A force for change
When Ayooluwa Odemuyiwa, '22 got to Caltech, she says, "I didn't really talk that much. I was pretty quiet."
But that was before she was president and social director of ASCIT, the undergraduate student government. And social vice president of Ricketts House, her campus residence. And the recipient of the Frederic W. Hinrichs Jr. Memorial Award, given to the senior who made the greatest contribution to the student body.
Something, obviously, changed.
Or—more to the point—Caltech changed her.
I am what a scientist looks like.
"Caltech definitely built my confidence," she says. At first, she grew more confident academically. Eventually, though, she leveraged that confidence to affect the world around her. By the time she graduated, Odemuyiwa became a forceful advocate for student mental health and other issues.
"Caltech is unique because it's so small," she says. "And people are so busy. Most people don't feel like getting so involved with things because they have classes and assignments. So I realized the importance of even just one person standing up and doing things."
While Odemuyiwa was looking at colleges, Caltech wasn't on her radar. Born in Canada, she went to high school in Missouri. She didn't see herself here until she visited campus as part of Caltech Up Close, a program focused on the experience of students from historically underserved backgrounds in STEM. It defied her expectations: She remembers meeting one student who was the #3 in the world at a certain video game.
"Everyone," she realized, "was just normal."
What she didn't see, she says, were a lot of other Black women—either students or faculty. "I didn't go to Caltech because of diversity," she said. "It was in spite of that."
Odemuyiwa says she understood that being in a STEM-heavy environment would have limitations. But, she acknowledges, the lack of representation was more wearying than she expected.
Those challenges inspired her advocacy.
As a member of the Class of 2022, she looks back and recognizes that the institution has progressed. "I see a willingness to change," she says. The incoming freshman class will have more Black students than the previous four years combined. The administration has also increased efforts to ensure students from underrepresented backgrounds have the support they need to thrive once they're here, and she says she came to rely on staff in offices such as the Center for Inclusion & Diversity.
But even more than that, she drew on fellow students—and herself.
"I got used to standing up for myself," Odemuyiwa says. "And it taught me how to advocate for others. I realized the importance of listening to everybody, and ensuring people aren't shut out. As a Black woman, that's something I faced—but it also happens to other women of color in group settings."
It's a calling that Odemuyiwa brought to her work, which focused on artificial intelligence. In one memorable project, she studied how engineers build their own biases into machine-learning algorithms. For her, it was a way of connecting science to humanity—a realization that data affects real people.
She brought those lessons to Meta, the parent of Facebook, during an internship—one that resulted in a job offer. She'll start as a software engineer in the fall.
As she leaves Pasadena, she has a little advice for other high school students who might not think they have the experience to get in, or look like what they think a scientist looks like. "Caltech teaches you to become a scientist," she says. "That's the point of Caltech."