Sola Adesope: Professor finds joy in education
Sola Adesope grateful for his community
By C. Brandon Chapman
When you’re on an oil rig out in the middle of the ocean, you have plenty of opportunity to think about both life and livelihood.
It’s exactly where Sola Adesope found himself in the late 1990s, working for Chevron Nigeria Limited. The country is one of the biggest oil-producing countries in the world and is a vital part of Chevron’s U.S. business, in terms of exploration, production, and manufacturing.
It was big money. And Sola was part of it. He had a degree in computer science and was working as a network analyst.
“We made money, but something was missing,” Sola says. “I’m a people person, but I was working more with cables than with people. I was working more on computers. I was working more on programming routers to work efficiently. I asked myself ‘is this really what I want to do?’”
It wasn’t. If you could fast forward almost 15 years, to the present day, you’d find Sola as a Washington State University assistant professor in the College of Education’s educational psychology program.
Like many other stories, it’s the journey that is as noteworthy as anything else. But for Sola, the journey to education didn’t start while sitting on the Atlantic next to a derrick and a bunch of computers.
Study hard, play hard
While growing up in Ibadan – the third largest metropolitan city in Nigeria – Sola had a solid educational foundation, due to the educational system’s rigor.
“Regardless of the grade level you were in, hard work was required,” he says. “Hard work was infused into the system.”
Those days would start at 8 in the morning. School would finish at 2:30 in the afternoon. Then, he would participate in the after-school program until 6:30, then do homework until 8 or 9 before heading to bed.
“Even in elementary school, it was a structured, rigorous educational environment,” he says. “There wasn’t much time to fool around.”
Not much. But some.
“Even with all that rigor, we still found time to have fun with extra-curricular activities in school,” he says. “Soccer was big. We’d have demanding academic programs, but infused within that would be soccer, and sprints and things like that.”
So Sola played a lot of soccer. Sandlot soccer. No shoes. That kind of thing. As he started moving up the ranks, then came the shoes. And uniforms. He was No. 7. He was almost able to play at an even higher level than high school. But until then, it was barefoot, just like all the kids.
“One thing that did was increase resiliency,” Sola says. “Kids in Africa are tough.”
Having that toughness made the difficult school schedule easy.
“I don’t think there was any point when I was a kid where I just sat back and thought of the educational system and thought about how it could be better,” Sola says. “That’s the beauty of being a kid. We had so much fun within that system. We just rolled with the punches. It was rigorous, it was demanding academically and we would work from morning to night. But there wasn’t any time that I thought of how it could have been done differently. I loved school and that upbringing helped me love education.”
A time of transition
While in the Escravos region of Nigeria, about 100 kilometers south of Lagos, Sola was at a crossroads. He could continue down his current life path, which wasn’t a bad life. Or, he could follow that educational love, a love that was born many years earlier, and see where it led.
Much like WSU’s Language Learning Center, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has their Language Institute, which is an extensive initiative that is a part of the College of Letters & Science. In the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education was funding an African language center project at Wisconsin-Madison that Sola was interested in.
“The government knew emersion was the best way to learning language and that language was more than just speaking, but inextricably linked with culture, as well,” Sola says. “America wanted to send a lot of its kids to Nigeria to learn more about the culture and the way of life, and by doing so, better learning the language.
But it was a time of huge political and social unrest, among a variety of ethnic groups, fueled in large part by oil.
“It definitely wasn’t a conducive place for foreigners to be, so America thought of an alternative, by funding African language initiatives in Madison,” Sola says. “Rather than bring Americans to Africa, the government decided to bring Africans to America through the project.”
It made sense to have it at Wisconsin. The university has long had a strong African Studies program, and each year, teaches five African languages at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. One of those is Yoruba, a Niger-Congo language, that Sola speaks. The other four are Akan-Twi, Arabic, Swahili, and Zulu.
Sola believes he was the first Nigerian brought in on the project, which included digitizing Nigerian films and developing curriculum activities based on those. It was a whirlwind for him. In December, 2000, he was married. Three months later, he and his new bride, Tolu, moved to the United States for the new job.
“I had mixed emotions,” Sola says. “On one hand, I was happy to have had the privilege to be hired from Nigeria to come over to the US to work. On the other hand, I was a bit sad to be leaving family members and friends behind.”
He and his wife both knew it was the right thing for them to do, however. Which means they were going to go for it.
“When Sola is convinced of anything, he prayerfully goes for it,” Tolu says.
Sola spent the next two years helping develop DVDs that would help students learn Yoruba. By watching the DVDs, they would learn about a wide-range of things, from weddings to the market system, and how to negotiate prices. Some of the courses were put online.
“It was very effective because we had American students using the resources, and since then, some have gone to Nigeria and have started speaking Yoruba,” Sola says. “It was a really empowering kind of project I worked on.”
And that was it. That’s what did it for him. From that time forward, Sola was hooked on education as his life’s mission.
“I’d see these kids with little to no knowledge of Yoruba but then I’d see them thriving and excelling, and that’s what education is all about: empowerment,” he says. “I saw that education as a discipline can transform and groom the next generation of young people to be responsible citizens. There are hardly any other disciplines that do that. Someone said if you look through the nooks and crannies of our world, you’ll find the influence of an educator. There’s nowhere we can go in this world without finding someone who has been impacted by education.
