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It started with hello: Nigerian student earns tennis scholarship
By Roger Greene
The story of Oluwaseun “Joseph” Olatunji is one of perseverance. Dealing with tragedy and heartbreak from a young age in his native Nigeria left only the remotest of hopes of his being able to graduate high school or earning a college scholarship.
Yet there Olatunji was on May 31, a degree from Lowcountry Prep in hand and the opportunity to play tennis at Southern Wesleyan University on the horizon. Life’s benchmarks, such as high school graduation, are always a time for a certain amount of reflection and celebration.
But given the nature of Olatunji’s journey, being completely overtaken by the moment was understandable.
“It was surreal,” Olatunji said. “I didn’t always think it would be possible for me.”
“Things could have turned out differently”, said Janet Kelly, Olatunji’s teacher and mentor at Lowcountry Prep. “When you look at what he’s gone through, I don’t think many people would have pressed on. I’m not sure I could have.”
Olatunji’s life was forever altered on Sept. 13, 2010, when his father was murdered. A landlord living near the city of Lagos, Olatunji’s father was killed by a tenant during a dispute over six months’ back rent. With his parents unmarried at the time, Olatunji and his siblings were disowned by his father’s family.
“My dad passed,” Olatunji replies softly when describing the tragedy.
“When I first met him, his father being killed was something he didn’t want to talk about,” Kelly said. “He was pretty adamant about it at times. Now, he’ll talk about it a little bit. He did mention it during his graduation speech. But it’s not something he goes into very far.”
Struggling to make ends meet, his mother was involved in an accident just a month after Olatunji’s father was killed. The accident resulted in the loss of her left leg and the family eventually succumbed to the financial pressure and were forced out of their home.
Just 13 years old at the time, Olatunji sought shelter with the family of a friend. His mother relocated to a more remote area of Nigeria to stay with a relative.
“We stayed in contact,” Olatunji said. “She lived far away, but I would see her when I could.”
Those who know Olatunji best are always taken by his smile, which they say can light up a room. They also know how he’ll use humor as a coping mechanism to deal with the most difficult aspects life can bring forward.
That sense of humor served him well after being separated from his mother. Though his friends and their families tried to assist, at times only the sparsest of accommodations and resources could be offered.
“He was essentially homeless,” Kelly said. “He’s shown me [pictures] of where he would sleep outside.”
It was, “but I can remember laughing,” Olatunji said. “At the end of the day, everyone would be tired. But someone would tell a joke and we would laugh.”
While being on his own created obstacles, it was during this time Olatunji discovered tennis. Working as a ball boy at Lagos Lawn Tennis club, he began to develop his skills on his own. He became advanced enough to capture the attention of club members and guests with one chance encounter opening the door to a future that could never be expected.
“There was a guest who was there one day when I was working,” Olatunji said. “She kept walking past me and looked like she had lost something. I decided that if she passed me one more time, I was going to say hello to her.
“When I did, she said that I was one of the only people to speak to her that day. She was from Ghana. And she had a connection to a tennis team that was sponsored by Chevron. It was through that team that I was able to come to the United States and [attend] the Bill Adams International Tennis Academy in Florida.”
One trip arranged through the academy was a visit to Wachesaw Plantation. The trip marked another turning point, as a connection was made with Brian and Leslie Armstrong, whose family is hosting Olatunji.
Working with the Armstrongs, he gradually managed his way through the student visa process. He arrived at Lowcountry as a junior and a year later was part of the Marlins’ state championship tennis team.
“Lowcountry is amazing,” Olatunji said. “The kids were so nice and the teachers are so helpful. There was a lot of one-on-one time with the teachers. I know I asked many questions. But they never complained and always did what they could to help.
“If it wasn’t for the Armstrongs, I don’t know that I would have even made it through school. Getting the student visa was not easy. But they always helped me.”
With a high school diploma, a state championship and a college scholarship all part of his résumé, Olatunji has set his sights on a new goal.
“I want my driver’s license,” he said. “I have tried before, but there is always something with the paperwork. We bring one document, they request another. I think when I do get it, I’m just going to sit with it and chill for a while.”
“Joseph has such a positive attitude,” Leslie Armstrong said. “Even the simplest of things, like trying to get a driver’s license can be a headache because of all of the paperwork. We’ve spent almost entire days driving between [government] offices. But he tries to not get discouraged. He keeps a smile on his face and keeps going.”
Education in Nigeria is structured according to a 6-3-3 system. The format is six years of primary education followed by three years each of junior and senior secondary education. Promotion to the next grade level is based on a standardized test, where students must pass six of the 10 classes they are required to take each year.
Many students drop out rather than continue to face the rigorous criteria. During his graduation speech, Olatunji recalled friends and family who opted out of school as opposed to being forced to repeat the same grade level multiple times.
Olatunji also noted during his speech that his mother and both older sisters face literacy challenges. To communicate, they must speak directly or work through a third party who can translate what Olatunji has written or texted.
As Kelly said, Olatunji can choose his words carefully when discussing the hardships and struggles his family has faced. However, his pride at their resilience and willingness to face these obstacles in their own way, and his own resolve to persevere, are evident.
“When I told my mom I was going to college, the first question asked was how she was going to pay for it,” Olatunji said with a laugh. “But she is very excited. Had I stayed in Africa, I probably would have never finished school. Now, I have the chance to go to college and make a better life.”
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