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Woman of the Year lifts others, too

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Clara Awé is happy to help anyone — it’s just part of her nature.

But her real talent lies in helping women — students, co-workers, friends — to excel.

Awé, director of urban health in the College of Pharmacy, will be honored as UIC’s Woman of the Year, chosen by the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women. The annual award is a way for the campus to recognize women who have contributed to the UIC community of women and to women in general.

“From the first time I met Clara, it was apparent that she was on a mission — a mission to assist women in their efforts to advance as individuals, both professionally and personally,” said Carla Knorowski, associate dean for development and external affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I was struck by her tremendous sense of commitment to advancing women at UIC.”

Awé, who came to the United States 24 years ago, puts great value in education. She earned a bachelor’s and graduate degree from Roosevelt University and a doctorate in higher education administration from Northern Illinois University.

This fall, she will receive her second doctorate degree from UIUC in educational policy analysis, with an emphasis in research methodology and sociology of education.

She is proud of all her degrees, but especially the latest doctorate because she was able to work with renowned sociologist William Trent.

Awé came to UIC in 1991 from Northeastern University, where she was a faculty member in marketing and advertising. She also taught management courses at Chicago State University.

She has been a member of the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women for seven years, chairing and co-chairing several subcommittees.

She is focused on providing leadership opportunities for all women on campus — not just for faculty and administrators, but for any woman who wants to better herself.

“We looked at leadership opportunities that could be targeted to a large population of women,” she said.

Awé learned about Leadership Illinois, an intensive training program that promotes the development of women in administration.

She attended the program and was so impressed, she lobbied then-chancellor David Broski to set aside funds for UIC women to attend the program each year.

“I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity for the leadership of women at UIC,” Awé said.

Awé established another program to mentor employees who are interested in moving into administration.

“I felt we didn’t need to go outside the university to find leadership,” she said. “We already have talented and dynamic women and men on campus that we connect with.”

Participating staff members praise the program.

“Being paired with a veteran at the university has helped me to understand the university structure and culture and made my transition a smoother one,” said Mary Toliver, assistant to the director in the office of mathematics and computer education.

“While the mentoring program provides mentors to UIC staff, Clara herself is a mentor and role model to students and new professionals on campus.”

Awé said she has been able to implement these programs because of the support she has received from others.

Rosalie Sagraves, dean of the College of Pharmacy, is one of the people she credits for giving her the resources to keep these programs going.

“I’ve been very lucky the campus administrators have supported these programs,” Awé said. “It has made my job, my quest, my vision, very easy.”

Her male colleagues have been helpful as well, she said.

“We do learn from the men,” Awé said. “They have been and still are in key positions. Learning from them will help us revolutionize the academy.”

Awé said although the university has made considerable strides, there is more to be done.

Her next project will be to encourage UIC to examine salary disparities between academic professionals.

It isn’t hard to see where Awé gets her passion for women’s rights.

Her mother, Philomena Okorie, had seven daughters — a stigma in Nigeria, their native country.

“In the culture I come from, having seven girls was unheard of,” she said. “People held the stereotypical view of the way girls should be and their roles in life.”

Awé said that didn’t faze her mother.

“She had a quiet, fierce determination,” she said. “She always said ‘What a man can do, a woman can do, and in most cases better.’”

Awé praises her father, Michael Okorie, CEO of a major telecommunications conglomerate in Africa and Italy. His family pushed him to leave his wife and marry another woman in hopes of having a son, but he refused.

“He cut off his relationship with his family,” she said. “And then he gave us the education we needed, he gave us everything. My sisters and I went on to excel.”

And excel they did. They all hold college degrees at the master’s level and above.

“My mother said we should never be ashamed of being girls,” she said. “We’re very independent — that is because of my mother.”

After her mother died in 1995, Awé started a scholarship in her name.

“She was an educated woman and she believed in woman’s rights,” Awé said.

“It’s very appropriate to have a scholarship in her honor.”

Awé’s husband of 23 years, Yinka (“my partner”), is a corporate attorney and CPA.

They have two sons, Abiola and Bola, whom Awé is “so proud of.”

Abiola, 22, graduated from UIUC magna cum laude. He is a medical student at Northwestern University.

Bola, 18, is a freshman at UIUC.

Awé doesn’t have much free time, but when she does, she uses it to exercise.

She is also a practicing Buddhist.

“I find time for self-reflection,” she said. “That is very important.”

Above: Clara Awé, UIC Woman of the Year.
Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

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