SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Ade Ayoola From her origins in Nigeria to her accomplishments on the track to her path to medical school: meet one of the many great UChicago Athletics graduating seniors.

Soft-spoken and usually smiling, Ade Ayoola might seem unassuming, seated in a crowded room.

Of strong faith and a believer in fate, Ayoola – her first name is pronounced “Ah-day,” like the first ‘a’ in ‘Saturday,’ and “Eye-oo-la,” her last – comes across quiet. But of course, when she stands and displays her athletic, 6-foot-2 frame, the University of Chicago senior is difficult to miss.

Her accomplishments in her 21 years have already been great: the latest her first-ever All-American finish in the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships. But Ayoola, who has taken advantage of every opportunity she’s earned, has so much more to achieve.

With medical school as her next stop, the soon-to-be UChicago graduate might even go on to change the world.

Ayoola being introduced prior to the high jump event at the 2018 NCAA Division III national meet.


Born Adeoluwa Ayoola in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, Ayoola was the second of four children to parents Bernard and Joke (pronounced “Joke-ay”). She spent her first seven years in the West African country located on the Gulf of Guinea, mainly in Lagos, the former capital city.

“Not too much,” Ayoola said of her memory of that time. “I remember it was a good time and we spent a lot of time with family, which was much different when we came (to the U.S.). But it was nice.”

The Ayoolas, answering a call for ministry in the U.S. as well as bettering the entire family’s education, moved to Michigan when Ade was 7, eventually settling in Grand Rapids after Joke finished her doctorate in nursing at Michigan State University.

Early photos of Ade and her family from her time in Nigeria.

Ade’s parents still live in Grand Rapids, with Joke serving as an associate professor in nursing at Calvin College and her father, a pastor by training, running the non-profit African Resource Center of West Michigan, assisting African refugees and immigrants.

Ayoola knew very early on that she wanted to also follow her mother’s path into the field of medicine – as early as seventh grade during a presentation about orthopedic surgeons.

“I remember being like, ‘Wow, this is really cool, I enjoy doing this and I feel like there is a real need in the world for medicine and making things better,’” she recalled. “That was the intersection of everything I wanted to do in my career and ever since then, I’ve been set on medicine.”

She would find out later – in a return trip to her birthplace – how critical that need truly is.

Ade, here pictured at age 13 in Grand Rapids, Mich., far left, with her siblings -- brother Ire, younger sister Ife, and older sister Ayo.


Her family of modest means, Ayoola wasn’t sure if she would even be financially able to attend UChicago.

But of course, her first experience of ‘destiny’ had yet to occur. Or perhaps, just her first application of preparedness and seizing the opportunity.

"I believe it is part of God's plan that I came here," Ayoola said. "It was one of the only colleges I visited in high school and I absolutely loved it”.

Rather than give up on the chance at attending the Hyde Park campus, she applied for the highly academic and low-income criteria-based QuestBridge Scholarship, and got it – successfully matching with UChicago. To put things in perspective; of the 15,606 applicants in 2017, only 5,759 were awarded the full-tuition award. Ayoola is also supported by UChicago’s Odyssey Scholarship.

Ayoola entered the UChicago pre-med curriculum and will graduate with a degree in biological chemistry, but she had her sights set on neurosurgery, at least at first. That path changed after two very distinct internships with the College.

Ayoola in Ibadan, Nigeria, during her eight-week fellowship with the Center for Global Health.


“As I came to college and did internships in low-income minority neighborhoods, I saw a real need for primary care physicians, as well as people who addressed community health and public health,” Ayoola said first of her 2015 internship with the local nonprofit BUILD Chicago.

That path to serve both the underprivileged African-American U.S. population and those of her own West African beginnings were only bolstered by Ayoola’s next experience – her junior year fellowship to study diabetes with the Center for Global Health. It’s location? Nigeria.

“(Learning about that internship) kind of reminded me of when I applied to UChicago – it kind of just felt like, ‘this is it, this is the next step,’” Ayoola recalled.

Returning to Nigeria for the first time since she arrived in the U.S., her experience was conflicting to both her memories as a child and to the challenges in delivering medicine that she experienced.

