Step by Step
Ambitious USC College alum Deara Okonkwo serves as a mentor and inspiration for students in her dance class.
Videosmore videos >
Step by Step
Ambitious USC Dornsife alum Deara Okonkwo serves as a mentor and inspiration for students in her dance class.Video by Mira Zimet
Pulling on a pair of sweats, Deara “DeDe” Okonkwo pirouetted, rumbaed and tapped into summer.
Inside her South Los Angeles dance studio, the image of her petite frame in a cotton-candy-pink sweat suit bounced off the wall-to-wall mirror panels in the room. It would seem that even multiple DeDes couldn’t accomplish what this one has in her 18 years.
At 16, Okonkwo opened DeDe Dance Studio near her family’s home. The nonprofit studio draws disadvantaged children and teens from the community who learn everything from tap and ballet to flamenco and African dance.
Some of her students come from families who are homeless. Fundraisers allow her to provide some parents of her dancers gas money to bring their children to the studio. On occasion, Okonkwo picks up her students and takes them home.
“I think each child should be given an opportunity to have a hobby they love,” Okonkwo said. “So I’ve decided to devote my time to giving back in this way.”
Her mother, Kendra, said her wunderkind daughter has an old soul. That may be true. Now 18, Okonkwo is already thinking about a legacy. And it’s all about leaving the world a better place than she found it.
“When I’m gone from this earth someday, I want my legacy to be about serving underprivileged youths,” she said.
So what’s the rush? Okonkwo said she has much to accomplish before someday becoming the U.S. secretary of education. She knows her 50 or so dance students look up to her, and she takes her role as a mentor seriously.
Okonkwo has become a role model even for some of her students’ mothers.
Evelia Aguirre’s 5-year-old daughter, Maya Montelongo, takes dance lessons from Okonkwo. But it’s Aguirre who is so inspired by Okonkwo that she wants to continue her education. Aguirre said that she dreamed of becoming a Trojan while growing up near USC. But she “went a different way.”
She’s elated to regularly bring Maya to USC, where Okonkwo’s dance students often perform during festivals and events. Before each performance, Okonkwo gives her young dancers a tour of the campus and talks to them about college.
Aguirre has high hopes for Maya.
“Even if something is not meant to be for you, it might be meant to be for your child,” Aguirre said. “DeDe gives children that hope that they could do something with their lives.”
As a child, Okonkwo wanted to be a Trojan.
“Every Sunday after church we would pass by USC and I would say, ‘I’m going to that school,’ ” Okonkwo recalled. “My friends would tell me, ‘You can’t go to USC. It’s too expensive and too prestigious.’ ”
But they didn’t know Okonkwo, an intellectual prodigy who began taking courses at a community college at 10.
By 14, she graduated from high school with an A.A. degree then went to Spain to study language. She enrolled in USC at 15.
“Having positive thoughts and telling yourself, ‘I’m going to do this, and I’m going to accomplish that’ really does work,” she said. “And it helps having parents who believe in you.”
One of Okonkwo’s students knows her dance teacher believes in her. And that gives her confidence.
“When I go to college, I would like to go to USC,” Brittny Rodgers, 10, said. “Because DeDe goes there and DeDe is my leader. I look up to her.”
Related News Items
- Toward a Better World August 24, 2015
- Conquering the Big Apple August 19, 2015
- Meeting Trauma Head On August 18, 2015
- Trusting His Animal Instincts August 14, 2015
- Calculating Fashion Risks July 10, 2015
- A Rescue Mission June 25, 2015
- Data King June 24, 2015
- This Must Be the Place June 23, 2015
- Meet the Fabulous Fulbrights June 8, 2015
- At the Edge of the Known World June 1, 2015
- On the Banks of the Yalu River June 1, 2015
- The Great Explorers June 1, 2015
- In Her Element: Kina Grannis June 1, 2015
- Independence Days May 28, 2015
- Soul of the Machine May 19, 2015
- Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Visits USC May 2, 2015
- Strength of Spirit and Mind April 29, 2015
- USC Mellon Mentoring Awards Recognize Faculty April 17, 2015
- A Change of Heart April 1, 2015
- On the Pulse March 19, 2015