Student uses numbers to help the world

While many college students spend considerable time pondering their own futures, Kemi Oyewole has devoted hours to thinking about the future of the world’s economic stability. She’s particularly engrossed by the challenge of how to increase household incomes in some of the world’s poorest areas by employing math and economics.

The Spelman College student’s passion for addressing global problems using proven economic models captured the attention of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. Named for the former president, the organization seeks out and supports outstanding students who are committed to a life of leadership and public service. Of the 800 students who applied to be a Truman Scholar, Oyewole was one of only 48 students who were awarded a $30,000 scholarship for graduate studies.

The last time a Spelman student received the award was 19 years ago. Oyewole, a math and economics major, plans to use the scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. program in economics.

“My goal is to combine the empirical skills of mathematics with the rational arguments of economics,” said Oyewole, a 20-year-old California native. “I like the idea of using math to make a convincing argument. Of course, statistics can say whatever you want them to, but it’s often very hard to refute them, and I love the idea of addressing social issues with concrete facts.”

Oyewole said some of her interest in public service comes from her parents.

“They’re both CPAs (certified public accountants) and they both work in the public sector,” the senior said. “I’m also very devoted to working in public interest and in earning a Ph.D.”

During her three years at Spelman, Oyewole has worked with numbers and statistics in real-world situations. Last summer, she spent three weeks in Ghana researching the relationship between savings programs and trust in small villages where residents had no access to financial services and banks. During the fall semester she studied at the University of London.

“Being in Ghana was fascinating, especially to see that sometimes we assume things that are or have been effective in Western contexts are not effective in other settings,” she said.

This summer, Oyewole has been at the National Bureau of Economic Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she has conducted a study on the effects of financial aid on higher education.

“It’s a recently documented phenomenon that high-performing, low-income students don’t apply to selective colleges that match their scores,” she said. “Yet they would receive more aid than if they went to a state school. The big thing seems to be that they’re not getting the information.”

In addition to her intensive studies, Oyewole has found time to be an active member of the 2,100-student Spelman community. For two years, she has served as a student trustee, an elected position to the college’s Board of Trustees. She created a leadership program designed to get more students interested in holding offices and has volunteered as a tutor with Breakthrough Atlanta, a weekend academic program for low-income Atlanta Public Schools students. And for three years, she has played for Spelman’s tennis team and was named to the Great South Athletic Conference’s All-Freshman Team in 2011.

This year, Oyewole will focus much of her energy on applying to graduate programs that will encourage her to apply her love of numbers to real-world problems.

“I’m interested in using economic frameworks to study poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa — the factors that affect it and how we can find solutions,” she said.

Tamaria Kai Davis, secretary of the college, has no doubt that Oyewole will succeed.

“She is a gracious and kind young woman, truly a pleasure to know and work with,” Davis said. “She has a clear vision and focus for her life. Kemi’s selection as a Truman scholar is celebrated by the entire Spelman community.”