Keeping the faith

Penn State student channels the power of spirituality, music and personal connections to excel in time of hardship

Oluwatobi Jewoola analyzes a structural design model for his AE Senior Thesis project, a year-long capstone design project that is required for all undergraduate students enrolled in the architectural engineering program. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a child, Oluwatobi Jewoola watched his father work as the owner of an engineering consulting firm in Nigeria. The firm focused on the installation of generators as alternative power supplies and other forms of engineering services, sales and supplies. Though Jewoola wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and work in the engineering industry, architecture and the structure of buildings drew his interest.

In high school, Jewoola excelled at math and technical drawing. After seeing the TV show "Prison Break," Jewoola knew without question that he had to be a structural engineer.

Jewoola came to Penn State in 2011 with the backing of his family. Because of his father’s successful engineering firm, Jewoola didn’t believe he would struggle with the financial burden many international students face. But, in his third year, the Nigerian economy plummeted and his father’s firm began to receive fewer projects with less financial capacity. At the time, Jewoola did not understand all the implications of this; he later learned his father resorted to liquidating assets in order to pay for his education.

“He always hoped that things would go back to how they used to be, the economy would get better and we would go from there,” Jewoola said. Unfortunately, things continued to get worse.

In 2014, paying tuition became increasingly difficult for Jewoola and his family, until it was almost necessary to leave the University twice. By 2015, his father was no longer able to help with tuition costs.

“Things were so bad,” he said. “Several times, my dad would call or text me apologizing for not holding up to his fatherly promises.”

Though Jewoola has always held a job as a math tutor at Penn State Learning, limits on the number of hours he could work meant he wouldn’t be able to pay his tuition on his own.  

“I knew how hard it was and I was trying to pull my own weight,” he said.

In addition to being a student enrolled in the demanding five-year architectural engineering program and working as a tutor, Jewoola was highly involved with extracurricular activities. He was able to express his love of music through playing drums in church at the State College Assembly of God, directing the worship team of the church’s youth fellowship group, Chi-Alpha Ministry and being a member of Essence of Joy, a Penn State choral group.

Jewoola looked to these musical experiences and his faith in God to get him through the stressful times.

“These were things that I considered part of college and part of my life that I didn’t necessarily want to give up,” he said. “That was my way to keep sane; music is what kept me going. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t show my troubles on my face. Music was my safe haven.”

Jewoola tried applying for financial aid and private loans, but to no avail because of his status as an international student.

“It was like I was exhausting all my options, but I just kept believing. I kept hoping for the best. I had worked so hard,” he said.

Also because of his status as an international student, taking time off to work in order to save money wasn’t an option. If Jewoola were to take time off, he would need to return to Nigeria due to the terms of his student visa. The state of the Nigerian economy made this almost impossible.

Jewoola also had been offered at internship position with SK&A Structural Engineers in Washington, D.C. Being able to accept the offer was contingent on paying off his tuition bill and paying for an application that allowed him to stay in the United States to work, commonly known as CPT Training.

Throughout his time at Penn State, Jewoola consistently spoke with Moses Ling, associate professor of architectural engineering, for guidance. He took his daunting dilemma to Ling and Michael Adewumi, vice provost for Global Programs and professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering, to find a way to stay to complete his degree.

“I had a vision of where my life was going and I wasn’t going to smear it with the idea that I wasn’t going to make the payment,” Jewoola said.

With just one week until a final tuition due date, he received an email from Adewumi announcing that he had been awarded a Special International Grant-in-Aid (SIGIA). These funds allowed him to pay the balance left on his spring semester tuition bill and complete his internship with SK&A Structural Engineers. At the end of the summer, Jewoola was offered a full-time position at the company's Washington, D.C. office upon graduation.

Just as things seemed to be moving in the right direction, Jewoola received devastating news — his father had passed away from health complications. After returning home and speaking with his mother and sister, Jewoola knew there was no way he could ask his family to help with his tuition bill any longer. The family was already sharing the shocking loss of his father and the burden of many loans taken in Nigeria to pay tuition for previous semesters.

Before returning to University Park for the fall 2016 semester, the final semester needed to receive his degree, Jewoola received word from Ling that he has been awarded funding from the AE (architectural engineering) Class of 1975 Scholarship. This amount was also matched by a scholarship from the College of Engineering.

“Tobi is a studious, hard-working young man. He is curious about our profession and is always stretching himself,” Ling said. “Hearing Tobi’s story reminded me of my duties as an educator to deliver the best to each and every student who placed their trust in us. I wanted to do everything in my power to help him — mostly because of his positive character.”

With just a small amount of his fall 2016 tuition left to pay, Jewoola returned to the United States. In September, Jewoola received an email from Adewumi announcing he had received a second SIGIA grant, covering the rest of his owed tuition for the fall semester.

Jewoola’s unusual situation is one that causes Ling to reflect on the fact that each and every student is a person with dreams and ambitions.

“Students like Tobi came to Penn State and more specifically, Penn State AE, counting on us to help them realize their dreams. As educators, we need to recognize our calling to help our students to fully develop their potential. When possible, we should help students succeed in every aspect of their lives,” he said. “I am extremely happy that together we were able to help one very good person, who trusted Penn State, the College of Engineering and the Department of Architectural Engineering with his life goals and overcome the overwhelming odds.”

Ling said Jewoola’s two Penn State degrees, a bachelor of architectural engineering (B.A.E.) and a master of architectural engineering (M.A.E.), and a position in a U.S. structural engineering firm showcase exactly what determination, communication, hard work and perseverance can accomplish.

“Tobi’s story is a testament to how we can all do our part as citizens of this global village and make the future a little brighter, one person at a time," he said.

Jewoola will receive his B.A.E./M.A.E. during fall 2016 commencement, which will be held Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Bryce Jordan Center at University Park.

Last Updated February 01, 2017