The Busiest Role Model You'll Ever Meet
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:21
Photo courtesy of Emeka Ojukwu '14
Ojukwu is a sociology major, Peer Career Advisor and a member of student security, among other jobs.

In the classic movie “Dead Poet’s Society,” John Keating, played by Robin Williams, instructs his students to listen in on the wisdom of old poets, like Whitman or Thoreau: “Listen, you hear it? — Carpe — hear it? — Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.” In my past three years at Amherst College, I have met no one else at Amherst who embodies this phrase more than Udochukwu Ojukwu, better known as Emeka.

A Supportive Role Model

Ojukwu attended high school at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee, a boarding school in the mountains of Georgia and credits Frederick, his older brother who also attended the same school, as a main source of advice and direction during those formative years.

“I learned a lot from simply watching him and seeing the ways everyone else at the school regarded and respected the person who he was,” Ojukwu recalled.

Similarly, Frederick recalls his experiences mentoring his brother as some of the most valuable moments in his life.
“It was a very surreal feeling to be able to watch your brother grow from afar and help whenever help was needed,” Frederick said. “I will cherish those moments for a long time.”

Little did Ojukwu know how lasting Frederick’s impacts would be and that later, he would act as an impromptu older brother for both Amherst and non-Amherst students alike.

When Life Gives You Lemons...

In eighth grade, Ojukwu’s worldview fundamentally shifted when his father was paralyzed in a car accident.
“My biggest concern was no longer the pretty girl in class,” Ojukwu said. “It was who was going to help my dad in his day-to-day needs.”

After the accident, Ojukwu realized not just how deeply his family impacted him as a person but also how precious each moment was.

“My father and my family are the driving force for me. I obviously want to make my parents proud, but I also want to be grateful for being here and being able-bodied.”

Since then, Ojukwu has been focused on finding the value in every situation, giving back to others and making every moment count.

“A lot of my time here is just helping other people realize that they have more agency and power than they think they have,” Ojukwu said.

One of his famous phrases is “when life gives you lemons …” and some, such as Danielle Dunkley ’14, have heard it more times than they can count.

“One thing I can always count on Emeka to say [is] when life gives you lemons …’” Dunkley said. “I sometimes find it very annoying to hear him repeat it time and time again, but it reminds me to bring more light to the situation and think from a more promising perspective.”

Indeed, Ojukwu has taken lemons and turned them into more than just lemonade; his dedication has proven to leave a long-lasting legacy.

A Day in the Life of Emeka

In many ways, Ojukwu is like any other typical Amherst student: every moment of his day is packed with purpose. When I asked him to describe a typical day in his life, he laughed, and remarked, “a typical day depends on what job I am working.”

His first year, Ojukwu had three jobs; sophomore year, four; and by senior year, six.

Since his first year, Ojukwu has been a youth advisor in Holyoke for El Arco Iris, an afterschool program for elementary and middle school students.

“I went during my freshman year and met this kid named Kermit,” Ojukwu said. “I got on my knees and said, ‘promise me that you will do everything in your power to get into college.’ Kermit was six or seven, maybe eight, and he said, ‘Okay, can we go play now?’”

Since that conversation, Ojukwu has been dedicated to Kermit, making sure he knew he had a supportive mentor who believed in him. However, he realized that making a promise was not enough — he had to make sure that Kermit, and other students alike, fulfilled that promise.

“And so, through the ups and downs, I have been involved in this program for four years,” Ojukwu said.

Besides El Arco Iris, Ojukwu is also involved with A Better Chance, the very group that helped him during his high school years.

“It would have been crazy if I had walked away and not given back to an organization that gave so much to me,” Ojukwu said.
So, he dedicates a few hours every week to give advice to the high school students at the ABC House — advice that he was fortunate enough to get from his brother when he was their age.

And the mentoring does not stop there. Since sophomore year, Ojukwu has been a Telementor, an Amherst student who connects to high school students across the country to provide guidance and advice during the college application process. He now fills the role his older brother once held for him through the friendships he has developed with his advisees.

Ojukwu helps Amherst students as well. You might find him in the Center for Community Engagement working in Engagement Advising, or as a Peer Career Advisor through the Career Center and maybe even at a party doing student security work, which he described as something “you hate when you are doing, but once you get the paycheck, you realize that is why you do it.”

In fact, Ojukwu is quite proud of sticking with student security for all four years, long enough that now he gets his name on a plaque:

“I am looking forward to walking past the Campus Police one day and seeing the plaque,” he said with a laugh.

Besides his paid jobs, Ojukwu has also immersed himself in activities that are socially and creatively meaningful to him.
During the second semester of his first year, he was encouraged by upperclassmen to run for Black Student Union’s junior chair and soon became the senior chair his sophomore year. He also joined a team in charge of revamping the Multicultural Resource Center and spent this past summer visiting schools to learn how other MRCs function.

