Eyes Wide Open

Photo credit: May Chika Mgbolu.
February 29, 2012

On May 30, 2008, Tucson native May Chika Mgbolu stepped out of her aunt’s house for a walk in Lagos, Nigeria. What she saw changed her life.

Goats. Chickens. Overpacked taxi vans. Armed soldiers. People hawking wares. Hundreds of bare feet. Malnourished faces.

And there she was – a well fed American wearing a new T-shirt, jeans and Nikes.

“I realized how much I stood out – but most importantly how comfortable my life has been,” she said. “Those 15 minutes have been a major turning point in the way I perceived the world,” she said.

“Those 15 minutes on the streets of Nigeria showed me the true meaning of an under-developed infrastructure, under-represented and under-valued citizens, and the abuse of political power within my parents’ nation. I saw a complete lack of social and political justice for my family and the people on the streets.”

Passion for Social Justice

Her passion for social justice was sparked in a government class at St. Gregory’s College Preparatory School, then fueled by the YWCA Tucson’s Racial Justice Program. What she saw in Nigeria reinforced her decision to major in political science at the University of Arizona, which led to a long list of achievements and awards.

As a first-generation college freshman faced with 1000-seat lecture halls, she quickly gravitated to African American Student Affairs and Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs, her “little community of familiar faces” where she met “amazing mentors,” including the AASA’s Maria Moore.

“She took me under her wing, introduced me to people interested in the same things I’m interested in. We had deep conversations about injustice. We did a presentation together at the annual social-justice symposium. She inspired me to apply for scholarships and other programs.”

Now a senior, Mgbolu (pronounced muh-BOO-loo) takes 15 units a semester, works 16 hours a week at a law firm and is deeply involved in campus activities. She’s currently applying for post-graduate fellowships focusing on public policy advocacy, civil rights and strengthening under-represented groups. After that, it’s a dual degree program – law school and a master's in public policy.

Modern Day Freedom Rider

Last spring Mgbolu was one of 40 college students selected to participate in the re-creation of the 1961 Freedom Ride for the PBS series American Experience. They retraced the route of this pivotal part of the American Civil Rights Movement, traveling with surviving Freedom Riders.

“They told us the personal stories that history books could never talk about,” she said. The Freedom Riders were 18 to 22 years old at the time. “This was a youth movement, people fighting to create a socially just society – whether it was through economic justice, racial equality or education reform.”

Mgbolu is a Senior Fellow in the Equal Justice Center of the Roosevelt Institute, a policy think tank that engages young people in progressive activism and leadership. “I am working with them to create a mentoring program for girls who are on probation or have gone through the juvenile detention system. The Roosevelt Institute is especially important to me because it’s shown me that you don’t have to wait to graduate to start making a change in your community,” she said.

Living the American Dream

“When my parents came to the United States in search of the American Dream they understood one thing was guaranteed – an education – which meant opportunity for their children.”

Mgbolu embraced that opportunity. She discovered the library at Davidson Elementary School and made friends with the librarian, who moved on to St. Gregory and helped get her a scholarship there.

She admits she wasn’t the best student – until her U.S. Government class. She later wrote in a scholarship application, “I realized that this class excites and motivates me in a way I have not felt in a classroom for years.”

Her passion ignited, she planned an all-school issues day focusing on social justice and diversity with fellow student Casey Caylor and the Diversity Club, and facilitated small-group sessions with students and faculty. She tutored refugees and taught preschool children to write their names. She volunteered four years with YMCA Tucson in the Bright Future Leadership Program, on the Youth Advisory Committee and as an intern in the Racial Justice Program, where she trained to become a facilitator with young people on issues of race and racism.

At the time, Sarah Gonzales directed the program. “Her friendly and open demeanor puts students at ease immediately, allowing them to dig deeper on personal issues of racism. Her leadership has been transformative to the program,” she wrote in a letter of recommendation.

Longtime friend Caylor said, “The cool thing about May is how passionate and engaged she is in everything she does. She really cares about social justice and is a great advocate in the community. There are few people in my life who are genuine characters and May is one of them.”

Learn more at the University of Arizona Office of African American Student Affairs.