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Boston Latin track star races toward college goals

Lauren Magnuson | 8/8/2012, 10:11 a.m.
The Steppingstone Foundation helped Barbara Okafor reach...
The Steppingstone Foundation helped Barbara Okafor reach her goals. McCarthy

Barbara Okafor received a workout guide this summer from UMass Dartmouth. It was sent to all incoming freshman who are slated to join the university’s track and field team. But Okafor had already been working out, said her coach and trainer Frank Jackson.

“That is something that would not have happened last year,” Jackson said, speaking to the growth he’s seen in Okafor since he met her last year as a senior at Boston Latin Academy.

Okafor has also been working seven days a week at two jobs to earn as much as possible for the upcoming year.

“I’d rather work hard now,” Okafor said. “My transition from high school to college is going to be rough, and this way I can spend more time studying.”

Hard work will not be a new concept for the 18 year-old, who as captain of Boston Latin’s track team, led her squad to both indoor and outdoor championships during her senior year, all while maintaining a place on the honor roll.

Okafor said she owes part of her success to the support she’s received from The Steppingstone Foundation, which prepares underserved students for success in high school and college. Okafor began working with Steppingstone when she was in sixth grade.

The competitive organization receives more than double the number of applications for their available spaces.  Students entering the program begin with rigorous academics aimed at preparing them for an independent or exam school in Boston.  

“Steppingstone has really helped me be an all-around person,” said Okafor, who has gone beyond the academic opportunities to take on other roles, such as leading a retreat with younger students and becoming a peer leader.

“She’s one of our rock stars here,” says Luz Mederos, one of Okafor’s advisors at Steppingstone. “The students really take to her and eat up everything she says,” Mederos said. “She’s just a great role model for our current scholars.”

But success hasn’t come easy for the Hyde Park resident, who had to make some hard choices along the way.

“It’s been a long six years,” Okafor said, referring to her start at Boston Latin in seventh grade. It was difficult to balance track, AP classes, and other activities, she said.  And she had to let friends go who didn’t support her drive.  

Two of her biggest influencers, said Okafor, have been her Nigerian-born parents. To both her parents, a microbiologist and an engineer, respectively, education is paramount.

Three of Okafor’s six siblings also participate in the Steppingstone program. “We’re all just trying to make [my parents] proud,” says Okafor.

Jackson has also been an important mentor for Okafor. During her senior year, Jackson trained with her following physical therapy from an injury. He says they worked more on mental preparation and confidence-building by “realizing the unknown” and setting realistic goals.

Okafor has transferred those lessons learned into being a leader outside of track. “It’s about the way she carries herself and her confidence level. She’s more sure of what she’s doing,” said Jackson.

That confidence is on display when Okafor talks about her interest in a medical careeer. It began, she said, when she participated in Project Success, an 8-week program with Harvard Medical School that introduces high school students to biomedical careers.

“I really like the interaction with patients and different doctors,” Okafor said. “I like being an involved person.”

She takes this ability to make connections to the lab at Project Success, where she works with asthmatic children from inner-city neighborhoods. As an asthmatic herself, Okafor can empathize with the condition.

“I tell the patients I work with that I know how it is,” said Okafor, who learned to control her symptoms once she started her career as an athlete.

But before enrolling in medical school, Okafor’s short-term goal is to earn a GPA that will enable her to be on the Dean’s List at her school and progress in her track career.

For Mederos, there is no doubt that Okafor will reach her goals.  “She knows what she wants to do and she knows how to get there. I can see her hard work has paid off. She will succeed, and I’m excited for that.”