Growing up, Omolabake Oyetayo’s father always said to her, “it takes brains to work with brains.” That’s mostly what has motivated the 17-year-old to study neuroscience this fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Oyetayo, or “Labake” as her friends and family call her, was issued a $1,500 “Persistence Pays” scholarship from 209 Together and the Kiwanis Club of Forest Park on July 30. Every year the group awards scholarships to hard-working high school students from Proviso Township High School District 209.
But the recent Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) graduate doesn’t have to worry about covering the rest of her college costs. Oyetayo has also won a full ride from the University of Illinois. She says she will use the $1,000 scholarship to cover her textbooks costs.
Oyetayo emigrated to the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria in 2008 with her parents and two brothers. Her family settled in Westchester.
Her younger brother, now 15 years old, attends Proviso West High School and her older brother, now 21 years old, attends Loyola University in Chicago. Oyetayo was the only one of her siblings who attended PMSA.
During family meals, her parents would regale her and her brothers with stories of what it was like to grow up in Nigeria. But Oyetayo hasn’t been able to visit Nigeria since she moved to America because of her busy academic schedule.
Oyetayo attended Westchester Middle School where, she says, she was used to doing well in all of her classes – even the advanced ones. When Oyetayo started at PMSA she struggled at first. She believed asking for help was a handicap rather than a tool that could help her succeed.
“I insisted upon struggling rather than simply asking for help and due to this, I received the lowest scores of my high school career,” Oyetayo wrote in her 209 Together scholarship essay.
This soon changed.
Oyetayo reached out to her parents and teachers for help. She also fought against one of her well-ingrained vices – procrastination.
“I realized probably mid-freshman year the reason PMSA is such a challenge is the workload. But the reason the workload becomes excessive is because everyone waits to do it…so really quickly I had to learn that if you have to do something just do it quickly and efficiently and then it’s done,” Oyetayo said.
She learned to silence any distractions, like her iPhone, and surrounded herself with work as she finished her assignments on her bed.
“So that way if I want to get distracted, I get distracted by more work,” Oyetayo said with a laugh.
Although, Oyetayo is working as a cashier at Goodwill this summer, she says her parents didn’t want her to have a job throughout high school.
“I was really lucky because my parents were able to provide everything. They wanted me to focus on school so I looked at school as being my job,” Oyetayo said.
Instead of working at the local grocery store like other high school students might, Oyetayo worked to earn as many scholarships as she could to help pay for college and also keep her grades up.
For the past three years, the Westchester resident earned straight A’s in all of her classes – even in her Advanced Placement classes. This hard work earned her a spot in PMSA’s National Honor Society.
Oyetayo also balanced her academics with participation in her church’s gospel choir, and various high school clubs like the multicultural club, key club and the prom committee.
Although Oyetayo plans to take the pre-med track in college, science is not the only subject that attracted her attention throughout high school.
“It was actually really strange that the classes that I ended up loving the most were those that I usually wouldn’t even have thought to take if I had an option at first. Like American government,” she said.
She credits the teacher who taught this class, Rachel Sands, with fostering her love of learning about politics.
“She would guide you through your thoughts but she would never tell you what to think,” Oyetayo said.
At the University of Illinois, Oyetayo hopes to join a debate or politics club. In the meantime, she says she’ll stick with watching political satire shows like The Daily Show.
Oyetayo says lessons from that one high school government class are helping her navigate the current political climate. She says she now double checks the sources of the news she consumes and does her own research when it comes to topics floating on the internet.
She and her family also sometimes talk about their reactions to the Trump administration.
“We usually talk about how the government needs to go back to being a voice of the people rather than a voice in its own,” she said.
Although Oyetayo might have stuck out in her middle school as a first-generation racial minority, she says she never faced backlash from fellow students about this.
“I was lucky enough to go to schools where they were really open and they just wanted to know more about where I came from rather than put me down from coming from it,” Oyetayo said.