When Adejumoke Olopade was searching for a graduate assistantship, she noticed a job ad for the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement – a center that brings together educational partners from NIU and across the region to increase educational access and success from pre-kindergarten through adult learners. While the center may not seem an obvious choice for a student pursuing her Master of Public Health degree, Olopade sees public health as tightly intertwined with education and public engagement, so she jumped at the chance to apply.
“What caught my attention with the P-20 work in the first place was the fact that I have worked with children, and I’ve done a lot of inclusive education work,” Olopade says. “But even more importantly, if I want to work in community engagement in the future, I need to be able to understand and know something about a lot of different people, cultures and age groups. That’s what makes you a good community worker – you need to understand different points of view. I love that with P-20 I’m able work with people from different groups, like with STEM Read I work with children, and with the Lifelong Learning Institute I work mainly with seniors and retired people.”
One of the programs Olopade has been involved with is the Career Pathways Virtual Trailheads video series. Early in the pandemic, the Center for P-20 Engagement’s statewide Illinois P-20 Network launched the series as a way to bring work-based learning experiences to high school students who are learning at home during the pandemic. The series features interviews with professionals in a wide range of career fields – from chemists to engineers, attorneys to social workers, and even a Broadway star. In the videos, the Center for P-20 Engagement staff, including Olopade, interview the professionals about their career paths and the daily routines, skills, tasks and challenges that define their professional lives.
Olopade says she has really enjoyed working on the videos. “You get to meet different people, and it’s an important initiative for young people to learn about internships and careers. People talk about their strengths, what they’ve been through, how they started their career path and their advice for someone just starting out in the field. I’ve learned a lot of new things from talking to the guests and interacting with them.”
While she works to help young people make informed decisions about their career pathways, Olopade is also moving forward on her own journey toward becoming a community engagement specialist with a focus on health promotion.
An international student from Nigeria, Olopade discovered her passion for public health when she volunteered for three months in a program funded by the U.K.’s Department for International Development after completing her undergraduate degree in child development and family studies. In the program, 13 Nigerian volunteers and 13 U.K. volunteers worked together on an inclusive education project in four rural communities in Nigeria.
Olopade is from Lagos, Nigeria – a large, global city with a population of more than 14 million residents – so working in small rural communities was an eye-opening experience for her. “While we were in those communities, we talked a lot with the citizens about topics like sexual and reproductive health, clean water and sanitation,” Olopade says. “A lot of the schools in these rural areas did not have the running water and clean bathrooms we take for granted in cities, so many girls were not able to go to school during their menstrual periods. And that was a problem, not just for the students, but for us as volunteers.”
For Olopade, recognizing this disparity between urban and rural communities was an important step on her public health career journey. “In Nigeria, the United States and throughout the world we see these disparities between urban and rural communities,” she says. “No matter where I end up working as a public health professional, this is something I’ll need to address.”
Olopade walked away from that experience knowing that she wanted to work with different communities to plan health programs and interventions, as well as to influence national health policies to benefit the public. She realized that public health was a good fit, so she applied to the Master of Public Health program at NIU with a specialization in health promotion.
Olopade feels grateful that her graduate program and her graduate assistantship in the Center for P-20 Engagement complement one another to prepare her for her career after graduation. “My big goal is to be able to work in communities and engage with different sets of people. I can work with kids comfortably, and now I’m working with seniors, and that has been a new learning experience for me. I’m also meeting and interacting with people from many different professions,” Olopade says. “In community engagement, I will have to work with the community leaders, religious organizations, healthcare providers, policy makers – a lot of different groups that I need to learn to interact with and help them to see things from the public health perspective. So that’s one way this graduate assistant position is preparing me for life outside of school.”
Olopade’s advice for other graduate students – especially international students – is to seek out a graduate assistantship where they’ll be doing hands-on work that takes them into the field and goes beyond assisting with office tasks. “I think for graduate students an assistantship is a great learning experience. You get a tuition waiver, you get paid, you learn on the job, you build your network and you get to interact with people. It goes a long way toward helping you prepare for the job force outside of graduation, and I think it’s something every graduate student should try for.”
“I’ve been so grateful to work with Jason Klein, director of P-20 Initiatives at NIU, and the other Center for P-20 Engagement staff,” says Olopade. “They’ve given me so many opportunities to learn on the job and grow.”
The NIU Center for P-20 Engagement is part of the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, which facilitates meaningful collaborations to address state and regional challenges, promote growth, manage change and build stronger communities.