It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and we meet in Kings Place. After a brief tour of the building with some oo’s and ah’s we sit down to speak. I ask Esther to take me back to the start of it all. Where everything began. “My childhood was so fun. We were broke but it was fun.” Part of the reason for this was the fact that her and her brothers went to the same primary school. She lets me know that she had fun but there was a lot going on; and only now does she realise what was happening behind the scenes back then. “My mum was doing 3 different jobs while my dad was doing a course at Uni – in the midst of this they were both in full-time ministry.” The family was stretched financially but Esther’s parents did not want this to hinder their opportunities. “My parents would find creative ways to ensure that we didn’t notice the depth of the issue – when the bailiffs would knock on the door we would play a game where we had to turn off all of the lights and hide behind the sofa”.
Parents are in an interesting conundrum torn between the ambitious desires of their children whilst present in their financial situation. “My parents never sent us to school lacking. They struggled but they made sure that we didn’t lack.” Esther informs me that while her parents were trying their best, the school was on her family’s back and attempted to get social services involved as they didn’t see her parents fit at the time to look after their 3 children. “That would have been quite embarrassing as my parents were foster carers.”
Following on from primary school, Esther went to Oaks Park High School and describes her secondary school experience as a rollercoaster. “Year 7 I was the biggest goody-two shoes. Everyone saw me as that perfect little girl with the good-looking brothers.” We talk for a while about the changes that take place in the attitudes of students during different years in secondary school. “In Year 8”, she starts to describe how she started running her mouth but was still provided with the benefit of the doubt. “I feel like that was bad for me because constantly being given the benefit of the doubt led me to push the boundaries even more.”
In my own experience of watching my sisters navigate through secondary school and silently observing the transitions they went through. Saw me comparing the similarities of their secondary schooling experiences with Esther’s. I’m sure we’ve all heard adages about the kinds of friends we should keep and the effects they have on us. From “birds of a same feather, flock together” to “show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.” Esther speaks of how from year 8 till year 11 she formed a friendship group – and as young girls still trying to find their feet in the world – they frequently tested the boundaries of the establishment they found themselves in. Her and her friends – who dubbed themselves as “The Parkies”, Esther says with a cringe.
Esther, now a student of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford – lets me know that Oxford wasn’t really on the cards until two of her teachers prompted her about it. Her teacher was very strategic with the way she inspired Esther about Oxford – slowly planting the seed in Esther’s mind that she was indeed a suitable candidate for Oxford. Another person that showed interest in her academic future was her former Head of Year – Mr Foster. Who helped organise a meeting for academically able students with his son who went to Oxford.
We speak about the application process and her excitement upon hearing that she had been invited to Oxford for interviews. “I applied not expecting to get an interview at all.” She recalls the interviews as some of the most difficult interviews she has ever done in her life. A particular question regarding Nelson Mandela and Ethical Philosophy that still proves challenging. She recounts that after she had returned from spending a few nights at Oxford, she went straight to Mr Foster. “He hugged me and assured me that things will all work out. That proved so helpful.”
“I remember the day when we expected to hear a reply. That day, as soon as I heard the postman I ran to the door to collect the letter. I remember tearing the letter and seeing “we are pleased…” – as soon as I saw those three words, I literally got on my knees and started thanking God.” Esther accounts the moment of receiving her offer as having mixed emotions. “I was happy and scared at the same time” she recounts how it was a conditional offer and she needed to get 3 A’s and in some subjects this wasn’t necessarily looking promising.
Throughout our interview, Esther speaks fondly of her teachers who helped to shape and cultivate her potential. But none more so than Mr Foster. “When I told him that I had received an offer, he literally teared up. Thinking about it now, he had so much love for me – it’s so rare to find people, let alone teachers like that.” As Head Girl and the school’s potential first Oxbridge alumni – it was natural that pressure started to mount. Teachers and students all with good-intentions would remind her of her offer, which she felt brought additional pressure. Mr Foster came in strong again; he would help put everything back into perspective. “You’re not doing it for anybody else. You have already made everyone proud. This is all for you.” As Esther speaks you can see her mind go back in time, sitting in his office hearing those words and the sense of calm returns. I was very intrigued with how Esther handled the process and asked if there was anything else that she had to help her cope with the pressure. “I relied on my faith to get me through the pressure. I remember praying fervently and then I felt a sense of peace.”
