LAKEVIEW — For the last 11 years, since then-6-year-old A.J. Akisanya moved to Lakeview from Nigeria with his father and two younger brothers, his dad has preached that hard work pays off.
This month, the St. Patrick High School senior found out exactly what his father meant after earning an Evans Scholarship, which will pay for four full years of tuition, room and board at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"Ever since I came to America, he said you can do anything you want, and this is the place to do it," Akisanya, 17, said. "When I got this scholarship, I realized there's no place better than America to live your dreams."
Justin Breen details the incredible journey this family has taken:
Akisanya's father, Toks, works seven days a week — sometimes as many as 16 hours a day — driving a taxi he leases from Yellow Cab.
Toks, A.J. and A.J.'s two brothers have lived in the same low-income Lakeview apartment building since coming to America. Six years ago, they upgraded from a two- to a three-bedroom, and A.J. Akisanya finally was able to have his own room.
Toks Akisanya said that more than a decade ago, he made his sons a promise "that I would do my best to make sure they would have a good education."
A.J. Akisanya has a 3.89 GPA, scored a 29 on his ACT and ranks 27th in his class. His brothers are standout students, too.
"I believe there is a higher place that is looking out for our family," Toks Akisanya, 49, said. "I have three boys, and I drive a cab. It is not easy to put food on the table, but every day when I wake up, when I pray, I'm so happy. That's all I can say."
A.J. Akisanya follows his dad's never-stop-working mindset. His commute to St. Patrick is an hour each way, via the Red Line and the No. 77 Belmont bus. He leaves at 6:15 a.m. On days he plays soccer for the Shamrocks or participates in the school's model UN, academic team or book discussion club, he doesn't get home until 9:30 p.m.
He shows the same dedication to caddying at Bryn Mawr Country Club in suburban Lincolnwood, where A.J. worked the last two years — daily during the summer, again dealing with a lengthy bus/train commute. The caddying led to the Evans Scholarship, which is awarded to students based on "demonstrating a strong caddy record, excellent academics, outstanding character and financial need." The scholarship is valued at more than $80,000.
"It’s an amazing story, and he’s a very polite young man, and he conducts himself very well," St. Patrick athletic director Brian Glorioso said. "He’s a fine young man, going to be very successful. We’re extremely happy for him and for his family as well."
Said Shamrocks soccer coach Kyle McClure, "He was very eager to learn and improve, and was extremely supportive of all of his teammates. A.J. is a perfect representative of what it means to be a Shamrock."
Evans scholars can choose between a list of universities that operate an Evans Scholarship House. St. Patrick's two other Evans Scholarship winners from this year, Joe Gurnig and Jack Heidkamp, chose Northern Illinois and Indiana University, respectively. A.J. selected U. of I. because he wanted to stay in state, and he liked the school's biology program, which he hopes will launch his career as a doctor.
But caddying taught A.J. the value of listening, he said.
"The people I caddied for were really knowledgeable and have great perspectives in life," he said. "They told me to keep an open mind."
A.J. visited Urbana-Champaign two weeks ago. Toks said before his son won the Evans Scholarship, he told A.J. he'd likely have to attend community college. When A.J. opened an envelope in April stating he'd been named an Evans scholar, he said he stared at it for 20 minutes "in total disbelief."
"It was so surreal, and I'm still trying to figure out if this is real," A.J. said.
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