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‘Know your purpose,’ speakers urge at OADI awards dinner

The Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives’ annual Honors Award Ceremony May 3 celebrated students, faculty, staff and alumni who have demonstrated outstanding leadership, high academic achievement and strong community engagement. Above, students react to speeches with shouts of encouragement, finger-snapping and applause at the annual Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives' annual Honors Award Ceremony May 3. Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University

Before Clinton Ikioda ’19 came to Cornell, students and staff at his high school said he’d been admitted only to fill a diversity quota. Once he arrived, he felt constant pressure to prove he belonged – as well as a persistent worry that he didn’t.

“I always felt like there was a need to let my peers and my professors know that this black boy is smart enough to be a Cornellian,” said Ikioda, student speaker at the annual Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI) Honors Award Ceremony, held May 3 in the Statler Ballroom.

He succeeded, thanks in part to a robust support network – his family, fraternity, friends and the staff and fellow students at OADI, which helps students from underrepresented backgrounds achieve and thrive at Cornell.

“I am beyond grateful for OADI – OADI gave me a home. OADI provided me with the motivation to be where I am today,” Ikioda said. “Sometimes being a low-income student or a first-generation student or a nontraditional student can be very, very alienating. However, OADI alleviates that alienation, by providing resources, funding and support.”

Ikioda’s speech was met with shouts of encouragement, finger-snapping and applause by the audience of around 100 Cornellians gathered to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. The 10 award winners were selected from nominations from the Cornell community in recognition of students, faculty, staff and alumni who have demonstrated outstanding leadership, high academic achievement and strong community engagement. The awards were announced by Luz Martes ’20 and Raymond Liao ’21.

Ikioda, who is majoring in biology and society with a minor in education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is involved with OADI’s Educational Opportunity Program, Pre Professional Programs and Chi Alpha Epsilon National Honor Society. He has interned with Breakthrough New York, Voices of African Mothers and Teach for America. He has also worked with the Intergroup Dialogue Project and served as a resident adviser and a teaching assistant for many undergraduate courses.

Clinton Ikioda ’19, speaks at the OADI Honors Award Ceremony. Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University

After graduation, he will become a teacher at the Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, Connecticut, while pursuing a master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

He said he came to Cornell intending to study medicine but discovered education was his true calling.

“I realized that success is not about the money or the lifestyle that society has deemed it to be,” he said. “It’s about using the skills and assets that I gained here to go out and make a difference in the lives of black and brown youths, assuring them that if I can make it, there is no reason they can’t.”

The alumni keynote speaker, Dr. Tameka Walker-Blake ’01, M.D. ’06, also urged students to define what success means to them, to help combat the feelings of inadequacy that can be common to high achievers from underrepresented backgrounds.

“I want to challenge each and every one of you to know your purpose – to know your ‘why,’” said Walker-Blake, chairman of emergency medicine and medical director at Piedmont Newton Hospital in Covington, Georgia, and the owner of two Golden Krust Caribbean restaurants in Georgia. “I think knowing your ‘why’ helps you when that path gets a little winding. Because it will at some point.”

For example: Walker-Blake became pregnant soon after graduating cum laude from Cornell, and during her first year at Weill Cornell Medicine, she found herself falling asleep in class because her baby son was keeping her up at night. After seeking advice from her mentor and help from the school, she made it through to become the first physician in her family.

She talked to the audience about impostor syndrome, and encouraged them not to internalize fears of being a fraud. “You are not that,” she said. “I see you. You are enough. You will be able to stand next to every single one of your peers, and I am proof.”

Award winners:

  • Tameka Walker-Blake ’01, M.D. ’06: Ryokichi Yatabe Award, Outstanding Alumna/Alumnus Partner;
  • Tatiana Ferraro ’19: Jerome Holland Award, Outstanding OADI Scholar Leader;
  • Diala Haddad ’20: Gloria Joseph Award, Opportunity Programs Students;
  • Steve Johnson: Estevan Fuertes Award, Outstanding OADI Faculty Partner;
  • Elsbeth Kane: Toni Morrison Award, Outstanding Graduate Mentorship;
  • Vivian Utti ’19: George Washington Fields Award, Professional Development;
  • Laura Vasquez-Bolanos ’19: Solomon Cook Award, Engaged Research and Scholarship;
  • Jennifer Wickham: Tomás Bautísta Mapúa Award, Outstanding OADI Staff Partner;
  • Sofie Wilson ’21: Marvin Jack Award, OADI Emerging Scholar-Leader; and 
  • First Generation Student Union: Club Brasileiro Award, Outstanding Organization.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.