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Face of the Week: Tonette Akwuole of Parkville High School

Team BCPS is made up of thousands of accomplished and interesting students, employees, and community supporters. "Face of the Week" introduces you to some of the people who make BCPS such an amazing mosaic of talent, caring, and commitment.

Face of the Week: Tonette Akwuole of Parkville High School

In Tonette Akwuole’s case, there’s something to be said for sibling rivalry.

Something good.

At 17, she is the third of Peter and Florence Akwuole’s four children to go through Parkville High School. She is also the third of the kids to set her sights on a career as a doctor – specifically as a physician in the specialized field of sports medicine.

Her oldest brother, Ihechi, is beginning his studies at the University of Maryland medical school this fall; he plans on a career in neuroscience. Her older sister, Frances, will begin medical training in dermatology when she graduates from the University of Pittsburgh in 2019. Her youngest brother, Gerald, is an underclassman at Parkville and still ruminating his future.

“All my goals and drive have come from my siblings and my family,” says Tonette. “It comes from watching them and seeing them experience struggles and experience success. . . . Our parents have always believed in wanting each one of us to do better than the next. That’s helped, too.”

Now cruising through her senior year, Tonette has taken her family’s expectations to heart. Early on, she set her sights on becoming valedictorian at Parkville, though she’d settle with sharing that honor with her best friend, Harit Patel, because “I’d love to give the valedictorian’s speech together as a team – women empowerment!” And this fall, she’s busy preparing for the SAT – she wants to raise her score 20 points to an even 1,500 – and applying to her top college picks – Duke, Spelman, and early action to Harvard.

“Tonette’s an engaged, outgoing, and driven student leader,” says Maureen Astarita, Parkville High’s principal. “As a member of the rigorous magnet program here, she has balanced the most challenging course sequences we offer with a full slate of extra-curricular activities, including Student Council and National Honor Society all while playing volleyball, indoor track, and lacrosse. . . . Knowing her work ethic, positive attitude and bright smile, we are all certain she’s destined for success.”

Challenges and achievements

It wasn’t always so easy for the Akwuole family, however. In 2003, when Tonette was 3, her family moved from Nigeria to the United States after her father lost his job running a bank. With the help of family and friends, the young family moved several times around Baltimore County before settling finally in Parkville; during those years, Tonette attended three elementary schools – Red House Run, Shady Spring, and finally Villa Cresta – as her family looked for a home.

Her father, who had two master’s degrees and a background in finance, found himself wrangling shopping carts for a local Wal-Mart. Her mother, who was both a teacher and an accountant in Nigeria, also found herself needing to retool her career after moving to America. Eventually, Peter earned a job with the state and Florence enrolled in nursing programs. Those were difficult years, Tonette recalls.

At the same time, however, Tonette began to start thinking about careers, even as she watched her own parents struggle with theirs. “I thought, when I was younger, that if I made a lot of money, I could help my family and my parents. I knew that doctors made a lot of money, so I began to think about becoming a doctor then,” she says.

As she grew, she also learned to appreciate the altruistic benefits of medicine, of using one’s skills and knowledge to do something for someone in need. With her older brother and sister expressing an interest in medicine, and with her mother’s blossoming nursing career, the deal was sealed – a doctor she would be. 

“I like learning, and I like taking the hardest classes possible,” Tonette says. “That’s what I’ve done ever since.”

Tonette has been motivated by her parents, who put a premium on education, and her brothers and sister as well. Her father, she says, taught her to “like what you do” as a key to success. And she credits hard work and a good attitude with filling in the rest of the achievement algorithm.

As she moved from Parkville Middle to high school, she also learned the value of hard work, again courtesy of her family. Through grit and education, she says, her family showed her how to move from struggle to success.

“It was so great when my dad got his Ph.D. (in business); he’d been in school for so long,” Tonette says. “That and seeing his children do well in school and progress have been the biggest successes for our family, I think.”

Poised and driven

A few other life lessons have given Tonette a full skill set. She understands the value of a village, but she also knows that individuals, and their attitudes, are responsible for their own success. “It’s all about your perspective and mindset,” she says. “In everything, even though you might have a lot of support and help, it all comes down to you. In the end, you realize that you’re born alone and you die alone. It’s all down to you to make it happen.”

Parkville High Science Department Chair John McAllister has seen Tonette’s drive up close, first two years ago when he taught her chemistry and again this year as her AP chemistry teacher. “Her work ethic and attitude make her a pleasure to teach. She always carried herself with the poise of a student beyond her years,” he says. “She is very driven to become a doctor and I believe she will do that. And it wouldn’t surprise me if she doesn’t become renowned for her work in medicine. She is truly one of the best (students) I have taught in my 20-plus years of teaching.”

So Tonette arrived at her senior year well prepared, between studying for the SAT this summer, taking an accounting class at The Community College of Baltimore County, and volunteering for three events – the Red Cross blood drives, the Veterans Administration, and at Artscape in the city. Maybe, her parents said, she was doing too much.

“Yeah, we fought about that. They didn’t want me to spread myself too thin,” Tonette says, grinning. “But we worked it out. If I hated any of it, I wouldn’t do it.”

Add to that her usual school activities – which include being vice president of the school student council, a class officer, member of the Future Business Leaders of America, and membership in the national, math, and science honor societies, competing on the school’s volleyball, track, and lacrosse teams, and holding down five Advanced Placement courses – and it’s understandable that her parents would worry about their third child being overscheduled. 

But, Tonette says, she builds in plenty of time for rest – reading and watching TV, mostly – her definition of “senioritis.”

“Most of all,” she says, “I want to stay entertained, interested, and busy.”

Do you know of a special person who would be a good candidate for the BCPS “Face of the Week”? Let us know! Send their name, contact information, and what makes them special to  

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