By Jesse Berlin
Building relationships is a valuable skill to learn regardless of the profession, and freshman interest groups are a way to get it on campus.
Freshman interest groups, also known as FIGs, are optional programs organized through Residential Life and categorized by major. The 15-20 members live near each other in the same residence hall and take several of the same general education courses together in their first semester.
MU alums Drs. Dale and Janai Okorodudu met as first-year undergrads at Hudson Hall, where they were both involved in FIGs.
“A lot of the people we did FIGs with were in our classes, so it was great to live with them and study with them and then also do classes with them, and so you developed a lot of long-term friendships,” said Janai. “Some people that I still know today on Facebook are from those freshman interest groups in college, so it does help to do classwork and live together in the same spot.”
The couple came to MU as pre-med students, drawn to the research opportunities offered through the EXPRESS program, which trains undergrads from underrepresented groups for biomedical careers. Living in the same residence hall and participating in science FIGs, their paths crossed.
“I think the first time I remember ever seeing her was in Hudson Hall,” said Dale. “She was walking across, coming down there on her way to Rollins, and I remember thinking, ‘I can marry that girl.’”
Janai first saw Dale at a FIG orientation when he was sitting at the front of the classroom and was one of the first to stand up to introduce themselves.
Dale would go on to be the founder of Black Men in White Coats, an organization aimed at increasing the number of Black men in the field of medicine.
“A report came out from the Association of American Medical Colleges saying the number of Black men applying to med school was decreasing,” said Dale. “Less Black men applied to med school in 2011 than in 2002, so I saw that report, and that’s when we did the first Black Men in White Coats video.”
Since 2013, Black Men in White Coats has produced short documentaries to spread awareness, hosted youth summits to spark interest and built a social network through which doctors can virtually mentor students.
“People believe in his cause, and I think people now have a place to turn to ask their questions, for mentorship,” said Janai. “Just being able to see that you can be a doctor as a minority is a success because a lot of these kids and young adults don’t even have that in their life.”
Today Dale works as a pulmonary and critical care physician at the Dallas VA Medical Center while Janai works in family medicine.
After all these years, the Okorodudus still fondly remember their days in residence halls.
“My wife and I always said that whenever our kids move out, and we get old, we’re going to live in a retirement home to get close to dorm life again,” said Dale.
For him, the biggest takeaway was “learning how to embrace different people” and building relationships that he teaches to his mentees today.
“Here I am, a young Black guy, likes hip hop and all the stuff like that, dressed a certain way, and then I’m rooming with a white guy, who is an all-American white guy, and turned out to be great friends.”
Dale remembers waking up every morning to his roommate’s alarm, Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” and he still thinks about him whenever he listens to Marley.
For Janai, it was the support group atmosphere, especially because FIG members are there for similar reasons.
“If you put a bunch of people together with the same goal in mind, they all have the same ideas and the same endgame, you kind of help each other get there,” said Janai. “You had other people in college that you can rely on.”