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September 16, 2020

Senior’s Faith Sustains Her during Abrupt End to On-Campus Semester

by francine barchett, cornell ’20

Nigerian-American. Singer/Blogger/Poet. Future physician/scientist. All are apt descriptors for Iyaniwura Olarewaju, a recent Cornell graduate in biological sciences who had an unexpected end to her senior year.

From reading and re-reading President Martha Pollack’s urgent email imploring students to leave campus, to completing her finals through “Zoom University,” Iyaniwura’s COVID-derived life has been at times “like an eerie dream.”


CornellSummer2020SmallBut in spite of the challenges of finishing her college career away from friends and campus, Iyaniwura has managed to grow in the midst of a disorienting few months.

“Without God, I would be stressed right now,” she admitted. “When I don’t know what to do, my faith shows that there’s a season for everything.”

Throughout her time at Cornell, Iyaniwura researched epigenetics as a McNair Scholar, a Department of Education initiative that steers underrepresented students toward research programs and PhDs. With the program’s support, she hopes to pursue an MD or PhD to be part of a genetic solution to health issues, in line with her vision of helping those who are sick live healthy, fulfilling lives.

“Some people are more susceptible to COVID-19 and other diseases than others, and without my faith, I couldn’t deal with all the implications that stem from that,” she said. “Any hope I have in this pandemic—and what my career accomplishes—is from God.”

Another way faith has anchored Iyaniwura is through Christian community. She began consistently attending Christian Union her sophomore year before helping to lead a Bible study and serving on the executive team and communications team as a junior. In her view, the organization has two draws: its profound, applicable Bible courses, and its inclusivity.

“Christian Union gave me a community to make new friends and grow in my faith,” she said. 

Iyaniwura’s blog has been particularly critical in helping her digest recent events involving the pandemic and race. She began Vessel in the Valley when “balancing grades and boys didn’t go well” after her freshman year. Though she grew up as a Christian, it wasn’t until that summer that she committed strongly to her faith, deciding that sharing on her blog would hold her accountable. Fast forward to today and the site is an empowering, faith-based center for all her musings on being a student, navigating godly relationships, interpreting key Bible passages, and more. She has 1,300 followers and counting; she recently expanded into a new website, Wura’s World, which also links to her art and her new YouTube channel.

“My blog helps with everything that I do,” she explained. “When I have learned something, I write it to understand and share that with others.” Most rewarding is readers telling her that they read one of her longer posts or were motivated by something she had written that day.

The virus-forced changes have given her much to write about and adjust to. “On the supposed-to-be day of Commencement, one of my friends planned a picnic of sorts, to celebrate,” she recounted. Pleasant though it was, it reminded her of the countless not-to-bes: no final Baraka Kwa Wimbo concert for her Black female gospel acapella group, no walking as a model for the Cornell Fashion Collective’s highly-anticipated show, and no final presentation of her poetry. Neither would there be Senior Days or any of the other final moments she had imagined.

But Iyaniwura recognizes that persisting through difficulties is a part of her journey of faith, as it too is something her people have embraced across centuries. At the Cornell Black Alumni Association’s virtual recognition event for graduates, she closed her speech by declaring, “Time and time and time again, we have done what we weren’t supposed to. We fought back, we spoke up, we showed up. The Black community from Cornell University is full of leaders and I’m proud to know many of them as my friends from the class of 2020.”

Iyaniwura Olarewaju is many things, among which is a Cornell graduate who persisted with faith, flair, and a renewed sense of freedom.