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Hillcrest red to Harvard crimson: Hillcrest’s Omotowa to study, run at Harvard

Hillcrest’s Ara Omotowa converses with friends in between events at the 5A District 5-6 track championships May 11 at Thunder Stadium. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

Editor’s note: This story appeared on A1 of the May 26 Post Register.


Ara Omotowa has had big dreams since she was little.

“My dad had a lot of influence on it,” she said. “He was like, ‘Do you want to be a Supreme Court justice one day?’ I was like, yeah. That was in fifth grade.”

Her dreams got a little more realistic as she got older – maybe not a Supreme Court justice, but she definitely wants to go into law and politics. Omotowa applied to 22 different colleges and universities, taking her father’s advice to make sure she had a safety net.

“Now that I look back on it, I really didn’t need that much stress,” she said with a laugh.

The short list of schools she was accepted into included Harvard, Yale, Duke, Stanford and Columbia universities and the University of Pennsylvania. She decided on Harvard.

Omotowa, who is graduating from Hillcrest High School this year, isn’t the first member of her family to go to Harvard. Her brother, Ibukun, studied history and molecular biology there and graduated this year.

“I actually was considering going to Yale, because I didn’t want to go to Harvard just to be his little sister,” she said. “But while I was there, I just saw a community and a family that was so tightly knit that I realized that this was the place to be.”

Omotowa’s acceptance into Harvard comes after a high school career full of highlights. She was a page in the state Senate during the first half of the 2018 session. Last weekend, she became the 5A girls 200-meter state champion and repeated as the 100-meter state champion. She helped to organize the walkout at her school in mid-March to protest gun violence. She played viola in the Idaho Falls Youth Symphony.

According to her father, Bam, this is all a reflection of the person she has always been.

“Ara came to the world fighting,” he said. “She’s a kid that came to succeed here. I don’t know what she’ll become, whether in my time or after, but she’s a kid I look to myself. … Nobody made Ara. She is who she is, and that’s the truth. And I’m proud of that.”

‘A learning experience’

Omotowa’s experience working as a page in the Senate Education Committee changed her.

“She just did a great job,” said Chairman Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, who met with her and her father first and wrote a letter recommending her. “She did her work and she was very conscientious, and from everything I can tell she really enjoyed serving. And we were really very excited to have her serve.”

Paging can be hard on the students, since they have to work out how they will keep on top of their coursework. Omotowa had to drop her calculus class to do it. You also have to show you have a place to stay in Boise. Fortunately for her the Johnsons, family friends from back when Omotowa was a small child in Moscow and her father worked at the University of Idaho, put her up.

“They were integral to me even being there,” she said.

The Senate Education Committee meets four days a week; the budget-setting Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is the only one to meet more often. Pages are responsible for putting together paperwork and other information and getting it ready so the committee members have the files before they meet. During the meetings, pages help people with any computer needs, distribute literature and run errands for the committee.

“She is there to assist the secretary and assist the committee members during committee to make sure our committee functions and make sure it flows properly,” Mortimer said.

Ara Omotowa, Hillcrest senior,
speaks to students during a nation-wide student demonstration to prevent teachers from being armed in schools and calling for gun control reform at Hillcrest High School on March 14. “A reform on gun laws is important,” said Omotowa “we just want to be safe in school.” (John Roark/The Post-Register via AP)

The only thing Omotowa said she “regretted” was that rules review, which can be tedious, took up much of the time. Many legislative committees spent the first third or so of the session in this process, where they go over and approve or reject rules proposed by the state agencies under their jurisdiction, and education has more rules to go over than some other areas. But even that was a learning experience.

“I was thankful for something every day because I learned every single day,” she said.

The experience, she said, cemented her desire to pursue law and politics as a career.

“And you respect Idaho more,” Bam Omotowa said.

His daughter agreed.

“Growing up in Idaho, a lot of experiences just made me want to get out of the state and be with more diversity, be with more people that were, I would say, liberal or like-minded like me,” she said. “But then, after being in Boise for that month, I had a deeper respect for conservatism. Not necessarily the Republican Party, but I could see, I could empathize with the conservative cause in certain areas, and I just did become a little bit more proud to be an Idahoan, because everybody that worked in the Legislature was such a personable human to interact with. They actually cared about the state.”

Now she knows what she wants to do, although she isn’t sure yet whether she wants to go into civil or criminal law.

Omotowa said she has toyed with the idea of becoming a prosecuting attorney. She was deterred in eighth grade, when she was talking to a teacher whose husband was a prosecutor and found out he had received death threats. But she is still intrigued by the powerful role they play in the criminal justice, arguably more so than judges – they decide what someone is charged with, pick juries, agree to plea deals.

But she is also considering civil law. She likes the idea of representing civil rights leaders, dealing with cases involving sexual harassment or immigration or workplace injuries.

“At the base of it, I’m just interested in fighting inequality that I see anywhere,” she said.

Omotowa said she wants to establish a foothold in politics lobbying for causes she believes in. She wants to run for office someday, but events will help determine that.

“Wherever God takes me with that and wherever public service takes me, that’s where I want to be,” she said.

