By Marcia Bosscher

Making Students Smarter: An Interview with Moji Olaniyan

A faculty friend at UW-Madison spoke of a remarkable woman — Moji — who was at the time a dean in letters and sciences. When my daughter, a student at UW, sought academic counseling, she called to tell me of a delightful and inspiring counseling session she'd had with a dean, and it was Moji. This fall the Christian faculty group at UW hosted a discussion on Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy, and Moji, now an Assistant Dean at the Law School, was one of the speakers. It was about time I introduced her to our readers at The Well. Thank you, Moji, for your time with us!

Hello, Moji. Thank you so much for being with us. I understand you were born in Nigeria, into a family that had standing, respect, wealth. Could you tell us something of your background?

My parents were high school and elementary school principals all my life. However, the wealth comes from a royal background. Our family has a lot of land in Ibadan, Nigeria. My great-grandfather was a military general in what is best described as an empire. He was part of the ruling class, and hence had a lot of land and class and status. And in those days they tended to take more than one wife. He had four wives and twenty-something or thirty children.

My grandfather actually was a Muslim convert to Christianity, and as converts tend to be extremist in their new faith, he was a very devoted individual to prayer and to Bible study. He was actually called the Father of Prayers. That was his nickname.  And it's a legacy [Laughs]. If you come across my siblings, and they are praying, this building would be shaking!

Tell us about your own educational background. You are an accomplished woman!

I have an undergraduate degree from Nigeria in English — English studies. Then I went to law school in Richmond, Virginia. And then I practiced law in Charlottesville — poverty law. I wasn't specializing in just any area of the law; I was specializing in a kind of people that I could help use the law to better improve their lives.

What inspired you? Not everyone who comes from privilege is willing to serve the poor. The Spirit of course...

We have different ways of hearing God or engaging God on these issues. All I can say is it has to be the Holy Spirit. So, because of my privileged background, I went to a boarding school. At the boarding school, we were well-fed. And I had a whole lot of snacks, what they called provisions, loads and loads of food to eat in between. But yet, we were given pocket money, a spending allowance. And the spending allowance for me was a lot of money for no reason at all. And it kept coming. So I remember talking to one of my friends — we were about ten years old — and we were sitting around on one weekend, really, with no needs. [Laughs] We'd use our money to buy romance novels and comics, and all of these things. So I said, I wonder whether we can save fifty percent of our pocket money for charity.

I wish it were that it started from me being touched by a particular charity. But it was really me having too much money, or what I thought was too much for anybody to just be spending on themselves. So we got together, about twelve of us, and we started talking and we decided to approach our boarding school mistress. "Auntie Remi,” we said, “we have this idea. We are going to save fifty percent of our money every month. And then we can hold the savings for a year, and then find a charity to benefit." And she was fascinated and agreed.

We decided to call ourselves The Charity Club [laughs] and at some point we decided on two groups, The Motherless Babies' Home and The Cheshire Home for the Disabled for disabled children of school age. We decided we would do year-end activities with both of them just before we leave for Christmas. With the disabled students, we brought them to our school and had a special dinner and sang carols with them. And then for the babies, we bought supplies from their wish list, played with the babies, washed the diapers, and left them fresh supplies. So, we did that for the five years that I was at the boarding school.

That was the beginning, I think.

And that experience prepared you for your work with the poor in your legal work?

Yes. When I practiced law, I saw there was no practice watching out for school children with mental disabilities in the Charlottesville area. And because I had experience with them in Nigeria, I saw the need. I helped to start a Special Education practice, and it's so huge now, I can't believe it.

At the time, I was practicing law in a non-traditional way. I was working for the poor, and I would go and meet clients in their homes, because I did not just sit in my office waiting for them to come in nine through five. They had to go to work. So I met them when they could meet, sometimes on the weekend, sometimes at night. So here's what was happening. And I knew that has to be God. While I was out doing my stuff, I would walk into the apartment, the kids are watching TV, Mom is in the kitchen, "Oh, Moji, you're here." I'm like, "Take your time," and I'm relaxed. I'm sitting and interacting with the kids. And so I started picking up on a pattern of special needs, and I would ask the parents, and they didn't know their rights, the rights of their kids, were being violated. So I saw that pattern. That was why I went to my boss to say, "Can I practice special education? There seems to be a big need," because I picked up on like ten families. And I knew if I can see ten, there are a lot more out there.