“It was very eye-opening because I think I had a nostalgic view of Nigeria just based on my first seven years there,” she said. “I was surprised to see how difficult life was there, but then also a lot of things I missed about being in Nigeria, I got to experience that again.”

Entrance to the hospital Ayoola worked at in Nigeria during her fellowship.

One of those “eye-opening” experiences was one Ayoola won’t soon forget.

In the middle of observing surgery at a Nigerian hospital, she watched as doctors opened a man’s leg using various power tools. Without warning – and due to the poor lighting infrastructure in Nigeria – the lights went out. In order to help the procedure move forward, the doctors asked Ayoola to hold her cellphone flashlight over the site, and they were able to finish the surgery.

" I was inspired by how the Nigerian medical professionals were able to handle challenging procedures with limited resources and infrastructure," Ayoola said. "That really got me thinking about, ‘how can we build up the infrastructure in other countries?’

“Those were formative moments in my decision to enter the field of medicine…. I realized the values I hold and the impact I want to make in the world has more to do with public, community and global health side of medicine.”

Ayoola competing at the 2018 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field Championships.


Ayoola said she’s always been tall – since “forever.”

“It was mainly in the eighth grade – they told me to try out for basketball. I did not make it,” she remembered with a laugh.

She did, however make the volleyball and track and field teams as alternatives, and it was on the track she found she excelled. High jump and shot put – an unlikely pair – specifically. She would go on to win a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) state championship in the high jump for Grand Rapids Christian High School, so when she arrived in Hyde Park, she wasn’t quite ready to hang up the spikes.

Ayoola had to talk her way onto the team though, first. It didn’t take long.

“She wasn’t on our radar,” UChicago assistant track and field coach Stephen Fleagle said of Ayoola, who was not initially recruited to the Maroons’ squad.

After meeting with the timid first-year and looking up her high school marks, however, the rest was history. Ayoola went on to break the UChicago school record in the outdoor high jump (1.69 meters), qualify for three NCAA Championship meets, win a league title, and most recently, earn her first All-American honor with her eighth-place finish at the 2018 national meet in May.

Why do track though, with so much else to do in her studies in medicine?

“Track really provides a different aspect of my education that no other activities do, and that’s kind of the self-discipline aspect of it,” Ayoola said. “I think with high jump, it’s a sport where I’m actively trying to beat what I did last week, or last year.

“So it feels like everything I do is about making myself better, and it’s about putting in the work, and trying to get the results I want.”

Ayoola finished her UChicago athletic career tied with the school record in the outdoor high jump at 1.69 meters.

She adds, though, it’s not just about the numbers game. It’s also about the relationships.

“At the same time, it’s such a team sport that I don’t have in any other of my activities because everyone is working in the same way that I am, to make themselves better, and then for the sake of the team, we work together.

“We just kind of have this communion and fellowship that I love and I think it’s been a big part of why I’ve enjoyed UChicago so much, is the friendships that I’ve made.”
Ayoola helped UChicago sweep the women's high jump in at the 2018 UAA Outdoor Championships, taking third. Teammates Laura Darcey and Alexandra Thompson placed first and second, respectively.


The fate part of Ayoola’s UChicago experience wasn’t quite over.

Early this year, she had another opportunity to seize: to become one of the inaugural recipients of the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship at Stanford University. She’s set to receive full funding to pursue her medical degree while at the same time participating in the scholarship’s global leadership program.

Another formative moment for Ayoola, which comes as no surprise for those who know her well.

“In the last couple of years, she’s become a very confident, independent individual in terms of how she’s sought out these opportunities to advance herself on her own,” Fleagle said of Ayoola.

“She’s always been respectful, she’s always listened. She just has a strong interest and desire to understand and she’s never been afraid to ask questions.”

But where does this intrinsic motivation to find ways to succeed come from? Ayoola proudly points to her upbringing.

“It has to do with my faith and my family, those things are probably combined. Kind of like, the values that I get from my relationship with God and the values that my parents have instilled in me of service, of leaving something behind better than what we found, and just kind of dedicating our lives to being the best versions we can be.

“I think their biggest thing was to serve others. Whatever you do, always serve others.”
From left: Ade, father Bernard, mother Joke, and siblings Ayo, Ire, and Ife (in front).
Created By
Nicole Watkins


D3Photography.com; UChicago Athletics; Ade Ayoola

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