Esther, a devout Christian, speaks of how her faith not only allowed her to cope with the mounting pressure, it would also prove pivotal for the events that would follow. Esther was volunteering in Florida when she first heard of the news “I got a message from Mr Foster’s son saying that Mr Foster had been diagnosed with cancer.” Initially, Esther speaks of her shock, a thousand thoughts were running through her mind but she remained hopeful with the fact that she could give Mr Foster a parting gift; that would be her acceptance to Oxford.
Things took a turn for the worse when the evening before Results Day, while Esther was still in Florida, she received the news that the state of Mr Foster had become even more severe. “Doctors were saying that he only had a few weeks, at max, to live. The news hurt me but I remained hopeful that he would be able to see all the hard work and encouragement he had invested me, pay off.” It wasn’t until the day before results day that Esther received the news that Mr Foster had passed. A moment which has shaped her ever since.
Esther describes her confusion and nervousness while she continued to refresh but was greeted with the same UCAS page that contained no confirmation of her Oxford acceptance. “Results day was one of the most testing days of my life. I remember I logged onto UCAS and didn’t see my offer.” The memories still remain vivid. Her words are palpable. Even I start to feel the amalgamation of the pressure and see myself present in the situation. Retelling the story I notice a buoyant sense of maturity as if looking back she could have told that everything would have worked out fine. She continues. “I gauged after a while that I probably haven’t got my grades and that’s why it hasn’t refreshed as an unconditional offer.” As someone that’s gone through a few results days, I understand how daunting the day can be. Hoping that the hard work you (hopefully) put in has paid off. Hoping the grades that appear on that piece of paper have merited you to go on to the sixth form, college or university you applied for. “I didn’t want to go into school because I knew as soon as I came through the doors everyone would be looking at me asking if I had got my grades. I wasn’t ready for it, especially as Mr Foster had passed the day before I was already in a bad place.” A few moments pass and Esther receives a phone-call from a teacher asking her to come into school; confirming that she had not got the grades required. “I remember when I got to the school, I managed to dodge everyone and reach the office of the teacher responsible for higher education. I still remember coming into the office and feeling like such a failure.”
Having faith is interesting – it is naive to the ‘realities’ that so often provide a framework for what can be considered possible and impossible. Speaking of how her faith helped guide her through the process was inspiring. “On results day I had a feeling that I didn’t get the grades but for the large part, it didn’t throw me off. I was assured that I was going to Oxford.” Esther’s UCAS experience was certainly not the average student’s. In the next few days, she went through a process of remarking exams, during the process one of her grades came back re-corrected and went up 10 marks! Meriting her with an A. Upon arrival of this grade change she made sure to contact Oxford and update them. A week went by, Esther recalls her ambivalence as to where she would be going; “days had gone by and I didn’t know where I was going.” It wasn’t until Esther’s Biology grade went up to half a mark to an A and she updated Oxford that she received an email from Oxford stating that they had revoked her rejection! When it was only a few days prior that she had received a rejection letter from Oxford in the post. “I’ve literally got a rejection and acceptance letter from Oxford.” The story is remarkable and one that puts me in the feels, as Esther recounts the story I can’t help but envision that there must of been someone or something that was orchestrating everything on Esther’s behalf. The situation and the way everything played out, it’s certain that Esther is favoured by Someone.
While juggling the rigorous demands of an Oxford theology degree, Esther was inspired by her personal experiences and her relationship with God to set up a charity that would help empower the next generation. “Through all of the things that I had been through and the changes that I had made in life, I just thought it was time I should give back.” While Esther had held the idea for 3 years it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that she brought it to fruition. Esther has worked with a primary school in Hackney; helping three young girls prepare for their transition from primary school to secondary school. “That was a very rewarding experience; I saw them as little sisters and they inspired me to work even harder to be the best possible role model.”
The future is certainly bright for Esther Odejimi. We speak of her plans for Opened Palm: she mentions her goal of partnering with top universities; such as Oxford, to provide day trips, summer schools and scholarship opportunities for the students that Opened Palm seeks to help. She also mentions the plan to introduce a mentoring programme with professionals and high achieving students. Through my conversation with Esther; I’m reminded of the importance of such mentoring programmes (of such a programme I am a beneficiary of – through the Amos Bursary). The ability to share experiences, resources and provide opportunities that would otherwise not have been available is profoundly necessary. A well-known biblical teaching tells us that “it is more blessed to give, than to receive” and in order to give – our palms must be open.
Esther’s vision for her Opened Palm charity is amazing and on the 10th of December she will be holding an annual fundraising dinner; which is sure to be an enjoyable evening. For more information; check out the event invitation here.
Facebook: Opened Palm