Brandon Okeke spotted another student on a bus on a late night in central Austin during his freshman year.
“Hey, your name is Abraham, right?” he recalls saying. Okeke had heard of the upperclassman earlier that year. He was from the same part of Houston as Okeke, he was Nigerian as Okeke is, and he had just accomplished one of Okeke’s goals of being accepted into medical school.
Okeke took out his phone as Abraham gave him his contact information. “He was like, ‘Yeah, don’t ever be afraid to reach out and ask me questions,’” Okeke says. “And to this day, it’s been that way.”
Brandon Okeke is a biochemistry senior graduating this month from The University of Texas at Austin. With some uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Okeke will soon attend medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. A 2020 recipient of the Student Legacy Award from UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the Texas Exes’ Edward S. Guleke Student Excellence Awards, he is one of our outstanding graduates from the 2020 class.
As he did that night approaching Abraham, Okeke has always asked questions. What you’ll find in him is a seemingly insatiable love of learning. He has minors in educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies.
“At this university, sometimes we are just one person,” he says, “but it’s the fact that we learn from each other that’s really going to be the difference in the world.”
As a first-grader, Okeke had a big presence in class. He would burn through the work and would answer every question in class to the point that his teachers felt it should be addressed. His parents were called in to discuss whether the boy should skip a grade. His mother rejected the idea, as Okeke was already small for his age, having been born prematurely.
“I stayed in the grade,” he says. “They gave me a binder and said, ‘Whenever you finish the work, go through this binder and do more work.’”
“School was my safe place. I could just go and learn,” he says.
“Growing up, we were kind of poor. So being at home, I wouldn’t eat that well all the time. And my parents were always working,” he says. “I would dread the weekend because at least at school, I knew I was guaranteed to get two meals. I liked school because I knew I had everything I was going to need.”
The red binder he had received had 107 pages of worksheets inside. It was supposed to occupy his time for the rest of the year. After he finished it in one week, he moved on to reading all the books in the classroom. “They were like, ‘OK, we don’t know what to do with this guy.’”
His love of learning overlapped in the roles he took up on campus. He is a tutor for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects through the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence. He hosts drop-in tutoring in the Multicultural Engagement Center and also does one-on-one appointments.
Okeke says he remembers leaving Gregory Gymnasium on campus at 1 a.m. with his friend. It was toward the end of his junior year and they had just finished playing basketball. As he probably rattled off playful taunts about his superior skills, he looked around at the near-empty campus. He realized it wouldn’t be long until he graduated.
“I was like, ‘Man, we are only going to do this so many more times until we can’t do this,’” he says.
The time he couldn’t go to Gregory Gym came sooner than expected when the pandemic hit. Now Okeke, a first-generation student, is making plans to celebrate graduation virtually.
“I try not to worry about the things that I can’t change,” he says. “That’s one thing I learned in college.” On graduation day, he plans to be alone in his room, but his family will be signing on from Houston. When his time comes to “walk the stage,” he says he’ll do a dance in his room. He says celebrating this big moment at home is a bummer, but he knows that in four years, he will be celebrating a bigger day when he graduates from med school.
During his time at UT, Okeke was the executive chair behind New Black Student Weekend, a 2½-day welcoming program for 100-plus African American and African diaspora first-year and transfer students. At its partner event Fade Texas, Okeke, now a senior, stood in front of a breakout group of freshmen entering the College of Natural Sciences. Okeke spoke quickly, as though ideas were worksheets to get through. He asked the students many questions to make sure they knew about all the opportunities available. After a while, Okeke looked at one student and said, “Just give me your phone.”
He entered his number, then said, “Share that with all of them.” Now Okeke was the contact. And to this day, as someone had once done for him, he is offering all the advice he can and sharing what he has learned.