Honoring Her Spirit

| November 7, 2019

A first-generation Nigerian-American immigrant, Ojuolape “Oju” Ajose overcame the loss of her mother and has honored her by excelling in academics and leadership

Oju Ajose is a first-generation college student beginning her freshman year at USC this fall (Image Credit: Gus Ruelas)

Oju Ajose is a first-generation college student beginning her freshman year at USC this fall (Image Credit: Gus Ruelas)

When asked what she hopes for her future, Ojuolape Ajose responds that she hopes to be confident, successful, graceful, and vibrant. Upon meeting her, it would be easy to say she already embodies all four of these traits.

“I want to be the best version of myself I can be,” said Ajose, “and I want to make my mom proud.” 

A Bovard Scholar and a recipient of the USC Presidential Scholarship, Ajose has a strong resume of leadership positions and impressive academics as she begins her freshman year as a computer science and business administration major at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

She graduated as valedictorian of the class of 2019 at South Grand Prairie High School in Texas and served as president of several student clubs. 

Her excellence did not come without struggle. 

Ajose’s mother passed away in 2014 from cancer when her daughter was just 13. Her father still lived in Nigeria, leaving Oju to be raised by an older brother and sister. Her older brother, Tunde Onwukeme, works in real estate development, and her older sister, Jade Ajose, works as the project manager of Kobe Bryant’s marketing team. 

Without her mother to raise her, Ajose was left to rely on her own strength, intelligence, and determination to navigate her teenage years.

“Oju always had the best work ethic,” said sister Jade Ajose. “You never had to push her to be better, if anything – it was the opposite where I would find myself telling her to take it easy and to enjoy the little moments.”

After Ojuolape Ajose’s mother died, “I lost my main support system,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t let her down, so I focused even more heavily on extracurriculars and schoolwork.”

In the beginning, Ajose struggled to make sense of the tragedy and tried to distract herself with her studies and activities as a coping mechanism. “As I matured, I realized that allowing myself to feel the grief whenever it did come out and understanding that this was a big event that would affect anyone was how I began the process of healing.”

Ajose also relied on her siblings and cousins to help her grieve. 

Growing up in a very religious household and community also had profound effects on Ajose. Her mother taught at the local church Bible school and would pray with her children every night before bed. 

“I’m slowly trying to establish my own relationship with God,” Ajose said. “I’ve definitely made progress, but there’s a long way to go before I’m anywhere near her level of spirituality.”

Before her passing, Ajose’s mother instilled values of hard work and dedication to education and personal growth in Ajose, which helped her excel throughout high school.

Ajose graduated summa cum laude as valedictorian of South Grand Prairie High. A member of the National Honor Society and the American Chemical Society, she also served as vice president of her high school’s mathematics honor society known as Mu Alpha Theta in 2017. In 2018, Ajose served as senior class vice president and as the president of her school’s chapter of the Distributive Education Clubs of America, or DECA, which seeks to prepare business and entrepreneurial-minded students to excel in marketing, finances, and management.

Her junior year, she was elected school store manager, a role that helped her learn about ordering inventory, making sales and communicating with others. “I’d spend my lunch period in the school store, and people would come in and buy T-shirts or school supplies and they’d ask me questions about DECA.”

Ajose was born in Nigeria, but moved to Grand Prairie, Texas, with her mother and older brother and sister when just a toddler. “Being Nigerian, hard work is really emphasized,” she said.  That culture heavily influenced me.”

Oju’s two siblings were much older than her and had already moved out to attend college when she was young. Her siblings’ absence, combined with the long shifts her mother worked as a home health care professional, meant Oju spent a lot of her childhood home alone. She read, watched documentaries and learned about other cultures in her free time. She enjoyed mythology and especially enjoyed the Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicles series.

As a first-generation college student, Ajose made regular visits to the college and career center at her high school to make sure to stay on track with her college and scholarship applications. One of the counselors who Ajose became close with recommended she apply to USC as a Bovard Scholar, a program that allows exceptional high school students with financial need access to resources and guidance about the college application process.

After she was accepted as a Bovard Scholar, she spent three weeks at USC over the summer before her senior year as part of the program and fell in love with the campus. Her positive experience was the final factor in her decision to ultimately attend USC. She believes she made an excellent choice. 

“At USC, I want to dive deeper into what I’m passionate about and find a career that taps into that,” said Ajose, who, in the future, hopes to develop software to improve athletic performance. “I’m excited to take advantage of the opportunities here so I can really grow. I want to be able to walk into a room and be seen as a leader and a role model, which is how I saw my mom.” 

“Our mom would be beyond proud of Oju,” said sister Jade. “Not just because of her academic accomplishments, but by who Oju is as a person: how she treats people and how she wants to leave the world a better place.”

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