Tolu Olubunmi may not have been born in the United States, but she’s definitely working to achieve her American dream, as well as the dream of millions of other undocumented immigrants. The Nigerian native came to the States when she was 14-years-old, and knew early on that she wanted to become an engineer. Like many of us, Tolu worked hard in school to earn her way into a top university, where she would go on to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering in 2002. But unlike so many other college graduates, Tolu’s undocumented status kept her from jobs that she was otherwise qualified for.
Instead of giving up, though, Tolu decided to take matters into her own hands. She’s dedicated her life to changing immigration policies in the US, so that others like her will have the opportunity to realize their own dreams in the country they love and call their own. And just last year, Tolu was given one of the biggest opportunities of all: to introduce President Obama at the White House before his speech on immigration reform!
These days, you can find Tolu at welcome.us, where she acts as the nonprofit’s Executive Director. This June is their first ever Immigrant Heritage Month, too, which means you’ve still got some time left to help honor the cultural diversity that’s made this great nation of ours what it is today! So read on, get involved, and celebrate some serious girl power!
What can you tell us about your nonprofit organization, Welcome.us?
Welcome.us is a new organization dedicated to celebrating a United States that is fueled by immigrants from around the world. Immigrants past and present (and their subsequent generations) have always been united by the common cause of building a better life for themselves and their families.
We have partnered with corporations, media outlets, celebrities, athletes, faith, civic, and political leaders to gather and share inspirational stories of American immigrants. Our history and our stories will help determine our future— at Welcome.us, we want everyone here to be a part of that history.
This month marks the first ever Immigrant Heritage Month celebration. What are some of the special events planned for it, and how can someone get involved?
It is hard to believe that we are now in the fourth week of Immigrant Heritage Month! The diverse outpouring of support from all over the country is thrilling.
We’ve celebrated this inaugural Immigrant Heritage Month with naturalization ceremonies, movie screenings, and a variety of social media activities. We created spots and short films celebrating our diverse heritage and the men and women who help build our nation.Our PSAs from celebrities like Guillermo Diaz, Naya Rivera, Skylar Grey, Rosci Diaz amongst others, each bring a unique perspective to Immigrant Heritage Month.
Our goal for the month is to create the space of as many Americans as possible to reconnect with and celebrate their immigrant heritage. I love that we have everyone from college students in New York City to Jared Leto getting involved. Everyone can join the celebration by sharing a “Welcome Story” — this can be explicitly a story of when you or your family first immigrated, a story of feeling welcomed to the American experience, or another relevant milestone in your American journey. You can generate your custom graphic with the year of your welcome story on our website and share it through your social media accounts.
You’re a big advocate for immigration reform. What inspired that passion for you?
The 2008 presidential election ignited my interest in politics and policy but my passion for advancing the cause of immigrants comes from witnessing the struggles faced by millions each day.
Although my own struggles with our broken immigration system first led me to advocacy, understanding in a very real sense that millions of others faced similar situations lit a fire under me and once I realized I could actually make a difference there was no turning back.
I am very grateful for all of my experiences over the past several years because I’ve been transformed from an insulated, ambitious but self-focused individual to someone who recognizes her responsibility to her community and the nation. I love the quote by John Wesley that says, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” I think in our own way we should all aspire to live out these words. It took my own heartbreaks to open my eyes to this truth.
You’re the Executive Director of an amazing organization, you’ve had the opportunity to meet President Obama, and you’re only in your early 30s. What’s next for you?
I wish I could say that the opportunities I’ve been blessed with are part of my own grand plan, but the truth is I never planned on any of it. My life’s story is that long shot that somehow seems inevitable — that miracle you dare not dream of but sets a world off-kilter back on its axis once realized.
I’ve been privileged to dedicate my career to promoting political, social, and economic equality of all people. My hope is to continue to make a difference whenever possible.
What do you think is the most important thing women can do to find their own personal success?
It is incredibly important to know who you are and what you believe — being anchored to certain unchanging truths keeps you focused through the ups and downs of life.
I started college already certain I wanted to study engineering but I did not decide on a specialty until my sophomore year when I took my first chemistry class. I had never been as challenged academically as I was in that class and I loved every minute of it. It seemed obvious to me to combine my passion for engineering and my newly discovered love of chemistry. I immediately went to my chemistry professor and told him I intended to declare a chemical engineering major. As long as I live, I will never forget his response to me. He said it took a special kind of person to successfully major in chemical engineering and I just didn’t have it. In that moment, he might as well have said, “I dare you to do it.”
In 2002, I successfully graduated with a chemical engineering degree; it wasn’t easy, actually it was very hard but I did. That to me is how we find personal success — by refusing to let anyone or any situation stop us from achieving our goals or being our best self.
xx, The FabFitFun Team