Tunmise Fawole (C ’17) is someone you remember meeting—if not for her infectious smile, or the fact that she’s half your size but has twice your personality, then because you can be sure she’s going to say something you remember, and she won’t leave her seat at the table until she’s seen you take action.
After she makes her first impression, there’s a chance you won’t run into her again for a while. Over the course of her time at Penn, Tunmise has been involved as political chair and then co–chair of UMOJA (a minority–representation umbrella organization serving Penn students of the African Diaspora); as an associate member, a College representative and Social Justice Committee director for the Undergraduate Assembly; as a College peer adviser; and as the former rush chair and then VP of external affairs for her sorority, Alpha Kappa Delta Phi. She served as treasurer of the Penn African Students’ Association until her sophomore year. Now, she is a regular member of Grace Covenant Church, Sphinx senior society and serves as the academic excellence chair of Onyx senior society.
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On top of all of her extracurriculars, she’s also juggled her HSOC studies, being a pre–med student (she took her MCATs in September), doing clinical research at CHOP and applying for and now pursuing a sub–matriculation program for her master's degree in Public Health, after which she will apply to medical school.
“Penn almost beat the pre–med out of me,” Tunmise said, admitting she considered law school for a bit before discovering the Master of Public Health program. “I’m really interested in health policy, so the MPH and the MD made a lot of sense together...the MD is really, you know, individualized, how to treat the body, but an MPH is more population–level health and policy.”
While her individual accomplishments (and schedule) are impressive, it’s the impact she’s had on this campus, specifically the black community, that is most notable. Her position on and inherent influence in the UA, combined with her roles in UMOJA, placed her in a unique position to confront the frequent challenges hurled at the black community and carve out a more recognizable and accessible place on campus for black students.
“I stood on University Council and was able to use that seat to make more direct demands from the administration,” Tunmise said. “[The] administration can be very, very helpful so granting that face time and granting that accessibility, I think, was really, really important and taking steps to make constituents feel more engaged and like they’re more supported.”
UMOJA, which means “unity” in Swahili, specifically caters to “[uniting] students and student groups of the African Diaspora...through effective collaboration, increased political representation, and the dissemination of information,” according to their website. UMOJA serves as the umbrella for 30 different student groups, ranging from Greek organizations to the African American Arts Alliance (4A).
The peers she worked alongside when co–chair of UMOJA as well as her successors attest to her lasting impact. “She’s definitely played a role in making UMOJA more politically active, in terms of making it a space, an organization people feel comfortable going to,” said Temi Ransome–Kuti (W ’17), former chair of Undergraduate Minorities Council (UMC). “I don’t remember it being like that my freshman and sophomore year, honestly.”
Her joint roles also earned her admiration from those she worked with in Penn’s administration. “Tunmise has been extraordinary in her phenomenal contributions as an activist, advocate, scholar, and leader at Penn. Her faith and passion for social justice and equity is evident in all she does,” Dr. Valarie Swain–Cade McCoullum, Vice Provost for University Life, said in an emailed statement.
Tunmise’s impact stretches beyond the bounds of the UA and UMOJA. She has been equally influential within the rest of the 5B, the name for the five different umbrella organizations which house minority groups on campus—UMC, UMOJA, Asian Pacific Student Coalition, LatinX Coalition and Lambda Alliance.
“When people hear the 5B, there’s no chair of the 5B, it’s all the chairs are in contact with each other and we push a lot of initiatives together,” Tunmise said. “We all have our own initiatives...we have our own town halls, we have our own University demands. We have different things we lobby for, but collectively, there are things we push for together because as minority–serving umbrella organizations we have a lot of the same asks,” she added.
Tunmise’s former leadership of UMOJA continues to reverberate through the work of the organization’s current leadership. “She’s definitely expanded [UMOJA’s position], especially when it comes to different minority groups other than the 5B,” Calvary Rogers (C’19), current co–chair of UMOJA, said. “She initiated a project with the 5B to award faculty that have contributed to diversity at Penn. Things like that really expand UMOJA’s role to me...within the community and out of the community.”
The examples her peers draw on to detail her leadership come across as minor collaborative efforts when Tunmise talks about them. She speaks in “we’s,” not “I’s.” When asked to elaborate on what improvements she brought to UMOJA during her term as co–Chair she interjects, “small improvements.”
Some of the initiatives Tunmise orchestrated or assisted on in her time as co–Chair include establishing the Faculty Diversity awards, helping to expand minority student access to mental health resources like CAPS, instituting PAVE trainings for constituent groups (which have now been formally required in UMOJA’s Constitution under the new co–Chairs), and beginning the tradition of UMOJA town hall meetings that cater to the entire black student community here at Penn.
These projects all contributed to Tunmise’s overarching goal of better defining UMOJA’s role in Penn’s campus community. “What was really important for me was redefining and reestablishing what UMOJA’s role in the black community was supposed to be. Just because I felt before my term, or before I became co–Chair, not necessarily that it wasn’t relevant but that people were very unclear as to what UMOJA’s role within the community was supposed to be,” she said.
She has also helped improve existing relationships with the office of Vice Provost for University Life and the Department of Public Safety, largely because of the intensive hours she put into tackling the GroupMe incident that occurred in November 2016.
“She was driving the whole response to [the GroupMe incident] and it was kind of just seeing her in her element,” Temi said. “It’s not an easy job. I think that kind of shows the dedication and also the responsibility that comes with being a student leader in communities, especially in the black community, where people are really looking for some direction, some organization when these things occur and she steps up consistently.”
With all of the logistical planning necessary for organizing an entire minority community and the frequent communications needed with the relevant administrative departments, if Tunmise was ever fazed she didn’t let it show. “I’ve never seen someone so calm and non–reactive. Because we were all a mess, and she was just like, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do,’” Calvary said.
“I think the most important thing for me was just providing a space for freshmen. I remember being a first semester freshman and...I think that made it all the more sinister for me and just really difficult to process,” Tunmise said.
But for all of her seriousness that might be on display when handling crises or confronting administrators, it doesn’t take long for Tunmise’s silly side to emerge. “Tunmise makes a lot of really bad jokes,” Temi said. “It’s always funny that I think she has a silliness to her that disappears when she’s in a professional environment and she’s not trying to joke around.”
“They’re literally haters...I actually think I’m one of the funniest people I know,” Tunmise said. “Other people don’t have to find me funny, I just have to find me funny.”
But whether she’s laughing with you, at you, or at herself, underneath it all, Tunmise’s time at Penn has been shaped by her formidable experiences as a leader, advocate and activist. “It’s crazy and I think it’s weird, because I’ve learned a lot but I’ve learned way more outside the classroom than I’ve learned inside the classroom,” Tunmise says of her Penn experience. “I’ve been living my best life.”
“I’ve made really, really good friends and I think I’m just really, really excited for the future.”