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VOL. 37 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 16, 2013

Nigerian-born Stratford grad helps fellow Metro students find path to college

One of youngest-ever members at Bone McAllester Norton

By Linda Bryant

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Tayo Atanda’s college application mistake limited his choices. That lesson led him to help other low-income students find their way through the enrollment process. As a result, more Metro students are going to college.

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Like most newly-minted law school graduates, Olatayo Atanda wants to make meaningful impact in his community. He’s off to a good start.

The 2012 University of Tennessee School of Law graduate recently became one of the youngest lawyers to become a member of Nashville’s Bone McAllester Norton law firm.

Yet unlike many of his peers, Atanda – known as “Tayo” – already has a record of involvement with public policy and social justice.

As a Nashville high school and college student in the 2000s, Atanda spearheaded a movement that dramatically changed educational opportunities and college access for low-income and first-generation immigrant students in Davidson County.

“We usually don’t hire (lawyers) fresh out of law school,” says Will Cheek, a Bone McAllester Norton attorney and head of the firm’s Alcoholic Beverage Law practice division.

“Typically, members join when they have been out of law school four or five years. We made an exception for Tayo because he has such a passion to lead and because of his strong desire to learn.”

Humble beginnings

Atanda moved Nashville from Ibadan, Nigeria in the early 2000s after his family won a lottery that allows citizens in low-immigration countries to relocate to the United States.

His junior and senior years were spent at Stratford Comprehensive High School in East Nashville. With a high percentage of low-income students, Stratford was easily one of the city’s most troubled high schools.

Atanda made the best of it.

“Going to Stratford was challenging,” he says. “It was culture shock, to say the least. But I was grateful for the opportunity to be in this country. I focused on my studies and definitely wanted to go to college. In my family, college was seen as mandatory.”

As Atanda navigated through high school he had a difficult time finding out correct information – or even getting support – for his college aspirations.

Although he applied to several universities during his senior year, including Belmont and Vanderbilt, he discovered, after it was too late, that he didn’t get into the schools because he had misunderstood the application requirements.

“The system failed me because of a simple error that a high school counselor could have helped me with,” Atanda explains. “I think there was an attitude that not many students at the school had college aspirations.

“But I began to survey my peers and I found out – shockingly – that about 90 percent of them had college aspirations. Yet only about 10 percent were making it to college. I decided to do something about it.”

Community activism

Atanda was determined to make a difference to local underserved public school students who face educational barriers.

He graduated from Stratford, enrolled at Tennessee State University and became a community youth organizer, working particularly hard around the issues of helping students get into college.

Until moving to Knoxville in 2009 for law school, he worked closely with Community Impact, a youth organization that eventually merged with Nashville’s premiere youth and family organization, Oasis Center, in 2005.

Anderson Williams, a former program director at Community Access/Oasis Center, says Atanda’s work had a “profound” effect at the public school level in Davidson County and beyond.

One of Atanda’s biggest accomplishments was to conduct a survey to get to the bottom of why only 35 percent of high school students in East Nashville were going to college.

Based on the findings, he co-authored a report titled “College Access Inside and Out.” The report’s results were presented to a wide group of community leaders, from Metro City Council to high school principals and student groups.

“I think the report took the community by surprise because it was the first time anyone had come forward to say to everyone, ‘I think we have a problem here.’” Atanda adds.

The report prompted Metro Nashville Public Schools to make systemic changes in policy that ensured all public high school students have access to timely college guidance counseling. It also led to the creation of a standalone program at Oasis Center that focuses exclusively on helping citywide youth with college counseling and prep.

College enrollment rates increased 75 percent the year the report was released, and have been rising ever since.

“Tayo’s work brought attention to the problem in East Nashville, but it also had a national impact,” says Williams, who worked with Atanda at Community Impact/Oasis Center.

The next chapter

Williams says he’s not surprised Atanda managed to impress a high-profile law firm so quickly after graduating from law school.

“You have to understand what kind of a person he is,” Williams adds. “Tayo is solid. He’s thoughtful, earnest, curious and transparent.

“When my sister met him, she said he was the most impressive young person she’d ever met in her life.

“He can sit in front of the mayor or a gang member and garner the same respect from both.”

Cheek says Atanda’s presence had the same effect at Bone McAllester Norton.

“Tayo started out in a temporary position,” Cheek says. “We had no plans whatsoever to add him as a member. It’s a pretty big learning curve here; we just don’t hire recent grads. We find people with more experience who can perform a lot of work independently and who can be known as experts.”

Atanda rolled up his sleeves at the law firm and didn’t seem intimidated by massive amounts of work.

“He was just covered up in work,” Cheek says. “I was so impressed that I went to management and told them that we couldn’t afford not to hire him. I think the most impressive thing about him is his desire – and his willingness – to learn.”

Atanda will concentrate his practice in alcoholic beverage law, entrepreneurial and emerging business law and litigation and dispute resolution.

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