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Nigerian-born alumnus Diran Otegbade loves the multicultural flair of Toronto (but he can’t say the same about the winter weather). (Photo: Roberta Baker)

In 2005, after spending the first 17 years of his life in Lagos, Nigeria, Diran Otegbade (ElecE 1T0) left his family and familiar surroundings to attend U of T Engineering.

He understands first-hand the hardships that most international students face. Not only are they expected to keep up with a rigorous course load, they are expected to do so while acquainting themselves with a new culture and education system. In addition to that, international student tuition fees are more than three times higher than fees for domestic students, and have more than doubled within the last decade.

Otegbade was fortunate — he received full financial support from his parents. But it still took time for him to adjust to life in Toronto.

Prior to graduating, he knew that he wanted to offer support for future generations of international students. In 2013, he pledged $25,000 to establish a needs-based scholarship for African students at the University.

“It can be really challenging for international students to become accustomed to their new country and surroundings, and that can have an effect on a student’s grades in the first few semesters,” Otegbade said. “The scholarship is a financial aid to partially help reduce financial burdens and act as an incentive for people to do better — and I think it goes a long way.”

U of T Engineering’s Jamie Hunter recently sat down with Otegbade to talk about his career and continued involvement with U of T Engineering.

You spent more than three years as a project manager with IBM Canada. You currently own an asset management and accommodation services company. How did you transfer your engineering skills to the real estate industry?

The key thing when building a career is to develop transferable skills. I never really worked a day as an electrical engineer. I passed through the knowledge-building process at U of T Engineering and I was fortunate enough to graduate with a degree in the field, but the skills that I learned — especially problem solving and communication — have helped me in my day-to-day role in the real estate industry advising people and running an asset management company.

You made your first pledge to U of T Engineering as a young alumnus, three years after you graduated. Why is it important that younger alumni get involved as donors and/or volunteers?

It’s necessary for young alumni to get involved with their alma mater because you are putting yourself in a position at an early age to give back and make the U of T Engineering experience even more enjoyable for the next generation of students. You are living beyond yourself, which, at the end of the day, is the key to a meaningful life. As you get older, the pressure of balancing multiple commitments becomes a lot more taxing.

I’ve always had an interest in giving back and still do. From a young age, I was taught by my mother to give tithes and offerings at church, and by my parents to get involved with the community and give to the less privileged. It’s part of me and not something that can be taken away. For example, my dad had his 60th birthday last year. To celebrate, we went out to over 10 impoverished communities in Lagos to feed over 6,000 people. The cost was taken care of by my family.

Can you tell us more about the scholarship you established?

My high school education fees were subsidized by a church. In university, I received a financial award from a multi-national company that supported indigenes in my country. Both were preceding events that inspired me to do that same. The purpose of the scholarship was to create a support and awards system for the international students who are coming into the University from Africa. Part of the criteria of the scholarship is the need for some improvement from one term to the next with no minimum GPA requirement. I wasn’t the brightest student but my grades became progressively better from one semester to the next. The annual monetary value of the scholarship is $1,000, and for now is available to support international students from African countries. I encourage other alumni of African descent or people that have any form of interest in the continent to also consider supporting these students at the Faculty and the University at large.

 As a student, you were actively involved with National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) during all four years of your degree. As an alumnus, you are helping to build a network of African alumni — many that you met at NSBE — in Toronto. Can you expand on that?

I’ve become involved with the founding of the African Alumni Association at U of T. My involvement is part of my commitment to create a network and a support system for the increasing number of international African students who come to U of T. I’ve reached out to people at all three U of T campuses across the GTA to help foster a network of African alumni and students. New students, particularly MasterCard Foundation Scholarship Program scholars, have a support system they can turn to.

The founders of the African Alumni Association hold local events on campus, but moving forward we are planning to host alumni events in Africa, starting in Lagos in December 2015. The plan is to start with Nigeria and move to other areas that are clustered with Africans who went to U of T.

How do you see your relationship with U of T Engineering continuing to evolve into the future?

I think The Entrepreneurship Hatchery is an incredible initiative started by one of my professors that teaches entrepreneurship in the Faculty. I’m an entrepreneur: I like seeing new ideas and innovations. The Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship, with its cross-Faculty and University-wide collaborative focus, is also a fantastic initiative. I have long-term interests in both initiatives and hope to get more involved as time goes by.

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