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Music of the mind

10/12/2011, 1:57 a.m.
Siji Oluwadara discovered that questions can mean as much as answers....

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Siji Oluwadara discovered that questions can mean as much as answers.

Many parts of a person’s life can change during her high school years: friends, fashion, cell phones. One of the biggest changes Siji Oluwadara made during her three years at Boston’s Commonwealth School was in how she thinks.

“Before Commonwealth, I thought learning meant memorizing. That’s how I’d been taught, and I had gotten A’s. At Commonwealth, questions mattered as much as answers: ‘What’s the significance of this answer?’ or ‘How does this point relate to others?’ ” She mentions math, where it might be straightforward to run a problem through the right formulas, but harder and more interesting to understand what the formulas mean or where they came from.

How did Siji break through to this new way of thinking? Her dedication to music helped set the stage. Siji plays double bass, and in 2007 she went to an audition for Project STEP, a nonprofit organization that identifies talented musicians from communities underrepresented in classical music and provides them with training. The group’s artistic director, William Thomas, recommended Commonwealth, pointing out that Aurélie Théramène, a violinist whom Siji knew, was already in the ninth grade there. “I had never heard of Commonwealth, but I looked it up,” Siji recalled. She entered the next year as a tenth grader. Siji was no stranger to hard work. Her mother is a special education teacher in Mattapan; her father is a pastor and nurse. Both grew up in Nigeria. They made sure Siji doesn’t take any opportunity for granted. To fit in the hours of practice every week and still make time for academics, Siji learned to use her time productively. Her Commonwealth advisor, English teacher Judith Siporin, admired that work ethic. “It’s given her a stamina that will take her far.”

In her new school, Siji found that new demands were made of her. But Commonwealth does everything it can to support its students’ success, no matter what their previous preparation. In the company of her teachers, tutors and fellow students, something clicked. She discovered that she had begun thinking about the ways in which one idea connects to another and what use that connection might have in thinking about an entire subject. Siji signed up as well for the Homework Project. This twice-weekly proctored evening study hall provides time and space free from distractions. In her senior year, Siji became one of the student proctors, helping younger students.

How did the difference in her thought processes evolve? “Being able to get into more advanced topics, what I learned through the tutoring, getting used to meeting one-on-one with teachers — all of those really helped.” Last year, Siji studied environmental chemistry with Emily Hall, a 2006 Commonwealth graduate who had been Siji’s physics and math tutor. Siji smiled as she said, “I asked Ms. Hall, ‘Is it possible you can actually notice that you’re getting smarter?’ ” Emily Hall noted proudly: “She grew up a lot.”  

Siji’s musical life was flourishing as well. She was accepted into the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra at the New England Conservatory, and went with them on summer tours of Costa Rica and Europe. In between, she spent a summer at Boston University’s Tanglewood Summer Institute. Back at school, she helped to organize benefit concerts.

Siji was admitted to the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. “I remember when I was little and I thought, what if music takes me to college? I didn’t think it would, but it has!”  But a three-week senior project working with epilepsy researchers bolstered Siji’s interest in becoming a doctor. Music? Medicine? What to do? She didn’t want to leave music behind. “I think she realized that it would be tragic to stop,” said Siporin. Today, in the middle of her first semester, Siji plans to study both with major in biomedical engineering and a minor in musical arts.

“She seems so happy,” said Hall. “I think she just feels great about what she’s accomplished, and so good about the outcome. It’s not just ‘I got into a good college;’ it’s the satisfaction of realizing how far her own hard work has taken her. I believe she knows that what she did at the Commonwealth was important for her future.”

Siji added, “Looking back at high school, I realize that I learned so much. I think I’ll realize it even more as I go on in college.”