Brandon Okpalobi’s journey from the lively streets of New Orleans to becoming the founder, president and CEO of DIBIA Athletic Development and DIBIA Dream, Inc., is remarkable unto itself. Even more powerful than Brandon’s own story is how DIBIA has grown from its beginnings as a summer camp to its comprehensive scope that helps at-risk African-American urban youth beat the odds, realize their potential and achieve their dreams thorough DIBIA Dream.
The mantra, “To lead is to serve” very well describes Brandon as he routinely proves his effective leadership ability through community service and training. He fills Right On! Digital in on his insight on life and offers life lessons to the younger generation.
Q: You are a staunch believer in STEM/STEAM programs. Why is STEM so important now more than ever before?
A: The complexities of today require that people be equipped with a new set of core knowledge and skills to solve difficult problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of the information they receive. The process of learning and doing STEM helps develop these skills. Yet opportunity gaps persist throughout the education system showing inequities in STEM education along racial and ethnic, linguistic, cultural, socioeconomic, gender, disability, and geographic lines. This is especially troubling because of the powerful role a foundational STEM education can play.
STEM is a critical component of a well-rounded education for all students. Mainly, STEM fields are the gateway to continued economic competitiveness (i.e., higher education and higher standards of living) for the historically underrepresented populations. All students should be afforded access to science, social studies, literature, the arts, physical education and health, and the opportunity to learn an additional language.
President Barack Obama once said, “That’s why we love science. It’s more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world and to share this accumulated knowledge. It’s a mindset that says we that can use reason and logic and honest inquiry to reach new conclusions and solve big problems.” And I couldn’t agree more. That is why DREAM offers programming to close the gaps that are so pronounced in our communities’ access to STEM.
Q: How early should you expose students to STEM/STEAM programs?
A: Engaging youth through STEM, as early as preschool, is immensely important. Many children lack various skills at an early age which leads to their developmental issues later.
Unlike many mainstream after school programs, our flagship after school program, DREAM Academy, offers a rigorous blend of athletic, academic, and STEM programming to drive students to academic success, promising careers, and healthy lives. The long-term impact is felt in disadvantaged communities where local students are afforded new opportunities and experiences that positively impact their lives.
DREAM Academy helps combat the issue of access to quality out of school care by serving over 500 elementary students between Miami and New Orleans each year at no cost to their families. From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every day after school students participate in activities including academic tutoring; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) projects; field trips; and sports and health clinics. As a comprehensive program, DREAM Academy also provides homework tutoring, mentorships, and free transportation home. DREAM Academy’s STEAM curriculum stands out because it involves hands-on, applied learning. STEM activities include building model bridges to learn about structural design, designing catapults to learn about physics, and assembling electronic circuits to introduce basic circuitry principles.
By prioritizing low-income students of color in grades K-8, DREAM Academy creates opportunities that are only available to these students’ more affluent peers. President Barack Obama has been quoted as saying, “these young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring… that it’s never too early, or too late to create or discover something new.”
Q: What is one thing you would tell students who are looking to pursue STEM?
A: I advise young creators to read a book per week. The book does not always have to be related to STEM. The purpose of reading is to feed you the knowledge to be able to re-invent yourself, stay abreast of current affairs, and to discuss various subjects with knowledgeable people. Today, people regularly ask me about the book I am reading for the week.
I would also encourage young scientists to DREAM BIGGER. If your dream does not scare you in the least bit, then it’s not big enough. Raise your bar so high that it’s almost impossible to reach. Live above an average life. You were never created to live an average life. You have seeds of greatness on the inside. You were created to be a history maker and to leave your mark on this generation. God has an assignment for you that no one else can fulfill. God needs you – He needs your gifts, your smile, your love, and your passion. You are a part of His divine plan. There is something unique about you.
Do not wear the “average” label. If you think you’re average, you’ll be average. If you think you’re ordinary, then you’ll live an ordinary life and never do anything great. DREAM BIGGER! Anything that comes to your mind can and will be done as long as you work hard and stay focused. If you can conceive it, believe it. Then, you will achieve it!