Closeup of Oluwanifemi “Nife” Shola-Dare.
Oluwanifemi “Nife” Shola-Dare

Washington State University international student Oluwanifemi “Nife” Shola-Dare is one of 20 students to receive a new award from the nation’s oldest academic honorary, Phi Beta Kappa (PBK).

Shola-Dare, a neuroscience major from Nigeria and member of the Honors College, received the PBK’s first Key into Public Service Scholar award. Over 600 students from PBK chapter institutions—including WSU­—applied for the new undergraduate scholarship designed to connect promising liberal arts and sciences students with opportunities in public service. Award recipients came from 14 states and three countries.

“We, in the PBK Gamma of Washington Chapter, are pleased that this new prestigious award has made its debut, and we are very proud that one of our own WSU scholars received it,” said Mary F. Wack, PBK member and officer for the local chapter.

Shola-Dare said she is grateful for the $5,000 that the award provides and is excited for the June 25-26 virtual conference for awardees that will provide “training, mentoring, and reflection on pathways into active citizenship in the tradition of Phi Beta Kappa’s founders,” according to the organization’s website.

“While I can easily envision my future as a surgeon and research scientist, I also want to be a policy maker regarding mental health,” said Shola-Dare. “I don’t know, at this point, how to make policies happen, but thanks to this award and conference I will meet people who are already doing that and I’m excited to learn from them.”

Long list of service accomplishments

Shola-Dare joined WSU just this past August as a transfer student and made a point of continuing her service work that includes establishing mental health assistance options for students in need. She is on the Student Health Advisory Committee; identifies food and housing insecurity challenges on all of WSU’s campuses as a member of the Basic Needs Assessment Task Force; and, sponsored resolutions on college affordability and access to mental health care as an elected College of Veterinary Medicine senator on the Associated Students of Washington State University student government.

Previously at Spokane Community College, she was founding president of the Mental Health Awareness Club and a Suicide Prevention Advisory Board member. She has been a Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council Member of Mental Health America.

Her roots drive her passion

A first-generation college student from western Africa, Shola-Dare credits her family with encouraging her to help others and work to be an outstanding student. Her father, Charles, is on staff at a university and her mother, Margaret, is a secondary-school teacher; brother Murewa is a future architect and another, Feranmi, is studying computer science. It was her late brother, Shemi, who inspired her interest in mental health.

“He suffered from epilepsy and his seizures caused fear among many in my home country. It affected our whole family, and I decided at age 10 to build him a new brain,” said Shola-Dare. She set her sights on becoming a physician, and her path led her to three colleges before finding her educational home at WSU.

She studied for two years at a medical school in the Caribbean but left when she found it was unaccredited. She studied nursing for a year in Lynchburg, Va., before deciding that was not a sure path into another medical college. She moved to Washington to be near her uncles and studied biology at Spokane Community College before transferring to WSU in Pullman in August.

“Here I have found stability. I am devoted to my studies and I plan to graduate from WSU with honors in 2021.”

Beyond academic and mental health activism, she has plenty to keep her busy. She hosts and DJs a Sunday-morning radio show called “The Palm Wine Experience” featuring African music, facilitates an Honors 198 course for new students, and tutors other students. She also volunteers about 36 hours each week at a Spokane adult family home.

Adding more research to her resume

Before applying to attend medical college and earning a Ph.D.—she is aiming for Harvard Medical School—she wants to engage in about two more years of scientific research. She took UNIV 199, a course to introduce research to undergraduates, and applied and was accepted to spend this summer in Boston at the Young-Pearse Lab at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. She could not go because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions; a partner lab has just reached out for her help to conduct some virtual research.

She will work again at the lab of Research Assistant Professor Jason R. Gerstner at the WSU Spokane health-sciences campus, where she last year investigated sleep behavior and pharmacological rescue of sleep abnormalities in fruit-fly models of neurodegenerative diseases. Her efforts led to her research poster presentation at the national 2019 Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. She was also accepted to present at WSU’s annual Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (SURCA) event, which was cancelled due to the pandemic.

This year, she worked in the neuroscience lab of Associate Professor Gary Wayman in Pullman, investigating the role of endogenous leptin on activity-dependent dendritic and synaptic growth in mice hippocampus.

Experiences in her future

Shola-Dare thrives on a busy schedule and is inspired by possibilities.

“I have come to realize that things in life are not very straightforward, so I pay great attention to the lessons along the path.

“I’ve had to start my college education over a few times, I believe in service to my community, and I’ve worked hard. But I’m grateful for help from my professors and for this Phi Beta Kappa award. I’ve already had a life full of experiences. I look forward to the many more that are yet to come.”