Published on 08/06/21

Biological science student Eric Okanume aims to give a voice to others

Eric Okanume, a Black student, smiles on campus in a dark suit with yellow tie and UGA pin.
Eric Okanume is a biological sciences major from Hiram. An aspiring physician, he’s also interested in business and leadership. He’s been a part of UGA business living-learning community and is involved with the Georgia African American Male Experience. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Eric Okanume aims to give a voice to others. A future physician, he takes on leadership roles to advocate for mutual empowerment and ensure college readiness among underrepresented communities.

Hometown:
Hiram, Georgia

Degree objective:
Biological science, minor in biology, certificate in entrepreneurship (Pre-MD/MBA track)

Expected graduation:
May 2023

Fun fact about me:
I have triple citizenship: United States, Brazil and Nigeria.

What obstacles have you had to overcome?
When I moved from Brazil to the U.S. eight years ago, I found myself amidst an entirely new culture, having to learn how to read, write and speak a new language on my own. This was one of the most challenging experiences that I have endured, but it has also played a pivotal role in my life, shaping who I am today and driving who I will be tomorrow. The hardships and successes taught me the importance of mutual empowerment, resilience and service. They assisted me in seeing the world from a different perspective and revealed to me what I now believe to be my ultimate calling: to take initiative and to make a difference. Today, I am a strong believer in education, and the infinite opportunities that come with it. I also believe in hard work, and how it is a powerful agent that leads to excellence. I believe in empowerment, and how it inspires individuals to help each other. But most importantly, I believe in people.

How did you decide to come to UGA?
UGA stood out to me as a modern, well-established, and ever-growing research institution capable of providing me with the resources I needed to achieve my full academic potential. After attending the Georgia African American Male Experience (GAAME) Weekend program, I knew that there were individuals who legitimately cared about my future and would support me along the way. Today, these individuals are friends, teachers and mentors that have encouraged and cheered me on throughout my time so far at UGA.

How did you choose your major?
From an early age, I have always been fascinated by engineering, business and medicine. When I enrolled at UGA, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, however I did not know which path I should use to achieve that goal. During the GAAME Weekend, I learned about the biological sciences program offered at UGA through the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. I also learned that there were different ways that I could still incorporate my passion for business and engineering into the undergraduate and/or graduate stages of my academic endeavors. Ultimately, I decided to pursue a biological sciences degree in the pre-MD/MBA track, a certificate in entrepreneurship, and research in the area of engineering.

What is your favorite class you’ve taken?
Project FOCUS is an ongoing partnership between the University of Georgia and the Clarke County School District to improve science instruction in elementary schools. As a project FOCUS teaching assistant, I designed hands-on, interactive, science-related activities to improve the virtual learning experience of 15 first-grade students in the Athens-Clarke County School District during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watching the progress made by these students over the course of 10 weeks, as well as how I have been able to grow and improve as a tutor and mentor has truly impacted my perspective of education and how crucial adaptive teaching is.

Portrait of Eric Okanume sitting on stairs.
Eric Okanume is a UGA brand ambassador with the Digital Dawgs Program, a UGA vaccine ambassador, an Honors Program ambassador, GAAME ambassador with the UGA Office of Institutional Diversity and president of the Creswell Community Council. He’s also a CURO undergraduate research assistant with the College of Engineering and summer bridge counselor with Peach State LSAMP. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

What are your top UGA highlights?

