“Ayoade was always a very curious child,” Seki Balogun says. “She wanted to know answers to everything.”
Balogun, a Nigerian-born physician at UVA whose ability to balance her career and three children has clearly rubbed off on her 16-year-old daughter, says Ayoade never lost that curiosity she had as a little girl. She describes Ayoade as driven and compassionate, with a knack for learning and a seemingly endless list of passions and hobbies.
Now a junior at Albemarle High School, Ayoade has spent nearly her entire life in the Charlottesville area. It’s home for her, but being less than a year away from filling out college applications (a process her older sister finished recently) has her exploring options “pretty far from home.” These days she’s thinking about pursuing an engineering degree at a research institution, which she hopes will give her the opportunity to tackle problems across all spectrums.
“One thing I like about science and engineering is that it’s not a bubble career,” Ayoade says. “You get to work with people across all other disciplines. I look forward to solving global issues with engineering.”
In November, she attended the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools, a conference that brought together education professionals and STEM advocates from all over the country to discuss “what needs to be done for American schools to make sure that teens are more prepared for the world.” For Ayoade, the future of education is all about hands-on, collaborative, project-based learning.
“As we grow up and enter the real world, we’re not going to get grades on things other than how we feel about it and how it comes across to other people,” she says, adding that her experience at the Math, Engineering & Science Academy (MESA) has opened her eyes to how high school assignments can become real-world projects. “With project-based learning, you get to really put a lot of yourself into it, and it turns it from being just another graded assignment into something you know you’re going to learn from.”
Not only is she a whiz at math and science, but she’s already finding ways to use that knowledge to contribute to her community. Last summer, along with a team of MESA students, Ayoade created and directed the MESA Bridge Camp, a hands-on math and physics camp that taught middle school girls how to build a bridge. And they didn’t just learn the theories and build popsicle stick models of bridges—these girls designed, prepared the wood for and built a bridge on the Rivanna Trail at Leonard Sandridge Road. “I saw in those girls a lot of what I remember about myself at that age,” Ayoade says. “Sometimes it can be overwhelming, and you’re in that inbetween stage when people are asking you what you want to do and you start to rule things out. This gave them real-life applications to stuff they’re learning in school.”
Unsurprisingly, teaching is also a career path on Ayoade’s radar. And when she’s not doing her own schoolwork or explaining physics to seventh grade girls, she’s teaching people how to play the cello, which she began playing when she was in the fifth grade.
“It’s been fun to watch them progress,” she says of her students, some of whom are older than her. “I’ve learned just as much about being a teacher as I’ve taught them about playing cello.”
When asked how she would advise students who may be struggling in school, her answer is simple.
“It’s good to remind kids that they do have a strength somewhere, even if it’s not something they’ve tried yet,” she says. “Trying something new is often the hardest part, but it’s also the most important part. How are you ever going to figure out what you’re good at if you’ve never tried it before?”