When I saw the need and asked about doing something, I remember my boss, bless his soul, saying to me, "I'm not going to cut you any slack with your workload. It's not a high priority for the office.” So I said, "But I want to do it." And he said, "Okay, but that will be in addition to your workload." And I said, "Fine."

There was so much need. I ended up working with the Legal Aid Society in special education law and started an organization we called Just Children. I was teaching others how to do this. Today, Just Children is staffed with two full-time attorneys and three paralegals. They do nothing but look out for children with special needs in the school system.

Besides being sensitive to kids with special needs from your experience at boarding school, how did you become aware of this area of law?

There is a God-thing about that. I did a clinic while I was in law school called Mental Disabilities Clinic. The thing is, I had no interest in taking that class. I am blown away when I stop to think about how God works.

Here's what happened: It's registration time for spring semester and I was all registered. And I see one of our clinical professors. She's always been very nice to me since I came to the law school, and so I said, "Hi, Professor Claire." And I'm walking on because I'm almost late for a class. And she didn't respond to me. So I stopped because she's one of the few that had just gone out of her way to make me feel comfortable in the law school — I was the only African student on campus at that point. But she didn't answer me. So I looked, and she's standing there and she looked kind of vacant. So I went back and I said, "Hi, Professor Claire. Are you okay?" And she said, "Oh, yeah. I will be fine." I said, "No, you don't look fine. What's going on?" And she said, "Well..." She has a contract with the law school and the contract for her to make any income is that she will teach this special ed class, and there must be at least six students registered, or else they'll cancel the class. So the deadline for signing up for classes was twelve noon. This was about ten a.m.

So I said I will register for the class. She said, "No-no-no-no-no, do you know what the class is about?" I said, "No, it doesn’t matter.” And she was trying to call me back to talk to me about the class. I just went upstairs and I registered for it. And the associate dean looked at me and said, "We can't... You're asking for a special waiver. We don't allow students to do two clinics per semester." I said, "Please?" He said, "But your life is more challenging, isn't it? You have two children. You are commuting. You do work study." I said, "Yeah, but you know, because I'm older, if I'm overwhelmed, I'll come back and tell you. Please, please, please?" So I badgered him and he signed the form.

So I went back downstairs and said, "I signed up for the class. What's the class about?" And so I did it. I was just having fun, just supporting her. I did well in the class, And then when I started practicing law in the fall of the following year, I’d be in these homes and seeing all these things that I had read about in my special ed casebook. So, yes, God prepared me!

If I’d not taken that class or stepped out of my office into those homes, I would not have seen the need. And I ended up training other lawyers in this area.

Your work grew. You were training the other lawyers around you. Then how did you get into higher education?

It became clear to me that my husband, a professor of English and African Literature and Languages, was going to be highly sought after. He would be moving, and I didn’t want to take the bar exam every time he moves to different state. Also, I was not very happy practicing law and winning cases on technicalities. But I was winning, and my colleagues were all excited, and I would be very depressed. My husband said, "Well, if you are not happy..." I said, "I love counseling. I love motivating. I love problem solving. But I don't like knowing that my client is not being truthful with the system." When I find a loophole, my colleagues thought that I was clever, and sang my praises and popped champagne, but I would be very sad.

So I crossed over to higher education at that point. I worked at the University of Engineering, school of architecture. I was the executive assistant to the dean, and the dean was head of five departments. He was a big shot. So I traveled around the country with him, raising funds, writing his speeches. I was a public relations person. It was a fascinating transition. And then I started doing student affairs and academic affairs, because there was nobody really in the five departments doing that. My job was a lot of things. They called me the glue that held the whole place together.

Shortly thereafter my husband was recruited by UW-Madison. So it was time to move, just like I had thought.

So you were prepared.

Right. I was prepared. And so I moved, and I was in the College of Letters and Science and did undergraduate work for a while, got very restless, took a leave of absence from here and went to Sacramento State. I was at Sacramento State as the campus judicial officer in a new office I helped to set up. Two years later I came back to the UW. And then I got restless again and went to Cornell. And then I came back. And when I was on my way back, I think the UW was ahead of me, because every time I left, they'd worry that my husband was going to leave, too.

