Step by Step

Ambitious USC College alum Deara Okonkwo serves as a mentor and inspiration for students in her dance class.
By Pamela J. Johnson
“I think each child should be given an opportunity to have a hobby they love,” said DeDe Okonkwo, center.

Photo/Dietmar Quistorf
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.”

Okonkwo, a first-generation U.S.-born child from Nigerian parents, was the youngest among 10,000 students in USC’s graduating class of 2008, earning her diploma in English from USC College at 17.

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,” Brittany Rogers, 10, said. “Because DeDe goes there and DeDe is my leader. I look up to her.”