Temilade Adekoya is a junior pre-med neuroscience major and volleyball player at University of Chicago. She is an executive board member of the University of Chicago Student National Medical Association — Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students (SNMA-MAPS) and is a member of the school’s Black Letterwinning Athlete Coalition (BLAC), which was founded in June 2020.
The UAA “Conversations About Race and Racism” series seeks to lift the voices of people of color and recognize the challenges faced in both athletics and academics at the collegiate level. By sharing personal stories, we hope to elevate the conversation about race to raise awareness and bring about change.
Club and High School Volleyball
Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Adekoya began playing volleyball in the fourth grade. “At some point during sixth grade, I was showing some potential and a referee told my mother I was really good and asked if I had thought about playing club volleyball,” she recalled. “I joined a club and was one of two black people on my team, the other being my best friend who is also nicknamed Temi. We felt like we didn’t fit in. Coming from diverse elementary to junior high schools, this predominantly white volleyball team was flipped from our regular experiences. We stood apart from the other girls and it was hard to make friends. They went to the same school, they lived in the same towns, and they were already friends. It was kind of uncomfortable, especially when the girls were looking at my hair when I had braids.”
Her other best friend joined her on the club team the following year. “We car pooled together and it was better having her there. The three of us really started to see things differently in how those from different environments treated us,” she explained. “We would tell the other girls, ‘No, don’t do that’ or ‘Don’t say that’ when they did inappropriate things. They acted like we didn’t have the right to tell them how to act or what they can or can’t say. It felt like us against them.”
Having Nailah as her teammate made things better, but certainly didn’t stop the consistent microaggressions. “There were so many prejudices that I was aware of, but I didn’t expect to experience them as much as I did,” Adekoya explained. “The girls and their moms were racially insenstive. Our teammates would sing songs with the n-word and not think anything of it.”
High school volleyball brought its own set of challenges. “One time the team was free serving and the coach split us up by skin color, claiming it was so it would be less racially segregated,” Adekoya explained. In addition to the emphasis placed on race during practice, Adekoya garnered a lot of attention at her high school because her friend and teammate was also nicknamed Temi. “We both had Nigerian immigrant parents and had the same nickname so the local historic newspaper wrote a story on us. “It was so blown out of proportion and didn’t make any sense,” she laughed.
On a more serious note, she continued to deal with multiple issues with club teammates. “They acted any way they wanted to and knew they could get away with it because of their privilege. At one point in high school, I even considered quitting volleyball,” she revealed. “I wasn’t getting any better as a player and was always being compared to the white girls, who were good, but not great. Temi was five times a better player and she should have been the example of what we should strive to become. It is really important to see someone successful who looks like you, like (former University of Texas standout and U.S. national team member) Destinee Hooker, who was one of the few Black players I really looked up to when I started playing club.”
Being a Black Student-Athlete at Predominantly White Institution
“In the summer of 2018, I came for a camp at UC, where the current players help out. I asked a player if I could talk to her,” Adekoya disclosed. “She was the only Black player on the team at the time and immediately she knew that is what I wanted to talk to her about. I was expecting it to be like club and had concerns. She told me the women on the team were very educated and respectful. That helped me a lot.”
Once she started preseason practices, she was completely focused on volleyball. “Practice was so fast that I never once had time to think about me as a Black person. I was not expecting that speed and we hit the ground running,” she related. “The first time we played Emory, I understood why we worked so hard and fast. I was impressed by the way they jumped and swung. I liked the competition immediately.”