Aspiring Doctor Keeps Focus on Community
Issue   |   Thu, 05/18/2017 - 20:20
Niyi Odewade '17
Odewade has developed a passion for public health, and he hopes to complete both an M.D. and a Masters of Public Health.

Niyi Odewade is a standout on the gridiron, a brilliant scientist poised to excel in medical school and a leader in all of his endeavors at Amherst. Through his excellence in multiple fields and the charisma he conveys in his interactions with everyone he meets, Odewade has used his passion for medicine and his football career to leave an impact on the Amherst community beyond wins and admission to medical school.

New Schools, New Challenges

Odewade grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Knowing that his community was underserved, Odewade wanted to cultivate skills or expertise that would allow him to give back in some way. Soon, his ambitions would take Odewade away from his roots, but football helped him find community away from home and medicine provided him with a means to give back.

But for Odewade to continue to pursue these goals, he had to abandon the comforts of Newark, where, as he joked, “[I] only saw people that looked like me.” Instead, he headed to a new and unfamiliar place: the elite Delbarton School in Morristown, New Jersey. Though Delbarton was only 25 miles away from home, the environment was completely foreign to Odewade, with access to a wide range of resources and an overwhelmingly white student body. This place, he found, was a far cry from the streets of Newark. He remembers how he was “one of the only black kids in the school.” This stark contrast to the town he called home manifested itself in extreme culture shock. However, like most challenges that Odewade had faced in the past and would face in his future, he quickly rose to the occasion. Excelling in the classroom and on the football field, Odewade earned admission to Amherst as a standout student and athlete.

Arriving at Amherst, to Odewade, proved both a relief and a challenge. He fondly remembers how stepping foot on campus reminded him “how diverse the world really is” after four years at the all-boys Delbarton. However, the quiet back roads of western Massachusetts were certainly no Newark, and Odewade was forced once again to adapt to new surroundings, this time with the added pressure of college athletics.

A Mammoth Mentor On and Off the Field

Odewade has myriad accomplishments, and some of the obvious ones are on the football field, where he’s led the Mammoths to a 27-5 mark over his four years at the college. Since his first year, when he eked out a half sack and five tackles in a smattering of playing time, Odewade has matured into a team leader on and off the field. In each of the last three years, he has started all eight games, notching 6.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss through the 24 games to spearhead a dominant Amherst defensive line that keyed the Mammoths’ back-to-back perfect seasons.

For Odewade, his two hours of game time each Sunday still hold a special place in his heart. His eyes lit up as he reminisced about his memories on Pratt Field. Indeed, his immediate response when asked for his most cherished memories of Amherst was to recount the story of his sophomore year homecoming game, when the Mammoths closed out their perfect season under the Pratt Field lights against the rival Ephs. He especially remembers “the crowd [and] the amount of fans we had there,” which created an atmosphere that was, as Odewade put it, “unreal.”

Even more notably, Odewade took it upon himself to assume a greater leadership role on the team in his senior season. Entering his final year in the program, Niyi felt he could make the greatest impact through mentoring the young team that had been assembled. Odewade did all of this even without the label of “captain,” inspiring great admiration from Coach E.J. Mills. Noting Niyi’s leadership abilities and enormous charisma, Mills praised his stud defensive lineman for his “ability to reach out to those who need it most.”

In his time at Amherst, Odewade garnered several regional awards. Twice-named to All-Conference teams, including a First Team All-NESCAC nod his senior year, Odewade also received high praise for his accomplishments as a student-athlete. During his senior year, he earned a spot on the Capital One College Sports of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-District First Team and won the prestigious Desmond “Tuss” McLaughry Award.

An M.D. and an M.P.H.

Odewade complemented his tenacious work ethic and drive on the football field with his prodigious academic ability in the sciences, as he most recently demonstrated by completing a chemistry thesis. Odewade entered Amherst with a passion for the sciences and a desire to become involved in the health professions. Much of this stems from his younger brother’s heart surgery, through which, Odewade said, he learned the impact medicine can have not only on the patient but also those closest to that patient. His dream of attaining both an M.D. and a M.P.H. (Masters of Public Health) stems from a desire to impart his own knowledge to others and to truly give back to the community, especially in medically underserved locations like his hometown, Newark.

This passion for improving public welfare is apparent to all who know Odewade, including Health Professions Advisor and Assistant Dean of Students Richard Aronson ’69. “[Niyi] shows great promise to become an extraordinarily humane and inspiring physician who will provide exquisite care to his patients and leadership at the community and societal level to make healthcare more equitable and just,” wrote Aronson.

Such high praise is well deserved, especially given Odewade’s success in Amherst’s pre-health community, where his leadership once again rose to the surface. He is deeply involved in both the Amherst College Public Health Collaborative (ACPHC) and the Amherst chapter of the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program (KDSAP). As part of ACPHC, he transformed the interests that first drove him towards the medical field into real actions. With his chapter, Odewade entered local communities and taught soap-making sessions as a means of encouraging hygiene and taking part in club-sponsored discussions on epidemics and the field of public health as a whole.

However, perhaps the most impressive achievement of Odewade’s fledgling medical career was co-founding KDSAP at Amherst. After spending the summer of 2015 at the Harvard Summer Research Program in Kidney Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where he learned from doctors how to screen for kidney disease and provided free screenings for local communities, Odewade returned to Amherst as a man on a mission. He worked with a plethora of allies — including local health professionals, mentors at Harvard and the National Kidney Foundation, and fellow students to get the initiative off the ground during his junior fall. Now, less than two years into its existence, the KDSAP has already sponsored numerous events on campus and two free community screenings, a remarkable run of success that has left Odewade looking forward to the potential for this pillar of civic responsibility.

Aronson attributes much of the club’s success until this point to Odewade. “[Niyi’s] remarkable ability to make to people around him feel affirmed and honored has been abundantly evident in KDSAP,” he wrote.

Cameron Wade ’17, a leader of ACPHC, KDSAP member and Odewade’s close friend, likewise credits Odewade’s “laser vision [that] he sets on any goal” for the club’s growth, noting his unparalleled work ethic in all endeavors, “even if it jeopardizes the number of hours he spends sleeping or eating.”

The Drive

In all of Odewade’s endeavors, from his time on Pratt Field to his founding of KDSAP, he displays one defining characteristic: tenacity. Wade wrote, “There is nothing he cannot do once he sets his eyes on it.” Both Aronson and Mills also noted his unmatched dedication in all aspects of life.

Odewade, for his part, wishes for this drive to define his legacy at the college. He hopes that his story will help “motivate others to realize that if you have the drive to do something, it can be done, but you need to realize you want it first.” In our conversation, rather than talk about his countless accomplishments on the field or in the classroom, Odewade instead chose to provide advice to future Amherst scholars, again demonstrating his great ability to lead, mentor and connect with those who need guidance.

Undoubtedly, Odewade’s drive will serve him well in his future, which he hopes will include medical school soon. Odewade is about to begin applying to schools, having just taken the dreaded MCAT, and he looks set to attend one of the country’s top medical schools. In the far-off future, he seeks to specialize in cardiothoracic surgery.

Odewade’s intelligence and unmitigated desire to serve his community, which he has already demonstrated many times over, will certainly endear him to future patients. And if he doesn’t end up changing people’s lives through heart surgery, then he might, as Wade quipped, “cure cancer as a backup plan.”