‘It takes a village’

Hillcrest’s Ara Omotowa competes in the varsity girls 100 meters during day two of the 45th annual Tiger-Grizz Invitational track meet at Ravsten Stadium on April 28. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

Inspired by Mia Hamm and Wilma Rudolph in elementary school, Omotowa began competing in track in seventh grade.

After falling in her first race — hurdles — she chose sprints.

“I was like, ‘sprints it is because nothing’s in the way,’” she said with a laugh.

She went on to become the prestigious Tiger-Grizz Invitational freshman girls 100 champion and reached the state championship meet as a sophomore. It was there she met Stephone Jordan, an Idaho State University student and Pocatello-based volunteer coach. Omotowa began working with Jordan in fall 2016, learning techniques such as drive phases and how to handle the curve in the 200 meters.

“The Ara I met at the very first conditioning was so raw. Couldn’t do a single drill properly, rushed everything but was very, very coachable,” Jordan said. “Everything that I told her to do, she did. She doesn’t want to be mediocre. She wants to be the next level up.”

The training paid off. Omotowa reached her first 5A state finals in May 2017 at Dona Larsen Park in Boise. She placed third in the 200 and won the 100 by thousandths of a second over Mountain View’s Asha Byrd.

“I felt bad for her then I realized she’s a freshman,” Omotowa said of Byrd. “Then I was like, ‘She’s OK. She has many victories ahead of her.’”

Omotowa achieved two big goals for her senior season despite missing early season meets due to weather cancellations and visiting colleges. She won the 100 and 200 state titles last week (by hundredths of seconds) and will walk on to Harvard’s track program.

If not for Jordan, her parents, her siblings, fellow athletes and parents of athletes, she said she would not have had these opportunities.

“My victories and my accomplishments really aren’t my own,” Omotowa said. “The phrase ‘it takes a village,’ that is my life.”

That also applies to her competitors, who are also friends. One of them is Idaho Falls High School junior and multiple state medalist Laurel Taylor, who said she was not surprised Omotowa chose Harvard.

“She’s one of the hardest workers I know,” Taylor said in early May. “I remember one meet in the 100 she beat me and we hugged at the end. We were just so happy because we ran our hearts out. I hope we stay in touch when she goes away.”

Omotowa also befriended 2017 Madison graduates Kayla Horne and Hannah Moore, two of her fiercest competitors, and Bonneville junior Sade Williams. Both first-generation Yoruba Nigerian Americans, Omotowa and Williams were born in north Idaho. Their families lost touch after moving to Idaho Falls five years apart, reconnecting at a track meet during Williams’ freshman season.

Omotowa said she considers Williams family, a feeling Williams shares.

“I kinda look to her as my sister,” Williams said. “She’s someone I really look up to. I’m excited to see where she ends up because I know she’s gonna do something big in her life.”

Bam said moving from Nigeria to north Idaho in 1998 with his wife Tayo and sons Ola and Ibukun was a good move. It allowed his sons, Ara and youngest daughter Ilana to earn an education and see life differently. Omotowa, who has visited Nigeria three times, said she is thankful to be a first-generation American.

“It’s not necessarily the materialist things we’ve earned, but the people we’ve become,” Omotowa said. “That’s one of the things I know my dad is grateful for and I know I’m grateful for.”

‘I had two planners’

Getting into an Ivy League school takes good grades and test scores, but it isn’t all about “stats.”

Omotowa said admissions officers expect you to show ambition, but also “you have to show that you’re a person and you’re multifaceted. Not just in your extracurriculars, but in your personality.”

Hillcrest’s Ara Omotowa laughs with friends in between events at the 5A District 5-6 track championships May 11 at Thunder Stadium. John Roark/ jroark@postregister.com

“I was just myself,” she said. “The one thing that you always want to show through your application is your personality. If all you can talk about is the grades that you got in class, then everyone’s just going to think that you’re kind of square. But I’d say, definitely what got me in is just the fact that I was willing to show who I was in my application full-faced and not be afraid of it.”

Omotowa said her admissions officer at Harvard was impressed by the two jobs she worked last summer, one at the Northwest Cosmetics factory and one at a law firm, and her ability to move between two very different worlds and connect with people.

Omotowa’s junior year and the first half of her senior year were intense. Every day last year, she said, she would wake up and write a to-do list, using two planners – work, school, track, personal training sessions, symphony practice and more. And she was studying between all the activities. Then there was applying to colleges. Then there was traveling to visit colleges, during a time when she was also traveling for track.

She finally realized during winter break as a senior that she needed to take a bit of time for herself. It hit her when she was watching TV and burst into tears when the girl in a commercial said something about getting into college.

“I was stressing myself out so much and pretending that the stress wasn’t there,” she said.

Right before the Tiger-Grizz Invitational which began April 27, Omotowa had just gotten back from a five-day trip visiting Harvard and Yale. She had jet lag and a cold, and she had to run as soon as she got back to Idaho.

Instead of studying, she went to sleep.

“It’s stuff like that – realizing you only have so much to give at certain points,” she said.

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