Tolani Olagundoye: Guiding the Next Generation Through Service

As the first-born of five girls, Tolani Olagundoye grew up always aware of how her influence could shape those around her. “I’ve always had the mindset that the next generation needs some kind of guidance,” she says. Her passion for youth development stems back over a decade. Starting in college, Tolani spent her free time volunteering with local organizations and became a mentor for students struggling in their classes. Instead of telling them what to do to correct their course, Olagundoye learned to lead by example by, “walk[ing] with them through life,” as a positive influence to look to for guidance. As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, a strong work ethic and drive to succeed in academics and beyond were instilled in her at an early age. Landing at URI, Tolani fell in love with STEM and received a doctoral degree in pharmacy.

Upon graduation, Tolani completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Providence VA Medical Center where she worked in both a simulation laboratory and hospital pharmacy setting, and later as a pharmacist at Walgreens. As a postdoctoral fellow, she found a passion for teaching and honed her skills through hands-on experience in the hospital. In the role, Olagundoye taught and prepped hospital staff for medical emergency situations.

In December 2020, Olagundoye became a clinical assistant professor in the College of Environmental and Life Sciences—a position she describes as a dream job. Working at the nexus of leadership & community outreach the position enables her to fulfill two interests simultaneously: teaching and youth development. “This job matches my life exactly,” she said. “If there was a job that was me, it was this.” 

Her job has a service-based approach. Olagundoye manages and helps direct the URI Cooperative Extension’s 4-H Program, which offers events and opportunities for kids aged 5-18 to build leadership skills as they progress along their academic careers. In particular, 4-H hosts multiple events and community partnerships to ensure Rhode Island’s youth have ample opportunities to explore STEM career possibilities.“When you hear youth development, that’s me,” Olagundoye says of her role with 4-H.

With resources and a team to support the vision, Tolani says her goal is to, “provide opportunity to underrepresented youth all around Rhode Island to experience various STEM programs we have here at URI.” With roots in teaching agriculture and farming practices, 4-H expanded into community outreach endeavors across diverse fields in recent decades. A key initiative spearheaded by Toalni was the inaugural URI 4-H Think Big Career Exploration Event. This past Spring, Cooperative Extension invited about 165 students from Providence schools to explore and learn about different STEM labs on campus.

“A day in my life is very busy.” Beyond her responsibilities with Cooperative Extension and constantly pursuing new leads with potential community partners, Tolani teaches a one-credit URI 101 seminar and a Leadership in Global Crisis course. In her leadership course, her teaching style pushes students to dig deep and learn to value who they are, find their individual purposes in life, and to create plans for collaborative action and participate in joint decision making to address global crises. People of all ages struggle with finding identity and who they are, and Tolani hopes that by working through questions such as “Who am I?,” and “Why are you here?,”  students will come out with the tools they need to succeed. “If we are not careful, society will determine our identity, and then give us a purpose that’s not really ours,” she says.

Whether it be in the classroom or through 4-H youth development activities, Tolani says that, “watching the youth and my students transform throughout [her] time here at URI,” is what drives her to continue working.

By Edward Cascella, CELS Communications Fellow