Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
As a high school senior, Rotimi Kukoyi was accepted to all 15 colleges to which he applied. Now, as a UNC student, NBCDI Public Voices Fellow and Morehead-Cain Scholar, Kukoyi explains his mission to ensure that our “education system is properly equipped to provide students from all backgrounds with equitable opportunities in education.” Education, he notes, “should not be limited by a student’s income, geographic area or their parents’ education status.”
Chris Riback: Rotimi, thanks so much for coming by the studio.
Rotimi Kukoyi: Yes, I’m glad to be here today.
Chris Riback: First of all, I just wanted to say how sorry I am you had such trouble getting into college. Only 12 out of 12 accepted you?
Rotimi Kukoyi: 15, actually.
Chris Riback: 15 out of 15?
Rotimi Kukoyi: Yes, sir.
Chris Riback: Who is the big winner?
Rotimi Kukoyi: UNC Chapel Hill. Go, Heels.
Chris Riback: Go, Heels. You are interested in educational and health equity with the aim of expanding access to our nation’s institutions, and you hope to pursue an MD/MBA?
Rotimi Kukoyi: Yes, that’s correct.
Chris Riback: What are educational and health equity?
Rotimi Kukoyi: Educational equity is making sure that our education system is properly equipped to provide students from all backgrounds with equitable opportunities in education. Education should not be limited by a student’s income or geographic area or their parents’ education status, and unfortunately it is, but there are a ton of great educators, many of them here, doing work to make sure that we can close those barriers and help promote mobility for students from all backgrounds. Health equity, people tend to get health equity confused with DEI, and while they have some overlap, they’re still very distinct concepts. Health equity is trying to ensure that we have equitable outcomes in patients. We saw this during the COVID pandemic, that our health system and its infrastructure are not properly equipped to provide adequate services for people from several different marginalized backgrounds. I hope to use my medical education to help close some of those gaps and promote quality of life for people from all walks of life and backgrounds.
Chris Riback: How do the two connect? How does health equity connect with educational equity?
Rotimi Kukoyi: I think equity, in a lot of different spheres, it connects as a whole, but educational equity is directly tied to health equity through health literacy, then also socioeconomic status. Education, as I alluded to a little bit earlier, is one of the biggest mobilizing forces available for people. No matter what income you’re born into, if you’re able to pursue an education successfully, that can open up so many doors for you and you can begin to close the doors of intergenerational poverty and open up more opportunities for the people that will follow you. Health equity is trying to ensure that people can live longer lives and healthier lives. If you have students that are in school and they’re not able to get access to health resources, that can limit their education. Vice versa, if you have people in the health system and they’re not able to properly understand their communication with their doctors, that can limit their ability to follow their health regimens, to pursue healthy lifestyles, and then there are also barriers associated with poverty and even having opportunity to pursue a healthy lifestyle. It’s all so interconnected.
Chris Riback: It all connects. What inspired you to go down this path?
Rotimi Kukoyi: Yes, so educational equity, that is something that came from some research I did in high school. I did a year-long research project on trends in the Black/white ACT score gap in Alabama. That experience was so empowering for me, because for my whole life, I had seen underrepresentation in the classroom, despite going to diverse schools. I had seen the opportunity gaps between Black and white students and I thought it was an individual issue. Our school system, our curriculum, it didn’t explain the systemic backgrounds for these gaps we were seeing today. In doing my research, I learned about the role between wealth and neighborhood and educational attainment. I realized that this issue is so much bigger than they tell us students. That was something that I realized that, even though I don’t want to pursue education as a career, I still think it’s so important, so I remain engaged with it.
I’m mentoring students who are applying to college now for free. In fact, on the train here yesterday, I read four different essays of people I don’t know, but it just fulfills me. Healthcare, I’ve just always been interested in problem solving, but specifically, I love the direct impact that medicine and health has on the human condition. I love biology, but I also have learned, since coming to UNC and getting exposed to public health through its great public health school, the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and just different opportunities through my scholarship and education. I’ve realized that healthcare as a system is so flawed and your opportunities to impact lives are limited to that clinic. You are treating patients on a one by one basis often, being limited by the bureaucracy of healthcare.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Rotimi Kukoyi: If you really want to impact patients, you have to be able to impact health through community initiatives, through hospital reform, and that’s where that MBA piece comes in. I want to learn how to work with systems and how to innovate and think creatively for some of these problems
Chris Riback: Really get outside of the single clinic and scale the solutions that, I assume, you hope to design.
Rotimi Kukoyi: Yes.
Chris Riback: Why are you at the conference today?
Rotimi Kukoyi: I’m at the conference today as part of the Public Voices fellowship of the Op-Ed project and partnership with the NBCDI. I applied to this fellowship during the march of my freshman year of college, because I was interested in, again, learning and engaging with others about how we can make childhood more equitable. A lot of these inequities that we see, people aren’t born with them, but there’s something that starts to develop as early as preschool. They continue and continue and continue to compound.
Chris Riback: They might be born into them.
Rotimi Kukoyi: Exactly. They’re born into them, and these structures need reform, so I wanted to join a community of people that were engaging with this issue from so many different walks of life, so many different perspectives, and today we had the chance to have an in-person convening and it’s been awesome.
Chris Riback: You spent last summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Rotimi Kukoyi: I did.
Chris Riback: Why were you there?
Rotimi Kukoyi: My scholarship program, the Morehead-Cain Scholarship, it has four different summer pillars and, for our second summer of college, what we do is they have something called “Civic collab.” They send teams of scholars and four to five people, and then you’re sent to different cities across the country. There’s even a team in Canada this year, and you’re partnering with nonprofits or civic agencies or government agencies to help work on civic issues. I was a group of four other scholars in Grand Rapids, we are partnering with Coral Health and the CUSI Business Ethics Initiative from Grand Valley State University. We were working with Coral Health, the nonprofit health system, to make healthcare more accessible for people in the Grand Rapids community and promote health equity, and it was a great experience.
Chris Riback: You’re here at this NBCDI conference, which is all about helping empower and educate and generate opportunity for parents and children and communities all across the country. What would you say to some of those children who a place like this is trying to impact kids who might not have the ability to dream as big as you obviously do, or might see you and say, “Yes, him. That’s who I want to be.” What would you say to those kids?
Rotimi Kukoyi: I would say don’t be afraid to deviate from the single story. The media and a lot of our communities like to perpetuate this single idea of the Black child, which is something that authors like Jerry Craft have been working on dismantling, but you have to actively seek exposure to people doing all sorts of different cool things. I’m walking my own path, which I’ve learned from meeting with a bunch of different people and traveling a lot, and just getting exposure to the world. It really all just comes down to realizing that the image that people will try and project on you does not have to be the image that you want to walk in your life. Sometimes doors won’t be open for you, that might mean you have to reach your own door.
You might have to actively reach out and advocate for yourself over and over again, and it can be tiring, but you have to stick with it, because it will be worth it when you’re able to identify what your story is, what you want your story to look like, and how you’re going to use that story to impact others in a way that fulfills you.
Chris Riback: That’s a powerful and important lesson. Lastly, a little bit tongue in cheek, most important question for some people. Who’s going to win the ACC basketball tournament this year?
Rotimi Kukoyi: Obviously, I think UNC. We’re in a great spot, we have a great recruited class, we have some veteran players returning for the season. I think it’ll be an easy sweep, and even more importantly, I think when we play Duke, we’re going to crush them.
Chris Riback: We heard it here first. Rotimi, thank you. Thank you for coming to the studio.
Rotimi Kukoyi: Thank you for having me.q