A Stanford junior reflects on her academic journey

Ayoade Balogun, who is pursuing bachelor’s degrees in African and African American studies and environmental systems engineering, recently returned to campus from a summer internship at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On the first morning of July, a Stanford student Ayoade – Eye-oh-ah-day – Balogun walked across the grassy National Mall in Washington, D.C., to her “home” for the summer – the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ayoade Balogun in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Image credit: Courtesy Ayoade Balogun)

“No matter who you are, no matter what reason you’re going into the museum – for the first time or for the first time in a while – the building elicits thoughts and feelings as you approach it,” Balogun said of the museum. “I was just overwhelmed with joy.”

Balogun, who had visited the museum in 2016 on a high school field trip, said she never imagined she would return one day as a research and curation intern.

Yet there she was, a university student contemplating her first day working inside the historic museum for the summer, under an undergraduate internship offered through Cardinal Quarter, a program of full-time, quarter-long service experiences hosted by more than 35 organizations and departments across Stanford.

Balogun, who had just completed her sophomore year at Stanford, was one of about 500 Stanford students engaged in public service internships last summer, in locations across the United States and around the world.

A transformative summer

At the museum, Balogun spent most of her time researching Afrofuturism as a cultural aesthetic, philosophy of science and philosophy of history that explores the intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology.

Under the direction of a museum curator, Balogun looked for manifestations of Afrofuturism in works of popular culture, such as music videos; in works of fine art, such as sculpture; and in works of literature, including works of fiction and nonfiction.

She explored many examples – in the novels of Octavia E. Butler, a science fiction author, for example, and in the music videos of hip-hop artist Missy Elliott.

Balogun also studied the lives of Pullman porters, the black men who served mostly white passengers on luxury sleeping cars, to provide fresh insights for one of the museum’s iconic exhibits – a segregated Southern Railway railcar from the Jim Crow era.

“The experience changed the way I thought about black histories,” said Balogun, who grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, the daughter of parents who immigrated to the United States from Nigeria.

The internship also affirmed her decision to major in African and African American studies.

Inspired to pursue two majors

When Balogun arrived at Stanford in September 2017, she intended to continue down the STEM academic path she had begun in high school, so she took some of the prerequisites designed for future engineering majors, including chemistry and mathematics.

She also studied the humanities in Structured Liberal Education (SLE), a signature Stanford program in which about 90 first-year students live together in East Florence Moore Hall and attend guest lectures, discussion sections, film screenings and events in the dorm.

Through SLE, she was exposed to great works of black literature and thought, and, for the first time, had black teachers – among them guest lecturers Allyson Hobbs, an associate professor of U.S. history and faculty director of the Program in African and African American Studies (AAAS), and Michele Elam, the William Robertson Coe Professor in the English Department.

Her exposure to those works and faculty members inspired her to take courses in African and African American studies during her sophomore year.

“After taking my first AAAS classes – The Harlem Renaissance and Introduction to African American Literature – everything felt right in my education,” she said.

She also discovered the place where her interests intersected when she took the course Introduction to Environmental Justice: Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender and Place.

“My multiple selves felt in harmony – the part of me that grew up in STEM and genuinely enjoyed that, and the part of me that felt both intellectually engaged and seen and heard by my teachers and classmates in my AAAS courses in a way that I hadn’t experienced before in the classroom,” she said. “I really cared about both fields and wanted to find a way to do both.”

Which is how Balogun, now a junior, came to pursue a double major: in African and African American studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and in environmental systems engineering in the School of Engineering.

This quarter, she is studying Sustainable Cities and African Futures: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Beyond.

Balogun is also active on environmental justice issues – as director of strategy in Students for a Sustainable Stanford and as co-director of sustainability and environmental justice as a member of the Executive Cabinet of the Associated Students of Stanford University.

To learn more about Cardinal Quarter opportunities, visit the website of the Haas Center for Public Service.