When he was 16, Sanmi Koyejo left his home and family in Lagos, Nigeria.
Above all, his parents wanted him to get a good education, and they knew Nigerian colleges could not compete with their American counterparts. So, even though they’d miss him, they bid him farewell - hoping an American education would be his passport to success.
They were right.
And now, four years later, his parents will fly from Nigeria to America to watch him graduate from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) during its May 26 commencement at the Continental Airlines Arena. They won’t be disappointed.
Koyejo, 20, of Newark, will graduate with a near-perfect 3.81 grade-point average and a host of other awards and honors. He was named outstanding engineering student by NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering. Majoring in an electrical and computer engineering major, he was also named outstanding senior by the department of electrical and computer engineering (ECE).
“My parents knew that I could not receive a competitive college education in Nigeria,” said Koyejo, “and they made plans for me to continue my education in America. I am extremely grateful to them; they sacrificed so much so that I could study at NJIT."
When he first arrived in America, Koyejo lived with his aunt in Irvington. He later moved into an NJIT dorm, where he worked as a resident assistant. Living alone in a foreign country, he was scared. He missed his parents, who always “looked after me,” Koyejo said. Everything was new to him and, at first, he had a hard time.
“I recall having culture shock,” he said. “I had to figure out how to get around, how to do well in school. The first summer I was here I got a job and I had to figure that out as well. But I soon realized that in America if you have drive, and if you want it bad enough, you can go out and get what you want. Back home, in Nigeria, it’s all about who you know.”
Koyejo gets much of his drive from his father, who, despite being born into poverty and losing his own father when he was a boy, is now an executive for the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche, in Nigeria.
“Education is so important to my dad,” said Koyejo. “He always reminded me, as well as my brother and sister, how important education is. For me and my siblings to get good undergraduate educations in America - that meant everything to him.”
His father’s words did not go unheard by Koyejo. At NJIT, he attends the Albert Dorman Honors College, which gave him a scholarship to attend. Dorman, one of the most rigorous colleges in the state, builds on NJIT’s demanding curriculum, offering enriched coursework and seminars, as well as real-world projects with outstanding faculty researchers. Dorman enrolls some of the state’s brightest students, with SAT scores in the top 10 percent nationally and with math proficiency in the top two percent. The mission of college is to transform students into leaders, and Koyejo is a perfect exemplar of Dorman making good on its mission.
He was, for example, a member of the NJIT Student Senate and belonged to the ECE department’s student advisory board. He belongs to the Tau Beta Pi, Omicron Delta Kappa and Phi Eta Sigma honor societies and is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).
Koyejo is not only a stellar student and a leader but also a gifted researcher. Working as a research assistant, he helped to develop NJIT’s smart gun - a personalized handgun programmed to fire only for the owner –the authorized user. Sensors embedded in the gun’s handle recognize the owner’s grip and will not fire for anyone else. He helped to design the piezo-electric sensors used in the smart gun.
Koyejo also belongs to a student team that designed a driverless, robotic vehicle that will compete in the Grand Challenge, a national race sponsored by the Pentagon. The unmanned vehicle must navigate a 175-mile course of daunting desert terrain. The team has a chance to win $2 million if it comes in first during the October race.
And for his senior project, Koyejo designed and implemented a miniature electrocardiograph system (ECG). The system provides patients with an easy way to record and view ECG signals on their computers. They can then transmit that data via the internet to their doctors. The project earned him a prize in a student-poster competition hosted by the department of electrical and computer engineering.
Despite all this work, Koyejo still finds time to give back to the community. At NJIT, he belonged to New Jersey Water Watch, a student group that cleans up rivers and streams and surrounding lands. He volunteered for New Jersey Travelers’ Aid, a group that helps direct foreign travelers through the labyrinth of Newark Airport. He helped to feed the homeless at St. John’s food kitchen, in Newark, and he tutored poor, inner-city children through federal program at NJIT.
He will miss NJIT, he says, but a bright future beckons for him. In the fall, he will attend the University of Texas at Austin, where he will pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering. His ultimate goal, he says, is to teach college and to do groundbreaking research in the field of robotics and intelligent systems. He likes these fields best, he says, because of the promise they hold to help humanity.
“It is difficult for me to ignore all the potential good to humanity that breakthroughs in intelligent systems promise,” says Koyejo. “I would especially like to see automation used to help the older generation become more independent and lead fuller lives. I would also like to teach college. I had several professors at NJIT that literally changed my life, and I would like to be a mentor to the upcoming generation of engineers.”