Around Justin Owumi’s neck, the Condon Medal now competes with his signature bow tie.
Justin Owumi ’14 is one of the more recognizable members of the senior class: he wears a bow tie virtually every day. But evidence that his impact went far beyond that fashion statement was cemented May 5 when he won the Condon Medal, the only award announced at graduation and a signal of “constructive citizenship,” as the medal’s namesake, Randall J. Condon, Class of 1886, put it in the award criteria.
As he walked to the front of Lorimer Chapel during the student awards ceremony, Owumi was thinking about his mother and all the people who supported him growing up in Jamaica Plain, Mass., in his Roxbury high school, and through Colby. “I’m receiving a standing ovation,” he said, “and I’m shaking.” He recalled thinking, “This is unreal! Man, I wish my mother was here.”
“I turn around, and she’s standing in the aisle. … Perfect.”
He arrived at Colby from the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, but said he felt at a disadvantage after seeing the preparation his classmates had received at private schools. “I didn’t have the study habits, the priority-management skills,” he said. But he had a work ethic learned from his mother, Vilma George, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who is a histology-pathology technician. That, along with help from professors and study groups, beginning with his COOT-mates, “allowed me to go from those feelings of inadequacy to actually thriving.”
“I won the medal and then I didn’t sleep much that night. I just kept playing the moment over and over in my head.”—Justin Owumi ’14
Owumi, whose father is from Nigeria and has a doctorate in business administration, has wanted since junior high school to become a pediatric cardiologist. One of his goals is to help develop health-care access systems for underserved populations. Through medical internships and research in Boston, Washington, North Carolina, and Maine during his Colby career, he has been struck by disparities in access to medical care. He describes his neighborhood and his friends from Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, then laments, “To see these individuals not have access to [some of the world’s greatest health-care] institutions that are literally down the street? … It’s never settled well with me.”
Besides a chemistry-biochemistry major, he completed an education minor, in part to take advantage of opportunities to interact with area schoolchildren. “Whatever other forces are playing out in education—socioeconomic status, race—all these different things also affect people’s health. I’m engaging with kids, and I’m getting a deeper understanding of that. Having that as well as knowing the science sets you up to be a very good physician,” he said.
Owumi competed in track and field, specializing in the triple jump and the 110-meter hurdles. At the NESCAC meet April 26 he won the NESCAC triple-jump championship at home in Harold Alfond Stadium with his mother there cheering. He’s also kept busy as a leader in student clubs, as a student representative to the Board of Trustees Admissions and Financial Aid Committee, and as a volunteer Colby Cares About Kids mentor and facilitator of a boys’ group at Waterville Junior High School.
He credits family with helping him achieve his goals. “The people I surrounded myself with were very loving and hardworking, and I had that culture at home,” he said. “But once I went outside, there’s a very toxic environment. There’s the poverty, there’s the violence, there are all these things.”
“Every time I’ve even strayed a little bit, I’ve always had people saying, ‘Hey. This is not what you do. We expect more from you,’” he said. Even kids on the playground helped to keep him out of trouble. As a teenager it felt like people were riding him too hard, he said, until he realized, “These people obviously see something in me that I don’t see myself yet.”
His current plans are to spend more time in science or public health research and to take the MCAT exam this summer in order to apply for admission to medical school in a year or two.
In a 2012 insideColby interview, Hannah DeAngelis ’12 asked Owumi, then a sophomore, about his trademark bow tie. “I wear it every day, and I consider it my armor; it’s how I battle the social constructions in the world,” he told her. “The bow tie to me symbolizes where I’ve come from and where I’m going as an individual.”
The Condon Medal is a symbol that he’s going somewhere important. The irony, he noted, is that when he was called up to accept the medal from President Bro Adams, Owumi was wearing a T-shirt.