Kristin Stewart, Jan. 29, 2018
Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
For one Airman, the motto “aim high” is an understatement. From collegiate athlete to Ph.D. scientist, the sky’s the limit.
Capt. Olawale Lawal, Air Force Research Laboratory and 2013 Academy grad, shared his experience and life lessons during the University of West Florida’s ROTC commissioning ceremony.
Lawal, the youngest of five boys, was born in Washington D.C., to Nigerian parents. He credits his upbringing for his athletic and academic success.
“In Nigerian culture, they set high expectations for their children. Whatever you do, they expect you do it at a level that you can be respected,” said the munitions research scientist. “That was one of the biggest reasons I always try to aim high.”
In the 1980’s, Lawal’s parents left their three children behind in Africa to try for a better life in America. After 13 years in the U.S., they reunited their family, now with five children. Lawal was 10 years old when he finally met his 19-year-old brother for the first time.
“There was no opportunity for my parents in Nigeria,” said Lawal, who grew up in Texas. “In Nigeria, they’re all about ‘America is the dream’ and it’s true. Now all of their kids are here today.”
In high school, Lawal was recruited for football by the Air Force Academy. He turned down three full football scholarships and two partial academic scholarships to join the Air Force.
“The Air Force Academy coach talked about what I can do, what I can contribute, and who I can become,” said Lawal. “With others, it was just about football and that’s what set the Air Force apart.”
His brother Tim said he was surprised by his brother’s decision to join the Air Force.
“I didn’t know how the rigid structure of the military suit him, but he’s done very well,” said Tim, who is one and a half years older. “He was in the perfect environment to nurture his skill sets that may not have been fully tapped into otherwise.”
Due to a teammate’s injury, Lawal became the starting varsity linebacker as a freshman at the Air Force Academy. While playing in his first game, he was supposed to go after the passer, but his instincts told him the offense was making a different play.
“I felt like they were coming to my side. I tackled the running back, picked the ball up and ran it for a 30-yard touchdown,” said Lawal of the very first play of his college football career. “Whenever I think back to playing football, that’s how I remember it.”
Lawal’s football career ended prematurely after he sustained a knee injury in his junior year. However, his knowledge of the playbook proved useful and he stayed on as a student coach.
“I had the opportunity to coach the freshmen and also help out with varsity,” said Lawal. “That’s what really got me wanting to be a mentor and a leader.”
Lawal started boxing, a sport he had never played before, because it allowed him to be physically active without effecting his knee injury.
After only two months of training, he won at the academy’s wing open. Nearly 4,000 students, faculty and staff chanted ‘Wale Bomaye,’ borrowing from the ‘Ali Bomaye’ [meaning Ali, kill him! in Lingala] chant for Muhammad Ali, during the 1974 fight against George Foreman in Africa.
“I felt like a superstar,” recalled the 6-foot-3-inch tall officer. “I felt bad for my opponent because you hear that and think ‘this is not looking good.’ ”
After that fight, he was hooked and began intense training. Lawal dropped 46 pounds one month into training.
“That’s what boxing does to you,” said Lawal, who boxed as a heavyweight at 209 pounds. “I would eat about 9,000 calories per day and I was still dropping weight.”
Lawal began competing on the Air Force Academy’s collegiate boxing team. The team won the national collegiate championship in 2011. Lawal also won two individual heavyweight national collegiate boxing titles in 2012 and 2013, with an overall 12-1 win/loss record and six career knock outs.
“Just one loss and I hate it to this day. I hadn’t trained, and I just didn’t have the stamina,” he said about the loss. “He won in the third round by points, but I beat him in nationals, so I made up for it.”
While at the academy, Lawal’s time was divided between studying, coaching, boxing, military training, and maintaining a long distance relationship with his high school sweetheart.
Those academics led him to his true passion and what would define him as an Airman.
“If I hadn’t gone to the academy, I wouldn’t have realized how much I was interested in science and engineering,” said Lawal, now in his ninth year as an Airman.
Lawal’s chemistry teacher recognized his potential in science and showed him the lab and the experiments being conducted.
“I didn’t know you could do this in the Air Force and it opened my eyes,” said Lawal.
Lawal graduated in 2013 with honors, majoring in materials science and chemistry. After receiving a full scholarship, he attended Rice University, completing both his master’s degree and Ph.D. in materials science and nano-engineering in only three years.
“I never want to do that again,” said Lawal of the typical six-year course of study. “It was a roller coaster ride until the end, but I made it through.”
Lawal’s research focused on improving protective equipment for sports and military body armor.
“I love being creative and material science and engineering is about creating new materials or improving old materials,” said Lawal. “I like to think about what new material we will need in the future or what we have that we can improve upon.”
Lawal now uses his experience and education to develop new missiles and warheads that can be integrated into existing missile systems.
“You give him anything and he maximizes it,” said his brother Tim. “You give him a football scholarship, he becomes one of the best players on the team. Give him boxing gloves and he wins an NCAA championship. Give him a chemistry book and he gets a Ph.D. Whatever he sets his mind to do, he’ll get it done, it’s just up to him.”
His mother, Grace Lawal, said she couldn’t be more proud of his academic and professional success. She refers to him as Dr. Wale, the ‘future general’ and she hopes her son makes it to the White House someday.
As if being an athlete, officer, scientist, and public speaker weren’t enough, Lawal is also writing a book on leadership, serves as the drama director at his church and recently started a non-profit African-aid organization delivering clothing, food and medical supplies.
Next year, Lawal plans to deliver the supplies himself to Africa, while also visiting local college students to talk about leadership and success. He enjoys being a motivational speaker and says his prior accomplishments give him credibility to reach out and mentor other students.
“My biggest passion is leadership, mentoring, and influencing the people around me to achieve more than they think they can,” said Lawal.
For Lawal, the future is clear as he continues to pursue other interests and career aspirations.
“I want to go back and teach chemistry at the Air Force Academy and give back, not just from a knowledge standpoint, but also from a leadership standpoint,” said Lawal.
His colleague, Rachel Abrahams, Air Force Research Laboratory, praised Lawal’s contributions to the materials research team and said he would be an “A+” professor.
“He already teaches people around him, said Abrahams. He’s able to convert Ph.D.-level science into layman’s terms so that everyone can understand, but he also does it with politeness and respect.”
At the commissioning ceremony, Lawal spoke directly to the new lieutenants about how to succeed in the Air Force.
“Continue your education, take initiative, and take advantage of any opportunity you have to influence or make a change, because that’s what officers are there for.”
During his speech, words reflected his own accomplished path.
“Remember, this journey is what defines your success not the destination. It was the journey and the process you overcame that made everyone proud,” said Lawal. “You’re going to have ups and downs, but eventually the ups will be higher. As you look back you’ll realize that you’ve come a long way.”