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Tough Love Leads CCNY Senior from Lagos to White House

CCNY senior Kay Atanda [right] with White House Director of Drug Policy Gil Kerlikowske during his summer internship at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Kay at the entrance to the White House's West Wing.

Nigerian upbringing inspires Oluwadamisi Atanda to excel; State Department internship at United Nations next on his agenda.

In 36 short months, Oluwadamisi "Kay" Atanda, age 20, went from student president in his final year at Redeemer's International Secondary School in Lagos, Nigeria, to the White House – literally.
Brooklyn-born but raised in the populous West African nation, The City College of New York senior spent most of the summer as a legislative affairs intern in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. In the fall, he will intern at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
Since transferring in fall 2012 to CCNY from Queensborough Community College (where he was in the CUNY Honors Program), Kay, a political science major and public policy minor with a 3.80 GPA, has racked up honors at a remarkable clip.
There have been two national awards – the Pearson National Prize for Higher Education (2012) and the Josephine de Karman Fellowship (2013-2014), for community service and scholastic achievement, respectively.
There have also been other accolades for the Springfield Gardens, Queens, resident, and Colin L. Powell Community Engagement Fellow, among them:

  • The 2012-14 New York Needs You Fellowship, awarded to high-potential first-generation New York City college students with the tenacity, ambition and desire to enhance their lives and their communities;
  • The 2012 CUNY Vice Chancellor's Excellence in Leadership Award;
  • First recipient, CUNY Student Leader of the Year Award (2012), for outstanding contributions to the University.

That's not to mention his previous internship experience on the successful 2012 congressional campaign of Grace Meng (D-NY), the first Asian-American member of Congress from New York; and, earlier, in the Queens District Office of New York State Assemblyman David I. Weprin.

"Students like Kay make our jobs very easy," said Rafal Szczurowski, CCNY adjunct professor of international studies and political science, who had Kay as a student in his global perspective course. "From spirited conversations to his passionate advocacy for human rights and civil liberties, there's a fire about him that is rare and refreshing."

Kay credits an act of tough love by his parents for his fire, intellectual zeal and boundless energy. 

"I was about four years old when my parents decided to relocate the family to Nigeria," he explained from Washington. "My parents believed that in order for me to truly appreciate the opportunities in the United States, it was important to experience life in another part of the world, outside of the U.S." 

He would spend the next 13 years in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, with a population of nearly eight million. Like the rest of the country, the former capital is starkly defined by small pockets of wealth amid searing poverty.

"I saw first-hand things people here only read about in the papers or see on TV about Nigeria," he recalled. "I went to school with people that had no access to electricity or water and it definitely motivated me to work hard." 

Kay returned home in 2010, indebted to his family for the experience.  "It's something I'm very grateful for. It gave me a new perspective on life and the way I see things."

The experience also inspired him to make a difference and not just help the poor of Nigeria but those struggling in other communities. He founded YES (Youth Engaged Society), a nonprofit that serves as a resource for community service, scholarship and internship opportunities for students statewide. 

"Public service is something I am passionate about and want to continue to do after I'm done with my degree and graduate work," he said. "Maybe I'll run for city council or the U.S. Senate."

His ultimate goal, however, is to head the United Nations. "I think the UN is a good tool through which I can influence positive change in many parts of the world including Africa and Nigeria," he noted.

Kay's next internship after his White House stint may provide good preparation for any future UN position. 

A finalist for the 2013 Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, he has been accepted into the competitive U.S. State Department Student Internship Program this fall. There he will intern in the Executive Office at the United States Mission to the United Nations in New York. 

He will balance this internship with an independent study with Professor Szczurowski, where he will examine the United Nations, U.S. foreign policy and global security. 

About The City College of New York 
Since 1847, The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. More than 16,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture; the School of Education; the Grove School of Engineering; the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, and the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. 

Set on a striking, 35-acre hilltop campus in upper Manhattan, CCNY has produced more Nobel laureates than any other public institution in the United States. The College has been touted as one of America's Top Colleges by Forbes, one of the Best Colleges in the United States as well as one of the Best Value Colleges by the Princeton Review, and ranks among U.S. News' top regional universities.



Jay Mwamba
p: 212.650.7580