UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Chioma Okoroafor is passionate about making a difference in the world through her work with veterans, victims of abuse, advocacy for health care in underserved communities, and climate justice. Her steadfast dedication to pursuing her purpose is among the reasons why she is the recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Adult Student Award.
Okoroafor is a United States Marine Corps veteran, student worker in the Office of Veterans Programs at Penn State, and a volunteer at Centre Safe and the Arboretum at Penn State. She is a junior pursuing a dual major in psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts and biology in the Eberly College of Science. Her concern about access to health care for underserved communities is setting her on a path with an ultimate goal of becoming a physician.
“As a child, I was often sick and was intrigued by medicine. My father is Nigerian, and my mother is white, so as a biracial woman, I want to change the situation where both of these are a minority in medicine,” Okoroafor said. “I decided to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology because I read minority women are three times more likely to die during pregnancy, mostly from a lack of health care options and service in their communities.”
Okoroafor began to see her path unfold while serving in the Marine Corps.
“As a woman in the Marines, sexual assault is a problem because there are so few women. Men are victims of assault as well, but there is more of a stigma for them to speak out. I saw terrible things happen and felt I could not speak out or do anything about it. So, I want to do something about it now,” Okoroafor said. “I completed an 80-hour training course in order to become a volunteer at Centre Safe to help empower survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. I help them navigate protection from abuse orders and assist those needing emergency shelter.”
As part of the Office of Veterans Programs at Penn State, Okoroafor also reaches out to veterans who have had similar experiences to hers and to students pursuing a career in the military.
“I have conversations with ROTC students who are going in, to prepare them. I let them know that yes, it is great to serve your country, but hey — it’s hard!” Okoroafor said. “I’ve also addressed possible issues with sexual assault response training, which can revictimize those who have been through it and it can be difficult for them to watch others who may appear to have a lackadaisical attitude about it.”
Okoroafor began her studies online while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. She enrolled at Penn State's University Park campus in January 2020 hoping to be a part of the on-campus college experience. While the COVID-19 pandemic changed her vision of the college experience a bit, she was already acclimated to remote learning from her time in the Marine Corps.
“I adjusted easily to the lockdown and learning remotely, but it did change the experience. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to meet with professors and have a more tangible learning experience,” Okoroafor said. “I am happy to be working and volunteering on campus where I do get to see people.”
Alongside all of this, Okoroafor also is a volunteer at the Arboretum at Penn State.
“I am wildly passionate about the environment and climate sciences. I am vegan. I shop small and local and use walks in nature to inspire my letter-writing campaigns to legislators about environmental issues,” Okoroafor said. “There are so many people who are doing really amazing things here. I feel honored to win this award and to be around the others who were nominated.”
Leslie Laing, director for Adult Learner Programs and Services and student advocacy specialist in Penn State Student Affairs, said Okoroafor is an exemplary model of academic success and leadership in the classroom and in the community.
“I look forward to Chioma’s continued contributions as a student leader who aspires to orchestrate change, impact cultural norms and behavioral change to create innovative solutions within her spheres of influence at Penn State and beyond,” Laing said. “Chioma is watch worthy and I certainly hope that we can provide ample opportunity for motivated adult learners like her to not only be recognized, but to thrive. We need to grow our efforts to financially support these change-makers.”
The Outstanding Adult Student Award includes a Penn State diploma case and a $500 grant from the Adult Learner Opportunity Fund. Laing established the fund in 2008 to aid nontraditional-aged students and veterans who are struggling with financial and family responsibilities while earning their first-time undergraduate degree. To contribute to the Adult Learner Opportunity Fund, click here.