Quite the Track Record: Ugochi Okoroafor grows, volunteers, and excels at Pitt

Issue Date: 
April 26, 2009
Ugochi OkoroaforUgochi Okoroafor

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina uprooted Ugochi Okoroafor before she even had the chance to begin her freshman year at Tulane University. But as good fortune would have it, the drama of Katrina propelled Okoroafor to the University of Pittsburgh.

In between the 2005 natural disaster and her graduation from Pitt’s College of General Studies today, she has covered an impressive amount of ground. Okoroafor, a native of Atlanta, Ga., holds a 3.98 GPA, is a University Scholar and the 2009 Emma W. Locke Award winner, has been on the Dean’s Honor List every term, and is the College of General Studies Class of 2009 class marshal. She is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in natural sciences and a Bachelor of Arts degree in administration of justice.

Next stop? Medical school. Okoroafor has been accepted by the 14 medical schools she applied to, among them Baylor, Columbia, Harvard, Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, and Yale.

A track athlete, Okoroafor arrived in New Orleans in August 2005, a few weeks before her classes at Tulane were set to begin, to practice for that university’s track team. When she learned that Hurricane Katrina was approaching New Orleans, Okoroafor returned to Atlanta to wait out the storm. At the time, she thought the hurricane would most likely be over in a few days and she would be able to return to school.

“If I hadn‘t left, I would have probably ended up in the Superdome,” she said.

When Okoroafor received word that Tulane would close for the semester, she said she was initially upset—until she watched the news and realized how fortunate she was compared to so many people who had lost so much.

After about a week in Atlanta, Okoroafor called Pitt to inquire about admission, and she was told she could come immediately. Okoroafor said she was a bit disoriented when she arrived.

“I didn’t know how things worked and had to figure it all out and play catch-up,” she said. “It was difficult to adjust, but the New Orleans experience motivated me. I knew that I needed to focus and do my best.”

Because her focus was on her studies, Okoroafor decided not to join Pitt’s track team even though track is one of her passions. She hasn’t given up the sport entirely, however, and runs three to four miles every other day.

But academics weren’t her only focus. As a Pitt freshman, Okoroafor joined the College After School Team (CAST), directed by Robbie Ali, CAST advisor and an assistant professor in the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. Ali created CAST to mentor Peabody High School’s students.

“I liked working with the students and saw that I could make a difference in people’s lives,” said Okoroafor, who helped to inspire the students, especially when they found out that she started college when she was 17.

“Ugochi worked with CAST for several years, beginning when she was a freshman, and was really one of our best mentors,” said Ali. “I was impressed with her maturity, her ease in relating to the high school students, her intelligence, and most of all her enthusiastic commitment.”

Through Ali’s encouragement, Okoroafor said she saw how her interest in science could lead to medicine and health. She began to volunteer at hospitals, shadowed doctors on their rounds, and joined the American Medical Student Association’s (AMSA)

premedical chapter, eventually becoming the group’s vice president. Okoroafor coordinated various projects through AMSA.

A first generation American, Okoroafors has Nigerian-born parents. A trip she took to Nigeria with her family a few years ago, in fact, spurred one of her recent service projects. While there, her brother became ill, and they took him to nurses who care for the sick in the village. Her brother was given the wrong medicine, and Okoroafor’s family had to take him to the hospital, which was three hours away.

“Access to health care is limited in many of the villages,” Okoroafor explained. “I wanted to organize a medical mission project to address this dilemma.”

She undertook the effort on her own and gathered donations to send medical supplies to the village. The support came primarily from NANIUSA—a group formed by people from her parents’ hometown in Nigeria who settled in the United States—which helped to get the project going. For her efforts, Okoroafor was recognized as an outstanding youth member by NANIUSA.

She also began an ongoing book drive to provide scientific textbooks and research journals to the University of Nigeria.

“Many of those who donated books to send to Nigeria were students and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh,” said Okoroafor, whose parents are graduates of the University of Nigeria and leaders of its alumni association.

She credits George Bandik, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in Pitt’s chemistry department, for helping with the book drive. Okoroafor calls Bandik “one of the most mentoring faculty members I’ve had at Pitt.” As a teaching assistant under Bandik’s direction, Okoroafor taught organic chemistry.

Her scientific abilities are no accident. Both of her parents, who now live in Wexford, are PhD chemists who used to work in the chemical industry. Her mother, Ngozi, is a retired professor, and her father, Michael, works for H.J. Heinz Co.

Okoroafor said her parents led by example, not pressure, in encouraging her and her three brothers to study and do well. Her brother, Onyi, is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis who now works for the United Bank of Switzerland in New York; Okechi is a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis; and Chinedu, the youngest, attends Sewickley Academy.

“My parents were excellent role models: Both came from small villages and grew up during a civil war, yet they were able to overcome many challenges to achieve their goals, ” she said.

Okoroafor has proven that she is equally motivated. She is the recipient of several other awards, including the Helen Faison Scholarship, the Robert C. Byrd Scholarship, and the 2006 Quest Scholars Award for Undergraduate Research.

Her extensive research experience includes clinical research pertaining to the cardiovascular manifestations of lupus conducted in the Lupus Center of Excellence at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and two summers conducting molecular genetics research at the University of South Carolina with a fellowship award from the National Science Foundation.

These experiences helped to solidify her decision to attend medical school. One day, she hopes to practice as a physician in underprivileged U.S. communities and start a nonprofit organization to fund, construct, and staff clinics in rural Nigerian villages.

“I will be forever grateful for the opportunity I was given to attend the University of Pittsburgh, and I believe the education I received here has provided a solid foundation for my future medical career.”