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Philanthropy fuels a student's excellence — and his empathy

A scholarship and internship grants helped new Krieger School alumnus Suleiman Abiola hone in on a career path — and help a struggling Baltimore community in the process
Posted February 8, 2017
Suleiman Abiola, A&S '16 Suleiman Abiola, A&S '16

Shadowing doctors on the Johns Hopkins Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. Learning about the interconnected systems that underpin global health care delivery. Through those educational experiences, Krieger School alumnus Suleiman Abiola, a pre-med and public health major, built a deep knowledge base in preparation for his chosen profession: medical missionary work. Yet it was a summer internship with a local community organizer that Abiola considers one of the most pivotal points in his Hopkins career.

"Hopkins gave me a great academic foundation, but working in the community showed me what I can actually do with that knowledge; how to practically approach a community when you're trying to partner with it," says Abiola, who graduated in May.

Abiola spent the summer of 2013 working with Strong City Baltimore, a nonprofit organization focused on improving housing, schools, economic development, and civic engagement in the city's most challenged neighborhoods. He secured the opportunity through the Community Impact Internships Program, which was established in 2011 by a generous gift from Jeff Aronson, A&S '80, Parent '13 and '15, and chair of the university's Board of Trustees, and his wife, Shari. In fact, Abiola's ability to attend Hopkins was made possible by philanthropy; he received the Howard and Ina Drew Scholarship, endowed by two Krieger School alumni. He's keenly aware — and grateful for — the doors such generosity has opened.

"Hopkins students are such high achievers because we're in an atmosphere that fuels excellence. Philanthropy plays a big role in that by providing so many resources, as well as streamlining access to them," says Abiola, who also benefited from a Second Decade Society Summer Internship Grant funded by a council of Krieger School alumni.

With Strong City Baltimore, Abiola worked primarily with the Harwood neighborhood, located just south of Homewood campus and adjacent to the declining Greenmount Avenue corridor. His work included knocking on doors and speaking with citizens, engaging volunteer groups and businesses with Harwood community anchors like the Barclay School and the 29th Street Community Center, and designing a postcard that listed these and other local resources so residents could easily find them.

"People trusted him. He'd listen, he'd respond, and he'd always follow up on what he said he would do," says Karen DeCamp, Strong City Baltimore's director of neighborhood programs. That rapport with Harwood's residents — critical to the community-building work that Strong City Baltimore leads — made it a no-brainer for DeCamp and her colleagues to retain him as a work-study employee for two years after his internship ended.

"People love Suleiman in this community whether they're white or black, rich or poor," she says.

Abiola contributed to the development of a new Greenmount Avenue Improvement Plan, organizing several community charrettes and two large town-hall meetings to ensure that Harwood citizens' voices were included in the discussion. The final plan — a collaboration with the Baltimore City government — includes measures for decreasing vacant and blighted properties, attracting new businesses that can benefit both the existing community and attract outside customers, and improving traffic and pedestrian safety along the corridor. 

DeCamp, who has worked with interns from several local colleges and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers from around the country, considers Abiola among the best she's met. Abiola, who hopes to work one more year in community building before attending medical school, is a great example of how providing access to an institution like Hopkins can benefit not only Baltimore's citizens but also many others well beyond.

"When you expose students to the idea that struggling communities are full of dynamic and wonderful people — not just data and statistics — and pair that knowledge with a world-class education from Hopkins, you're going to produce adults who are intellectually great and have a deep understanding of how to use that knowledge to help people throughout the world," DeCamp says.

Learn how you can help make a Hopkins education accessible for more students.