“That was what brought me to education: to give back to an endeavor that impacts people and shapes them to be the best they can be for themselves, for their families, and for their society.”
Sola earned his master’s degree in educational technology from Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia. He then earned his doctorate in educational psychology.
In that time, he had the chance to do a lot of educational research. For a man who has always considered himself inquisitive, the research became contagious.
“I began to think a lot about research, and how I could leverage my passions of learning new things and benefiting people’s lives,” Sola says.
And, now that he was finished with his doctorate, he could make his research part of his full-time employment at WSU.
When it comes to research, Sola knows what he’s doing.
Not only is he an assistant professor, he’s also an integral part of the College of Education’s Learning and Performance Research Center (LPRC).
And now, he’s an award-winner.
Sola was recognized in April of this year by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), arguably the most premier educational research association, with more than 25,000 members. AERA gave him its Technology, Instruction, Cognition and Learning Outstanding Early Career Researcher Award.
In other words, he’s done well early in his career.
“This is quite an accomplishment,” college dean Mike Trevisan said. “His colleagues are excited about this, as well. Sola is not only a talented researcher, but is also well-liked by his peers.”
Sola’s research focuses on the cognitive and pedagogical underpinnings of learning with computer-based multimedia. He’s been part of several projects, including those related to curriculum, teacher satisfaction, school improvement, testing effect, and intelligent tutoring systems. The list goes on and on.
“These projects are all precious to me and they all show why I made a decision to get into education,” he says.
But there’s one that stands out: bilingualism and ESL meta-analysis. It’s research on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and if such benefits can offset some linguistic challenges that many bilinguals face early in the process. The results have been widely disseminated and Sola said reports of the bilingualism study have been requested by the United States congressional staff, to learn more about its policy implications.
Adesope said when he first heard he had won the AERA award, he was a bit “shocked but extremely excited.”
“I was so deeply touched that I was even nominated for the award,” he says. “This award has made me realize that scholars all over the world really notice my work. It’s a wonderful honor.”
LPRC director Brian French said everyone in the college benefits from Adesope’s work.
“He brings a level of scholarship to the educational psychology program, the LPRC, and beyond, that is infectious to all who have the opportunity to work with him,” French says. “This award is well-deserved and signals Sola’s level of commitment and excellence to research.”
Tim Church, the college’s associate dean for research, said Adesope has become deeply immersed in research and grant activities in a relatively short time at WSU.
“He’s a highly productive, highly valued, and highly congenial member of our faculty,” Church says.
AERA thinks so. Not only did it honor Sola with the early career award, but it added him to the editorial board of its Review of Educational Research journal.
“I have a very blessed life,” Sola says.
Faith, Friends, Family
Anybody who knows Sola knows the man is a workaholic, logging some pretty heavy hours. It’s not surprising on dark Pullman nights to see his third-floor Cleveland Hall window as the only one with a light on.
“I’ve always grown up working hard, putting my all into all I do,” Sola says. “I still remember, as a kid in Nigeria, staying up until almost midnight working on stuff, reading my bible, reading my school books. I work a lot and and I work hard.”
But never at the detriment of his family. He and Tolu have three children: Florence (13), Felicia (10), and Josiah (5).
“I believe in my faith, my family, and my friends and that those things come first,” Sola says. “Yes, I work Monday to Saturday. But I don’t work on Sunday. I go to church and I spend time with my family. That has kept my sane. I enjoy what I do for a living. But I don’t enjoy it at a detriment to my family. I want them to know they’re first.”
“He has faced enormous obstacles in life but he doesn’t give up on his beliefs and ideals and that is why he has been a great achiever,” Tolu says. “More importantly, he is a down-to-earth, truthful husband to me and a loving father to our three kids.”
Sola is a caring person, by nature. Those with whom he works rave about his kindness and generosity.
“He’s just the nicest man, and it’s a joy to have him around,” said Krenny Hammer, the college’s program support supervisor. “And what’s really great is that he’s very genuine. When he thanks you or when he compliments you, he’s sincere about it.”
“He’s a very easy person to work with,” said college financial and administration director Bev Rhoades. “He is considerate to one’s time and efforts to complete a project. He’s responsive to the needs of his students, and he’s a great writer.”
It’s no surprise to these co-workers, and others with whom Sola associates, that every year, he and his family open their home during festive periods. It started a few years back, after Thanksgiving.
“People were talking about how they went home for Thanksgiving, and a few international students said they spent a lot of time at home crying because they had nowhere to go,” Sola says. “We decided we would do our part to make this place we live more welcoming, not just for international students, but for people who may just be far away from home.”
So, head to the Adesope home over a holiday and you might just find 35 people having a fun time and a good meal. That’s a lot of turkey!
“We just think it comes back to that philosophy that people make the place,” Sola says.
He certainly is one who makes the place friendlier. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“WSU is a great place,” he says. “When I came here for job interviews, I saw the great buildings, the landscaping, and the beauty of the Palouse. But I strongly feel that the greatness of WSU is not only nestled in the majestic landscape, showcased in the rolling hills of the Palouse, but more importantly in the quiet love and spirit of the people.
“I truly feel loved and appreciated by my colleagues, by the staff, and by the students. So my goal is to even make this place more welcoming for people.”