So they got together and they said, "She restless because she's not challenged." So they went to the law school and the law school recruited me to design and start this program, which was what I did.

Describe for us what you do now.

My title is Assistant Dean for Academic Enhancement. The dean though, likes to say, "Oh, Moji makes our students smarter.” I think what I do is support students regardless of the level at which they are performing academically. So whether they're 2.8 trying to become a 3.5 or a 3.4 trying to be a 4.0 or a 2.2 trying to climb up, I just support them. I teach skills classes. I also teach students how to participate in law review. I prep the third-years and the international students in the Master of Laws programs. I prep them for bar exam classes. So I support the ones that come in on the front end, and then I support everybody in between, and the ones who are going out.

Is this a good fit for you?

I think it's a ministry. Every time I get restless and ready to go, God lines up students, they just randomly come and start thanking me for how profoundly I have affected their lives. And you know, usually that would be females, but for me it is also males of any race and age, and that's how I know.

There was a time I did a twenty-one-day fast, because I was really tired. I wanted to hear from God to guide change, because I get restless, you know. [Laughs] So I thought, "Maybe I'll go into immigration law and be an administrative judge in Chicago." I was coming up with the next project. [Laughs] So I said, "Maybe I should ask God." And so I fasted for twenty-one days. Let me tell you what happened. Every day for twenty-one days, I either got four students in front of me telling me how I'm impacting them, or alum students calling, sending email — it was hilarious. I knew it was God. After like the seventh day of this, I'm said, "Okay, God, got it! God, got it! Okay, I'm not going to do it. I'm not going anywhere."

Yes. But [laughs], oh God is good. What can I say? The support class I offer is optional. And for most law schools anything optional does not draw more than thirty per cent of the cohort. I have consistently — and I have to say it's God and prayers — drawn seventy to eighty-five per cent. And I don't have money for pizza. I don't. [Laughs] The programs that have pizza can't draw more than forty percent. So I don't know what I'm doing right, but I know I'm praying every day [laughs]. That's the constant thing.

I know you pray for students and you pray with students. How do you manage that?

I ask.

You ask them?

Yes, I do. And I've never gotten into trouble.

Do you sometimes have people say no? No, thank you?

No, because here's what happens: The Holy Spirit is my helper. So either I don't ask because I don't feel led to ask, but every time I've said, "Do you pray? Because I think you need to be spiritually-centered." That's always my leadway into sharing. A lot of times students will come in, and they think they know what is wrong, so they'll say something like, "I need to drop a class." Most advisors will say, "Oh, sure, which class?" And they'll drop it and they're gone. But I ask, "Oh, why do you need to drop the class?" Because I want to know. And sometimes they don't really need to drop the class. Ninety percent of the time, students' issues have nothing to do with the presenting issues. [Laughing]

It has to do with their centeredness. Are they confident? Are they humble? Are they paying attention to the Almighty? They’re worried about their grades but they have so many other challenges in life. I might ask, “Do you pray?” And sometimes I say, "Do you go to church?" "Well, I go to church when I am home." So often they come to law school and forget church. And I say: "You can't do that. So here is a list of churches you could go to at different times. You need to be centered, because life is not about grades. It's not about you being happy. And it's not about you figuring out whether you’re going to do criminal law or not.”

I say, "You can't be running around trying to figure it all out. You can calm down and let God direct you. Because he does that, you know." And then towards exams, a lot of them will come in to see me, and there is a lot of nervous energy. And I go, "Should I pray with you?" Or I might say to them, "I am praying for you." And so next semester, they come and then there is the conversation about, "I really felt a lot of peace when I was doing..." So when I say it's a ministry, I really mean it. I feel blessed, even though I could be restless. [Laughs]

I know that it's a God-thing. It has to be. When people ask me about what I’m doing, I say, “I think it's a God-assignment that just keeps changing depending on the stage of my life."

About the Interviewer

Marcia Bosscher is the former editor of The Well and now an associate with InterVarsity's Faculty Ministry. Having been married to a professor and sharing life with grad students and faculty in a campus church, she has a deep interest and care for those in the academy. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with a golden-retriever mix and a diverse array of lodgers and travelers.

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