Temi Olonilua spent much of her childhood in the late ‘90s scribbling away by candlelight in the three-bedroom bungalow she shared with a dozen members of her family. Power outages were common in her hometown of Lagos, and on some evenings, completing homework assignments frequently meant lighting the taper candle she kept in her desk drawer and praying for the power to come back on.
Often, the outage would outlast the candle and she’d set down her pencil in defeat and head to bed in the darkness. Her homework would have to wait for the break of dawn.
Today, Olonilua, 26, lives in New York City and losing power is the last thing on her mind. In fact, as an engineer at the utility company that literally powers the city, it’s Olonilua’s job to keep the lights on for its denizens.
But after four years at Con Edison, she’s hanging up her hard hat to pursue her lifelong dream of attending Harvard Business School for her MBA. In the seven months since she has received her acceptance letter, Olonilua’s excitement has only amplified. But that cool December morning at the end of a year when a flu pandemic brought the world to a crawl is one that Olonilua, a first generation college student from Nigeria, won’t easily forget.
‘TIME JUST FELT LIKE IT WASN’T MOVING’
She had hoped to sleep in to kill some time before the big announcement at noon, but her circadian cycle had different plans for her that day. She woke up feeling restless at 5 a.m. and going back to sleep had proved futile. Then again, how can one be expected to sleep soundly when anticipating a life-changing decision from Harvard?
“The hours from 5 a.m. to noon, it’s only seven hours, but it was the longest seven hours,” Olonilua remembered.
She pulled the covers off, put on a pot of coffee, and showered before logging onto her work computer and completing a few tasks.
“The time just felt like it wasn’t moving,” she recalled.
Well, maybe breakfast would kill some time. Instead of her usual yogurt, she decided to make a smoothie. And then she went for a walk. She was almost relieved when it was finally time to join her colleagues for a virtual meeting—it allowed her to shift her focus onto something else.
But as noon drew closer, the butterflies were back. Olonilua left all of her electronic devices in her room and went to sit next to her mother in the living room. They tried to watch TV together.
SHE FELL TO THE FLOOR, ROLLING AND SCREAMING
And then five minutes before Decision Time, she had her brother bring her laptop over to her. They watched the minutes tick by. A funny thing happened. After spending all morning waiting for the moment, suddenly she realized she wasn’t ready for what she was about to find out.
She removed her glasses from her face—without them, she couldn’t see—logged into the applicant portal and clicked on “Update Available” to pull up the letter.
“So it’s like I’m not going to be able to make out the words, but if I see a really short sentence, I’ll know I got in, and then I can wear my glasses and read on, but if I don’t see a short sentence, I can just log out and shut my computer and just, like, cry,” she said.
The tears flowed just the same. She did a double take just to make sure, and then screamed with delight. She fell to the floor, rolling and screaming. Her sister burst into the room wondering what had happened. Rejoicing, the family gathered for a prayer, their faces stained with tears. Olonilua was in disbelief. After all, little more than one in ten Harvard MBA students these days are first generation college grads.
“You have this dream and you pray it happens, but is it actually going to happen?”
PHONE CALLS. SLACK MESSAGES. AND THE CHAMPAGNE FLOWED
The next few hours were filled with a steady flow of champagne and phone calls and Slack messages. After sharing the good news with her boss, she somehow returned to work and then went for a walk at a local park to process the news. The smile never left her face.
“I had all these emotions, but it was amazing,” she said. “It was so, so great,”
It took Olonilua days before she could go back and read the rest of her acceptance letter.
Born to parents who met and fell in love in Lagos, Olonilua spent the first 15 years of her life in Nigeria’s largest city, where she attended primary and secondary school and grew up in a large, tight-knit family with three sisters and a younger brother. The family didn’t have much, but they had God and they had each other, and as it later turned out, some luck. But privacy? Not so much.
“There was no privacy at all,” she laughed.