“Emeka helped get the MRC where it is today,” said Mariana Cruz, director of the center. “When I first met him, my first impression was that Emeka was committed to making Amherst College a more diverse and inclusive place for everyone and not just at this time, but for the future as well. He always comes into the MRC with great ideas, enthusiasm and initiative.”

Time for Schoolwork

Amidst all these commitments, Ojukwu is also a sociology major at Amherst.

“I like dealing and talking with people,” he said. “I am not a science guy. The way society works and interacts with each other is more to my taste.”

One of Ojukwu’s favorite instructors is Professor of Sociology Ronald Lembo, who showed him how sociology relates to the real world. One class he specifically remembers is a lecture on the misconceptions about teenage mothers. Sociology allowed him to see how other people’s realities are different from his own and one cannot simply say, “These people could do better.”

“From the very first day in the introductory course,” Lembo said, “Emeka had a way of putting people at ease that’s quite genuine — and rare — among students. The phrase that comes to mind for me is a ‘generosity of spirit.’ In my experience, it’s something that’s just part of who he is and that he helps cultivate in those around him. I’ll miss that.”

From Amherst to Yale

Surprisingly, Ojukwu’s immediate plan after graduation is not to immerse himself in a thousand activities but to “go home and be a bum.” Even still, after a month of reading the Percy Jackson series or “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho and brushing up on a computer code he used in Professor Marisa Parham’s Girl Power course, Ojukwu will be spending the upcoming school year at Yale’s National University of Singapore. Interning either in the office of admissions or student affairs, Ojukwu will continue to help students make sure they are enjoying their college experience.

“Deciding to do this was a tough decision due to my family situation. However, I got the blessing of my parents, and so to go abroad and have food and housing taken care of and work for Yale was too good to pass up,” he said.

Social Capital

As a career advisor himself, Ojukwu left me with some words of wisdom. He referred to it as the mantra he has lived by since freshman year of high school: “Do not allow yourself to be a complete book worm, and not engage in some type of activity, club or job. At the end of the day, you are not going to tell your possible employer, ‘studying for that chemistry exam was real rough.’ Rather, you want to show how much you have done as an individual, the responsibility you have taken on or what you’ve gained from working with a group.”

Most importantly, Ojukwu emphasized the importance of taking advantage of the free resources around you: upperclassmen. In fact, he developed long-lasting relationships with the upperclassmen of Drew House in a very unusual way.

“My freshman year, I needed to find a television to watch a basketball game. I came across Drew House and saw their television was not being used, so I sat on their couch and started watching it,” he said.

This occurrence happened more than once, and as students started to join him, they would not only watch television, but would also share life stories and advice.

“When I am around them, I am no longer the older guy. It’s a time where I can just enjoy the moment of having older people who have my back. My biggest worry is ‘Hey, who’s going to play me in FIFA?’”

Besides meeting new people by welcoming himself into their common rooms, Ojukwu also pledged Chi Psi his sophomore year. “That was a great part of my college experience,” he said.

“I was able to connect and make bonds with a lot of students that I would not have known otherwise. It was another important support group for me.”

Even if you have never met Ojukwu, you can still benefit from taking his advice or what he calls his “social capital.”

Ojukwu’s parting words of wisdom: “Develop your own circle of trust; a strong, supportive group of students. I was able to build that through the BSU, my fraternity, through my jobs and summer programs. This is what Amherst, or any college, hopes to create and wants to build. And we must consistently do that.”

Channing (not verified) says:
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 12:25

I was honored to get to graduate from Rabun Gap with Emeka. There is no exaggeration of what an amazing human he is, and there has never been a doubt about how far he will go. Congratulations, Emeka!!

Angela Armstead (not verified) says:
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 13:16

Hi Emeka, this is Yolandas mom, I'm so proud of you and I remember when I first met you. You walked with us when my daughter was trying to find sufficient housing in Amherst, it was a long walk down the road, night came but you were like a son I never had; you continued the journey with us, my daughter got adequate housing, and just your presence of patience I will never forget and your help when it was moving day you stuck with her I thank you I knew then, that doors in life would open wide for you because of your generosity, may your future continue to be bright & thank you for being who you are a good SOUL.

Mark Henning (not verified) says:
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 15:38

I hope this note will find its way to the author of the above article on Emeka Ojukwu . My name is Mark Henning and I work at the Alumni development office at Rabun Gap Nacoochee School. We like this article so much that we would like to get permission to use a part of it or an abridged version in our school's alumni magazine.
Thank you for your consideration
I can be reached at :

Yolanda Wiggins (not verified) says:
Tue, 05/27/2014 - 21:13

I am beyond proud of you! You are strong and intelligent. I know you have a bright future ahead of you. :)

tonia obi (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/28/2014 - 12:23

i am so thrilled and so proud of emeka. Godbless you.

Ade Abioye (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/28/2014 - 22:38

I am so proud of the great resource you have become. I pray that the Lord will continue to use you to shine His light in the life of the mentees that look up to you.