  • Summer Bridge Program
    The Peach State LSAMP program has been a fundamental part of my leadership journey at the University of Georgia. This summer, I have the amazing opportunity to pass on that sense of community and belonging by serving as a Summer Bridge Program counselor and providing incoming students with the same support and encouragement that was provided to me.
  • CURO research
    During the spring semester of my second year, I was able to assist Cheryl Gomillion’s tissue engineering lab in the School of Chemical, Materials and Biomedical Engineering. From an early age, I have always been fascinated by the inner workings of engineering and biological sciences. Working in the lab is particularly exciting to me because I can closely explore the overlap of two areas that I am passionate about, while also having access to a wide range of scientific and academic resources, as well as passionate students and experienced professionals. This is a great example of learning from the experience of seasoned professionals while also building a support network with other like-minded people.
  • Creswell Community Council
    It was also one of the most definitive experiences of my freshman year. For hundreds of new college students, their residence hall community serves as their first and most influential friends, as their main source of support, and as their family away from home during this important, new chapter of their lives. As the president of the council, I was entrusted to give a voice to the nearly 1,000 residents of Creswell Hall while promoting a sense of community and belonging.
  • Launch PAD
    During my first year at UGA I lived in the Launch PAD, an entrepreneurship living- learning community in Creswell Hall. I met 39 other individuals who are just as passionate about business and entrepreneurship as me and learned about the entrepreneurship program offered at UGA through the Terry College of Business. The Launch PAD also provided me with unmatched networking opportunities with high-ranking Terry College of Business officials, UGA alumni, and other prominent entrepreneurs. Communities such as the Launch PAD are why I decided to attend the University of Georgia: being surrounded by like-minded people who inspire and motivate each other.
  • Morehead Honors College
    As a first-generation immigrant minority student at a well-established, nationally recognized and very competitive institution, I suffered from what I now understand to be impostor’s syndrome—feeling unsure if I was worthy of admission into UGA. Admission into the Honors Program, one of the most prestigious programs offered at the university, was not only an investment in my education, but also a vote of confidence in my academic potential. It reassured me that no matter the color of our skin, our first language, or even our last name, we can do anything that we set our minds to. Today as an Honors ambassador, I strive to empower other academically gifted students that may be going through some of the same challenges that I went through. I would like to share with them not only my story and what makes the Honors Program so special to me, but also what motivates me to always strive for more and never settle for anything less than my full potential.
Eric Okanume walks across from the Arch with two friends.
From left: Undergraduate students Deborah Sowunmi, Eric Okanume and Andres Villalobos walk into downtown from campus. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA)

Current employment:
I currently serve as a resident assistant at University Village on the south side of campus. Working and living at UV offers me the unique opportunity to interact with students from all walks of life, ranging from first-year and international students, to master’s and Ph.D. students with families and small children. UV is a unique and special community, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.

Where have you interned/what have you learned?
This summer, I participated in the Summer Health Professions Education Program and representing UGA at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. SHPEP is a summer enrichment program that aims to strengthen the academic proficiency and career development of students underrepresented in the health professions. For six weeks, we examined health care policy and racial disparities through clinical work and academic enrichment classes. Learning from seasoned professionals while also building a support network with other historically underrepresented health-profession students will embolden me to become an even more efficient, well-rounded student and future medical doctor.

Portrait of Eric Okanume with Moore College in the background.
Eric Okanume dealt with some impostor syndrome after being accepted to UGA, but after getting into UGA’s Honors Program (now Morehead Honors College), he felt more confident in his abilities. Now, he’s an Honors ambassador to help other academically gifted students. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

What is your passion and how are you committed to pursuing it?
For the past year, I have been developing a platform to make college a more attainable goal for all students. By establishing a nonprofit organization called Mentors on a Mission, I offer digital services, resources and one-on-one support in the form of a college-age mentor, to guide high school students through a process of self-discovery, career exploration, and the college financial aid/application process. During the fall 2020 semester, I piloted this initiative with Paulding County School District teaching staff in the development of digital educational modules that assisted students navigating the career exploration and college matriculation processes during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am very excited about the future of this initiative and hope to reach more students as it develops.

Portrait of Eric Okanume in a white lab coat.
After graduation, Eric Okanume aims to pursue medical degree and a master’s degree in business administration. This summer he’s learning about health care through the Summer Health Professions Education Program, a summer enrichment program for students underrepresented in the health professions. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

What are your plans for after graduation?
I plan on pursuing a medical degree and a master’s degree in business administration.

I have always been inspired by the groundbreaking, intellectually stimulating and life-saving attributes of medicine; however, I have also been discouraged by the lack of racial representation within medicine and science as a whole. Today, that same initial discouragement is one of the very reasons why I strive to become a medical doctor. It is my goal to use the knowledge and expertise gained through my education as a tool to empower historically underrepresented communities that suffer from racial health disparities in the United States and beyond.

I #CommitTo: Mutual Empowerment
I am a strong believer in mutual empowerment, and that together we can help each other, always strive for more, and never settle for anything less than our full potential.