The path of leadership: an in-depth interview with Toyemi Opeoluwa-Calebs
There is an African proverb that states: “There are no shortcuts to the top of the palm tree.”
Empowerment Squared is celebrating Toyemi Opeoluwa-Calebs on graduating with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree from the Molecular Biology & Genetics Program at McMaster University and being admitted to the University of Toronto’s Doctor of Medicine Program.
Toyemi joined an Empowerment Squared delegation to Accra, Ghana to represent Hamilton, Canada, and McMaster University at the African Youth Governance Conference (AYGC) in 2018. She later joined Empowerment Squared as a volunteer across our academic and sports programming, and is now a staff member on the front lines developing the Emergency Community Support program that has been providing assistance to families in our community who have been deeply impacted by COVID-19.
Toyemi sat down with Joana Fejzaj, Empowerment Squared’s Manager of Partnerships and Community Development, for an in-depth conversation on her incredible journey.
Joana: Can you take us back to the place you were born? What is it like?
Toyemi: I was born in Lagos, the most populous city in Nigeria. Lagos is filled with towering buildings, bustling streets and a vibrant social scene, and is known for its rich culture and amazing cuisine. I am the daughter of two amazing parents who have been my greatest supporters. My parents are hardworking and dedicated to their individual careers and I was brought up in a similar manner. During my summer breaks, I was always challenged to work on self-development. I have a vivid recollection of being tasked by my father to provide a summary of every book I read one summer. This project translated to my love for writing, which has been beneficial in my education. After completing elementary school, I spent my next chapter in boarding school. I would often spend my summers visiting my cousins in New Brunswick, which offered a chance to connect with family and explore the province.
Over the years, I have come to realize that my country, despite being a beautiful place, is not without its challenges. As a young girl, I was afforded the privilege to be sheltered from seeing and experiencing many of the injustices that occur. However, as I have grown older, I have become aware of the rise of political unrest and instability within the country. Currently, cases of sexual assault, kidnapping and police brutality are at an all-time high, with young people being the most targeted group.
At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue medicine?
I have always wanted to become a physician. At the age of 5, I lost my younger sister. The lack of infrastructure within Nigeria’s healthcare system to deal with the complications post-birth ultimately led to her passing. The pain I witnessed my mother go through tore at me at such a young age and it was then I knew I wanted to become a physician to prevent others from facing this hardship. Over the years, my knowledge of the healthcare system has expanded to value the importance of research and advocacy for health equity. As a result, my why encompasses my childhood resolve and a passion to be of service to the most vulnerable in our society.
What sacrifices have you and your family had to make for you to get to this point?
The first sacrifice I had to make was leaving my family behind at the age of 16 to begin a new life in Canada with minimal social support. I grew accustomed to making decisions that normally would have been made by my parents. My parents also made great financial sacrifices to fund my education through high school and university. In order to apply to medical school, you need to write the MCAT – Medical College Admission Test, which is a standardized test utilized by medical schools in the admission process. I had to write this exam before applying to medical school. I spent long days in the library devoting time to adequately prepare for the exam.
Was there a moment in your journey that you wanted to give up? If so, what kept you going?
The first time that I wanted to give up was when I applied to medical school in my final year of undergrad, and I received no interview invites. This is the reality of many pre-meds in Canada, but it was very hard to come to terms with, and I struggled to figure out what my next steps would be. I dreaded applying again for the fear of another wave of rejections. This was complicated with the fact that my status as an international student greatly limited my chances of getting into medical school, as few schools in Canada had spots for international students. Making the decision to reapply was done after reflection on my previous application and support from my family, friends and mentors. What kept me going during my low points was my faith, because it helped me realize that rejection was not failure, only a redirection to reflect on the areas of my life that needed improvement. I am truly grateful to have a community that believed so much in me even when I questioned myself.
Whose support was critical for you?
I am deeply appreciative to all of my mentors for their support and guidance over the years. Dr. Juliet Daniel was a great mentor who took a chance on me during my first year and included me in her research lab which exposed me to opportunities for both personal and career growth. I am thankful to the COS – Community of Support initiative that is committed to supporting students like me at every stage of the journey to medical school. Through COS, I became a part of the Black Aspiring Physicians of McMaster (BAP-MAC) where I found a community that gave me access to medical students as mentors and leadership and volunteer opportunities. My friends and family have been a constant stream of support with everything from helping review my essays for applications, support with the application processes, and believing in me when I needed encouragement.
What advice would you give to a student or peer who might be going through similar experiences that you did?
My experience as both a Black and international student have come with its own unique challenges. My advice is to build a community as soon as you get here. Find a place where you feel safe and valued and are around people who support you.
As well, realize that not every path is the same and we all have to take detours sometimes. Rejection is not failure, it’s redirection. Whatever you are passionate about, there are always avenues and outlets for you to engage in that work. I encourage you to follow those aspirations because it helps you build who you are and who you want to be. When life gets you down you have to get back up and keep moving forward. We all get discouraged but it is so important that we find that inner strength to get back up and keep moving forward.
What are you most proud of during your time with Empowerment Squared
I am most proud of developing and implementing the Emergency Community Support program at Empowerment Squared which was designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our community that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We can see the tangible impact and difference that the program has made in people’s lives.
How would you describe the youth and families that we work with at Empowerment Squared?
The people in the Empowerment Squared community are the most resilient people I have ever met. The families we support are facing multiple challenges, but they are so hopeful and grateful, and deeply appreciative of the opportunities that they are presented with. On my low days, my interaction with families energizes me and reminds me of the importance of the work we do.
How has your time with Empowerment Squared helped you grow as an individual and professional?
I’ve learned the importance of being an active listener and understanding the realities that people are coming from. I would like to thank them for allowing me to be a part of their story. Each and every one has helped me grow and widen my perspective about my responsibility to use my platform to make a difference.
I’ve also learned about the power of relationship building and having regular contact with families so we can see how they are improving. Professionally I’m learning about time management as I work across different programs and have to manage my time to be effective in my execution of programs.
Lastly, I’ve learned about the importance of advocating for myself in the workplace. This is something that I needed to improve on, as I grew up in a culture where we were not encouraged to speak up for ourselves. Moving to Canada, I quickly came to realize that if you don’t speak up, people are unaware of the support you need. This is a lesson I think many international students need to be aware of when moving to North America.
What do you want others to know about Empowerment Squared?
I want people to know that it’s not only a charity, but also a place where everyone is welcome, and you are given space to be yourself and empower yourself to better your life and give back. Once you engage with Empowerment Squared, you’re part of our family.
If you could broadcast one message to the world, what would it be?
My message would be that hard work, determination, and faith are the pillars that have brought me to where I am today, and they can help you tremendously as well. My next step of starting medical school is not only a win for me but, it’s also a win for my community. I desire to be part of the cohort of future physicians advocating for health equity in medicine. I will continue to use my story, challenges, and successes to pave the way for those coming after me.
If you had a magic wand, what would you do?
I would eradicate inequities and injustices that exist in the world. I see these issues today here in Canada and in Nigeria. The gap between those who have a lot and those who have a little is growing and if I had the power, I would want to change that. What I have seen at Empowerment Squared is that when we take the time to help others and create opportunities for them to learn and grow, what they can accomplish is limitless. I hope that as a society we become better at taking care of one another.
Can you leave us with your favorite quote?
This quote is actually a verse from the Bible, and it has gotten me through some dark days – “For the vision is yet for an appointed time; But at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; Because it will surely come, It will not tarry.” Habakkuk 2:3
Empowerment Squared congratulates Toyemi on her accomplishments, applauds her on her ambition, and thanks her for her service.