Ever since Anuoluwapo "Anu" Solola was a little girl, she wanted to be the boss. Hard work and ambition were etched into her at an early age. The 18-year-old said she owes that to her Nigerian immigrant parents.
“The way they grew up was very different back home, very strict. Also, very humble beginnings,” said Solola, who has an inviting smile.
Solola knew during freshman year that she was headed to the top of her class at Southland College Prep Charter High School in south suburban Richton Park. Once she got to senior year, she wasn’t about to lose her spot.
“Senior year, you might want to slack off,” Solola said. “You already got into college. But I’m like ... ‘I really can’t slack because I’m already here. So I might as well keep going.’”
She’s one of three valedictorians at her school. While she’s long been a driven and ambitious student, it wasn’t the type of ambition that pushed others down.
“I have witnessed the way we all push each other to success, and we don’t ever let anyone settle because we all want success, not only for ourselves, but for each other,” she said in her speech, which was taped and will be shared with her classmates on May 30.
While Solola credits her upbringing, she didn’t always recognize the value of coming from an immigrant family and growing up in two cultures. She said she struggled with her identity starting at a young age.
“At certain times in American spaces, I would just try to shut out my Nigerian identity,” she remembered. “There was a point in my life where I tried to shut out my American identity. But really I can’t shut out either because I'm a part of both.”
“We can form our own narratives”
Feeling like you don’t belong resonated when she saw the movie Hidden Figures. It recounts the story of three African American women working in the early years of the NASA program. Solola was inspired by Katherine Johnson, whose math genius helped get the first American to space.
“Not only was she a woman, but she was a woman of color,” she said. “So she was facing racism and pushback from her fellow black men, her black counterparts.”
She was in awe of Johnson’s intellect and felt empowered by her bravery and confidence in an environment that tried to hold her back.
Like Johnson, Solola feels connected to the sciences. This fall, she’s headed to Stanford University to study mechanical engineering. She knows she’ll be one of a few women of color in her classes. She said it was discouraging not seeing many women of color in mechanical engineering in general.
“I really wanted to see myself in that position,” she said. “It’s really hard to see yourself in the position when every time you look up something, it’s a man or not a person of color.”
But thinks it would be a waste not to pursue a degree in the field. Solola hopes girls of color can see her as a strong black woman in the sciences and know they belong there, too.
“I really think that it's really important to have these images in these spaces,” she said. “We can form our own narratives.”
She dreams of launching her own company one day, giving Tesla a run for its money. She said it’s important to have diversity in science.
“Nobody wants to hear the same idea 5 billion times,” she said. “I think bringing your own personality, bringing your own flavor of ideas to the table really helps to push the sciences forward.”
Solola said while this isn’t the senior year anyone expected, it’s been refreshing how her classmates have gotten closer to each other.
“We are the class that took on corona[virus]. Congratulations class of 2020,” she wrote to her fellow seniors. “After us, the world will never be the same.”