I never thought I would find myself in law school. I came into Northwestern University, a Psychology/Pre-Med major. My focus, however, was not on my studies but on football. Football was my one true love. I dealt with serious anxiety and depression growing up. This was a culmination of ongoing bullying, familial strife, and never feeling like I was enough. I had one refuge from all of this—football. But this was taken from me on one fatal morning that changed my life forever.
But let us take a step back to the beginning of my journey, a journey, which eventually led me to law school.
In Akure, Ondo State, Nigeria there sat a red brick house right off a dirt road. This house is surrounded by a large brown gate, which is handled by a gatekeeper. In this house there were maids and housekeepers but most importantly there was a family, the Arowolaju family. They were well off. Samuel Arowolaju was an administrator at a local university, and Beatrice Arowolaju was a high school teacher, who also owned a successful store.
Then, in the January of 1998, Beatrice Arowolaju carried with her all the belongings she could fit in a suitcase and her two little boys, Seun and Damilola. She found herself in a new frigid land—Chicago, Illinois. Beatrice and her husband Samuel decided they would emigrate from Nigeria to provide their youngest sons with the opportunity for the perfect pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of the American Dream. But little did they know: this pursuit would drive their family to their limits financially, mentally, and spiritually.
The next decade saw the Arowolaju family embrace hard times. Beatrice and Samuel found work where they could; Beatrice a daycare teacher and Samuel fluctuating from janitorial jobs to unemployment to government service, while both serving as pastors.
Outwardly: I was a bright and curious kid. But as I grew older: I suffered in silence. I battled ridicule stemming from my name, Nigerian identity, and skin; amalgamating this ridicule with the troubles I faced at home proved for a steady formula for low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. At one point I found myself losing this battle and thoughts of ending my life crept into my head. But I had a refuge—football.
I was a great student in high school, in fact I won an award for maintaining a 4.0 every year of high school. But when it was time to consider college, all I cared about was where I could play college football at the highest level. Recruiting did not go as well as I hoped. My dream school, Northwestern University told me they did not have any scholarship offers left but if admitted, they could offer me a preferred walk on position. When national signing day rolled around, I found myself signing my letter of intent to play Division II football at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Or so I thought.
The day is March 25, 2013, a day that lives in infamy in the Arowolaju house. My mom was awakened in the middle of the night to a frantic call from Nigeria. Screaming and crying shortly ensued. Her oldest son died in his sleep. I always saw, and continues to see, my mom as an impenetrable rock. But that day she broke. And I knew I had to be closer physically and emotionally to her. She needed me.
About a week later, a letter arrived in the mail from Northwestern. I got in. And my financial aid package equated to a full ride. From there, I reached back out to the coaches at Northwestern and the coaches at Truman State to inform them of the recent events since March. The conclusion: if Truman State released me from my letter of intent, I could go on and live my dream of playing football at Northwestern University. But the coaches at Truman State did not want to release me. They told me to think on it. Weeks passed. And then, they finally caved. That summer, I was on my way to be a Wildcat and live the life I always dreamed. Well again, so I thought.
In January of 2014, a polar vortex ravaged the Chicagoland area with tufts of snow and consistent below-zero temperature. In fact, as I shoveled snow from the driveway of my family home as I attempted to drive back to school for the winter quarter, I caught mild frost bite. But all of this was nothing compared to what waited me in my head coach’s office that Monday.
My coach summoned me to his office and sat me down. He told me that due to Title IX regulations, he had to clear roster space. He told me I had three options. I could wait things out through grueling winter workouts and spring practice and then he would likely cut me from the team, transfer, or leave the team now. He told me that if I was his son: he would advise me to leave and not put myself through all of that just to be cut.
At this point, every muscle in my throat found a way to contort into a knot. My heart: plummeted to the depths of my stomach. And all I could do was nod and restrain tears. I left my coach’s office, ran to the locker room, and allowed the river of tears to flow unrestricted.
My one true love and refuge, at a blink of an eye, gone. I questioned myself, my God, and life. What do you do when what you gave your life to is gone? The anxiety and depression I held at bay and channeled through football broke through their levees and consumed my life. Plenty of nights, I found myself using warm tears to lull myself to sleep. One night, laying on a damp pillow, I questioned God—begging for proof of his existence. That night I heard something that changed my life forever: 1 Peter 5: 8-11, a bible verse that helped me persevere. Now, my life was not suddenly perfect, but I learned to lean in on and trust God.
But I still felt lost, which led me on a quest in search of something to give my life meaning. The following year: I joined my fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.) and began discovering a new purpose—service. I decided I had an obligation to change my campus community and leave it better than it was when I found it. This caused me to become a leader in his community and mentor as many people as I could.
I learned to find purpose in the work and service I did on campus, but I still yearned for that same purpose academically and to find a career where I could make an impact on the world. Then, the Fall of my Junior year: I took my first Social Policy class. I felt like I finally woke up from a deep sleep.
Growing up as a Black man in America I knew the world could be unfair. But I never realized how our country’s laws and policies promoted and continue to promote racial divides in outcomes ranging from education, wealth, and justice. I became increasingly furious. And vowed to find a way to implement policies that dismantle systematic inequality so that everyone has the opportunity for the perfect pursuit of happiness regardless of who they are or what they identify as. That was when I knew I had to go to law school. I found purpose and passion and used them as the wind behind my sails, propelling myself forward.
This past May, I graduated with Honors from The George Washington University Law School. Years ago, I never thought I would be here. I am where I am today because of three reasons: (1) God, (2) the people that have thoroughly invested in me, and (3) the opportunities I have received and fought for. This is why I feel indebted and obligated to pay it forward—to serve others. I want to find a way to change this world by sharing my story, mentoring and teaching the next generation, but most importantly—through policy reform.
If we want a better world, we must design it. I will not stop until I and those who believe in the same vision paint a beautiful mosaic of a reformed world. My dreams are lofty, but I consider myself successful if I improve the lives or conditions of the people in the spaces I occupy. This is what I have worked to do, since I first discovered my passion for service, and this is what I will continue to do. When what gave your life meaning is gone, turn inwards and find a new meaning.