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Power lifting lawyer’s journey to START


Power lifting lawyer’s journey to START

START intern incorporates lawyer background into counterterrorism projects

December 1, 2016Brooke Blankenship

As the eldest of four children, Tolu Odukoya can’t remember a time she didn’t feel the need to protect and watch over the people around her. Primarily, that meant being a “mother hen” to her siblings, but that role as protector extended far beyond her family. Driving through the streets of Lagos, Odukoya demanded that her father pull over so she could stop the police from harassing people in the streets.Tolu Odukoya

“Seeing that kind of mistreatment of the poor really stayed with me,” Odukoya said. “While I wasn’t a victim of these injustices – my family was left alone because we were better off – it motivated me to pursue a career in law so that I could help fix a broken system.”

The ambition of her youth was further propelled by the September 11 attacks. Though she saw them play out a world away from her Nigerian home, she said that the day was burned in her memory. She recalls the panic she felt as she made phone calls to her relatives who were traveling to the United States, and the relief she felt learning they were safe.  

“I have always wanted to make sure criminals stay off the street, but that day really prompted me to study the criminal mind. Why do people do such horrible things – and how can we stop them?” she said.

After earning her juris doctorate from University of Lagos, she decided it was time to move to the United States to continue her education.

“I always knew I was coming to the United States,” she said. “I had an ongoing love affair with the idea of leaving everything behind and going to a new place with values more in line with my own. Furthering my education finally pushed me to do just that. I knew the subjects I wanted to specialize in and I knew the United States was the best place to learn them.”

Having already completed her master’s in law at American University, Odukoya is now in the university’s master’s program for Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy. She often finds herself bringing a different perspective to her classes and coursework. She was still living in Nigeria when Boko Haram re-emerged from dormancy in 2009.   

“I believed the government and law enforcement were ignoring Boko Haram and not doing enough,” Odukoya said. “I spoke to colleagues in law enforcement. I thought they should be doing more to stop Boko Haram and that Boko Haram’s initial call for ceasing western education in the North was a smoke screen for a deep-seeded need to cause turmoil and disrupt normal life and governance.”

At START, Odukoya uses her perspective, as well as her background in law, in her work with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division. As an Advanced Research Intern, she reviews research with a skeptical eye.

“Lawyers are taught to look at evidence with skepticism, to cross-check every fact, and that helps me when going through research,” she said.

In the spare time between her internship and master’s program, Odukoya is applying to doctoral political science and government programs with a focus in terrorism studies. She hopes to focus on ally behavior of terrorist organizations and how leadership style affects alliances.

She is also powerlifting “for fun.” She attended her first powerlifting competition this year and won the heaviest deadlift carry for women at 305 pounds, calling it a “surreal experience.”