An Alabama teen has been accepted to more than 15 universities, including Harvard and Johns Hopkins, and has been awarded more than $2 million in scholarship offers.
Rotimi Kukoyi, a high school senior and the first Black National Merit Scholar at his school, is from Hoover, Alabama. He told ABC News he was inspired to apply to a number of places after appearing on the "Jeopardy!" Teen Tournament as a freshman in 2018, and meeting high achieving students from across the country.
"It was really fun experience but also put me in contact with some pretty cool students from across the country," Kukoyi said. "A lot of them are older and they're like seniors or juniors that applied to many prestigious schools a lot of them are attending prestigious universities now. So that was kind of my original inspiration to apply to those universities."
Kukoyi ended up being accepted to a total of 15 prestigious universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, Emory, Rice, Johns Hopkins, Duke, the University of Alabama, Case Western Reserve University, UAB, Auburn University and Washington University in St. Louis.
Kukoyi ultimately decided to attend UNC Chapel Hill and has accepted the school's Morehead-Cain Scholarship, the oldest merit scholarship program in the country. While at UNC, he hopes to pursue a career in public health, to help others. He said the decision was inspired in part by the pandemic and his experience helping the Alabama Department of Health get residents vaccinated.
In August, Kukoyi and three others won a TikTok contest for people between the ages of 13 and 29, sponsored by the state health department, to encourage students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before the school year started.
"So why did I get the vaccine? This is my why," he said in the video's text, as images of himself, his friends and peers flashed across the screen.
"COVID deaths shouldn't be normalized," he added. "The vaccines are safe and effective."
"COVID really sparked [my interest in public health] because that was the first time that I really saw how clear the health inequities were," Kukoyi told ABC news. "African Americans had a much higher chance of dying from COVID than white Americans ... it was almost like there were two separate pandemics impacting our nation, and we saw [some people] marginalized and impacted way more."
With his own college planning now underway, Kukoyi hopes to inspire other students to apply to schools they may not have considered before.
"A lot of kids that I talked to didn't think they could apply to the bigger schools or get into the bigger schools" or were concerned about the costs, he said. "But there are other resources available to students to kind of help with that."
"... A lot of those more competitive schools offer much more extensive financial aid than state schools,” he added.
Kukoyi also said that, as the only Black male student in all of his school classes, he hopes to change things so that underrepresented populations and lower income students are offered the same learning opportunities as their peers.
Together with his fellow National Merit finalists, Kukoyi set up free tutoring for those in need of more academic support or resources, and for those seeking to take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.
"... I feel like a lot of the disparities that we see with standardized testing are because these underrepresented minorities in low income communities often can't afford the same levels of [test preparation] that that their wealthier counterparts get," he said. "So by establishing free tutoring programs, that could kind of help to equalize the playing field."
Kukoyi, the child of immigrants, is not only a star student, but also plays soccer and was in student government. Still, despite all his accomplishments, he says he wants to be known for helping people.
"I want my legacy to be one that's focused on impacting other people," he said. "I suppose a lot of people in the pursuit of their own goals can kind of forget what it's all about."