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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato


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From Classroom to Community

Afolayans give and receive both on the Minnesota State campus and beyond. The father teaches, the son leads.

by Emmeline Elliott

Issue date: 12/5/06 Section: Campus News

The last name Afolayan isn't a common one in this country, but it can be found at least twice at Minnesota State.

Johnson and Gabe Afolayan are both recognizable figures on campus, Johnson as a health science professor and Gabe as the student body president. One could say they have become well known because of their hard work and integrity, values that Johnson brought with him from Nigeria.

Johnson and Gabe Afolayan

Media Credit: Benjamin Marti

Johnson and Gabe Afolayan

Johnson left his job as a school principal to come to the United States in 1979 to earn a graduate degree at Iowa State University. His wife, Victoria, joined him in 1981 and he became a U.S. resident after his two sons - Gideon and Gabriel - were born in the early 1980s.

"Becoming a U.S. citizen was a decision made because of my children," Johnson said, and that he wanted them to know he was a citizen just like them.

Johnson, 59, taught at several higher institutions after earning his doctorate in 1986, mostly in the Midwest and at one school in Montgomery, Ala. The family settled in Mankato when Johnson joined the MSU faculty in 1996. Victoria, who earned an RN license in Nigeria, completed her bachelor's degree in nursing at MSU.

Although Johnson decided to make his move to the United States permanent, he still maintains close contact with his family in Nigeria through phone calls and e-mails and has returned to visit several times.

Johnson brought Gabe and his brother to see their family in Nigeria for the first time in 1997.

"I wanted them to really appreciate their history and the history of their parents and to know their root," Johnson said. "That's very, very important to their self-identity."

"It was intense," Gabe said of the trip, whose only extended family in the United States was an uncle and four cousins. "Going back home and visiting with close to 50-plus of our family in two weeks was amazing because everyone was so warm and loving and happy to see us."

MSSA President Gabe Afolayan speaks to the MSU community during the groundbreaking ceremony for Trafton Science Center.

Media Credit: Benjamin Marti

MSSA President Gabe Afolayan
speaks to the MSU community during
the groundbreaking ceremony for
Trafton Science Center.

Part of the Afolayan identity comes from a royal bloodline. Johnson's grandfather was the king of his community of Omuaran.

"When I go home, that dignity is still there in the way people greet me," Johnson said.

Gabe said he had heard about this lineage while growing up but could never imagine it until he saw the love and respect the community had for the family.

"It brought a lot of pride and dignity to my family and heritage," Gabe said.

Gabe went back to Nigeria with his family for a second time in 2001 when his 82-year-old maternal grandmother passed away.

"That was more of a celebration than a funeral just because the culture is so different," Gabe said. "She led such a long, prosperous life and was appreciated by everybody in the community."

Gabe compared the procession to a parade and said the event was like a festival with dancing and food.

"That reaffirmed the cultural values that were laid down from my upbringing," Gabe said.

Although his father told him about what funerals were like in their homeland, Gabe said he wasn't prepared for the way people supported the family.

"It was almost like somebody had won the championship and they were coming home to get embraced by their hometown," Gabe said. "The dignity that she was held with was something I've never seen here in the United States."

The Afolayans experienced a similar community response when tragedy struck their own family. After a 16-year remission, Victoria passed away from breast cancer Feb. 17, 2005.

Johnson said the church was packed full with church and community members, the Kiwanis Club, administrators, faculty, colleagues, students and African friends from the Cities who brought so much food that the next day, Sunday, there was a feast at the church.

Johnson said the affection shown tied him strongly to the Mankato community. He said at the same time there was also a large celebration of Victoria's life in Nigeria.

"The support was overwhelming," Johnson said. "In fact, that was the source of healing for us. We didn't feel alone at all."

Health science professor Johnson Afolayan instructs a group of Minnesota State students during one of his classes Monday.

Media Credit: Allyssa Hill

Health science professor
Johnson Afolayan instructs a
group of Minnesota State
students during one of his
classes Monday.

Gabe said the death of his mother was the "hardest thing I've dealt with in my life."

"It was a huge stressor, but at the same time I don't know how I could have maintained staying in school and staying connected if it wasn't for the support of the community and most particularly my three close friends from Mankato that I went to high school with," Gabe said.

Victoria's life was remembered again a year later when the church dedicated an entire service to her memory, Johnson said.

Gabe said this experience changed him in how he approaches life situations and how he values relationships, and the importance of community involvement stayed with him.

After participating in the McNair Scholar Program and serving as a community advisor for two years, Gabe looked for other ways to stay engaged with MSU and decided to try the student senate. He took on more leadership opportunities with the organization and finally decided to run for Minnesota State Student Association president in spring of 2006.

Gabe said it was a lofty goal, but Johnson encouraged his son to work toward his ambition.

"If you work for it, you can achieve anything," Johnson said.

Not only did Gabe and his running-mate Chris Frederick win, but they received a record-breaking majority vote.

Johnson said Gabe's win confirmed to him that Mankato people are open-minded and judge by character and not skin color.

Gabe said his character was shaped by his parents teaching him to work hard, appreciate family, respect others and have humility.

"My parents kept me pretty grounded. They never let me have anything in excess," Gabe said. "It's just not in my nature to waste resources or take things for granted."

This conservation attitude carries over to Gabe's work in the student senate. MSSA administrative assistant Cheri Bowyer said he is very visionary and focused on students - a trait shared with his father - especially how they are affected by student fees.

"They seem alike in their passion for education and this university," Bowyer said.

Gabe, who is a biology major, is graduating this spring and plans on going to graduate school for business administration. He said he sees himself working in health care administration in the future and later moving into leadership roles.

Johnson said when he retires from teaching at MSU, he would like to travel to another country to continue teaching.

"I find inspiration so much in teaching and my mind is thinking international now," Johnson said. "Teaching is my life, really. I feel teaching is the best place for me to make a difference."

Though the Afolayans are thinking of a future beyond MSU, the community can benefit from the services they both offer for at least another semester.

Emmeline Elliott is a Reporter staff writer