Graduating Student Tapped Wit and Grit To Accomplish His Goals

Yoosuf-Akinlaja Left Nigeria, Alone, at 17 To Pursue Education
Mustapha Yoosuf Akinlaja

Graduating 3L Mustapha Yoosuf-Akinlaja knew he wanted to be a lawyer since his childhood days in Nigeria. Photo by Jesús Pino

May 16, 2023

Until he was 17, Mustapha Yoosuf-Akinlaja grew up one of four children in a two-bedroom apartment in Lagos, Nigeria, playing Scrabble for hours with his father and roaming the midfield as a footballer for St. Gregory’s College, his Catholic prep academy. His father, with whom he shared a love of wordplay, made him memorize every two- and three-letter word in the Scrabble dictionary, reminding him that “Za,” Qi” and “Xu” are worth their weight in gold.

“J.D.” isn’t a valid word on the Scrabble board, but the law degree Yoosuf-Akinlaja will earn from the University of Virginia on May 21 is still priceless. The first-generation college student who staked out an American legal education as his goal in high school has signed on to be a litigation associate in Covington & Burling’s New York office.

Yoosuf-Akinlaja’s journey to the United States began when he made his way to Grambling State University as an unaccompanied minor for his undergraduate years.

“I was finding it difficult to navigate my way to college because neither of my parents had gone and I didn’t know what to do,” Yoosuf-Akinlaja said. “We had a family friend who had gone to Grambling and he told me my records and scores were good enough to apply there.”

He graduated as valedictorian in Grambling’s Class of 2019, an apt achievement for an alumnus of a high school that has produced multiple justices of the Nigerian Supreme Court, and many prominent lawyers and executives.

While in college, although Yoosuf-Akinlaja knew he wanted to argue cases and use his love of language to craft compelling briefs, he didn’t know much else about how to become an American litigator. So he majored in criminal justice, joined the pre-law society and started asking as many questions as he could.

“Grambling was a small school and we didn’t have a lot of resources to figure out how to get into a place like UVA Law,” he said. “So I just went to [American Bar Association] and LSAT fairs and things like that — places where law schools showed up — and I would just ask them a bunch of questions.”

In college, the background soundtrack to his marathon study sessions was usually an American sitcom — preferably “Parks and Recreation,” “The Big Bang Theory” or “The Office.”

Ironically, the circumstances surrounding his UVA admission seemed to play out a bit like an office-comedy plot. For half a year after his December college graduation, he worked in a busy Atlanta law office while waiting to hear on his law school applications. As the quiet administrative assistant tucked into a cubicle filling out basic information on forms, he was a notch or so below the paralegals he supported, and never mentioned that he had recently been admitted to UVA Law.

On a lunch break in March 2020, he checked his financial aid status online and learned that UVA had awarded him a prestigious full-tuition Karsh-Dillard Scholarship.

“I was just buzzing the rest of the day; people were wondering why I was smiling so hard, and they thought I must be up to something,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe it — someone actually looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to give him a full scholarship to one of the best law schools in the country.’”

He wanted to let it sink in and savor it privately before sharing his news. But due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yoosuf-Akinlaja was laid off that Friday, a few days after the office closed in-person operations. He never told anyone at the firm that he would be joining UVA Law’s Class of 2023.

Once he settled into Charlottesville and his online classes, Yoosuf-Akinlaja hit the books and the soccer pitch and joined multiple student organizations with confidence that he attributed, in part, to being tapped as a Karsh-Dillard Scholar.

“Where I grew up, no one does things like this so it can be hard to feel like you belong, but that moment was the biggest indication to me that I belong here and I was meant to be a Virginia lawyer,” he said.

When doubt and anxiety crept in — as it did after he coughed out “Pass” in response to his first cold call — he drew on his resourceful nature and sought out guidance from faculty and staff. He credits Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Sarah Davies ’91 and UVA counselor Dr. Kate Gibson with helping him create classroom strategies to build his confidence and craft a study plan for the remainder of his first year.

He also credits the Barristers United soccer club with preserving his sanity during the isolation of the pandemic. “That was my outlet as a 1L — I would just go out on the field and play, and I met some of my best friends on the field.”

By the end of his first year, Yoosuf-Akinlaja had made the Virginia Law Review and would go on to relish the intellectual milieu as the editor for online notes and articles.

His second year, he was a research assistant for Professor Kimberly Jenkins Robinson, a Peer Advisor and teaching assistant for LL.M. students, and treasurer of the Black Law Students Association. To navigate interviews and the summer associate experience, he drew on those relationships and extensive advice from the Office of Private Practice.

“It was the same kind of approach as undergrad, where I just tried to ask a bunch of questions and learn as much as possible because I didn’t personally know anyone who had done this before,” Yoosuf-Akinlaja said.

This past February, he proposed and helped organize a Virginia Law Review conference highlighting the work of Robinson and others in educational equity. And he spent much of his third year researching, interviewing and knocking on doors to try to establish the innocence of clinic clients through the Innocence Project.

Robinson called Yoosuf-Akinlaja an “engaged and thoughtful student” who was always an active contributor during the seminar class he took with her in the fall of 2022.

“He’s resilient, and he is going to go on to do great things,” Robinson said.

Because Robinson, Davies and others poured so much into him, Yoosuf-Akinlaja said, he had more of himself to pour into his fellow students and the community.

Davies said he “one of those people who just bring a smile to your face.”

“He is kind, funny and truly cares about others,” Davies said. “It has been a joy to know him, and our community has been enriched by having him here.”

In the spring of 2022, his fellow law students nominated him for induction into the Raven Society, the “oldest and most prestigious honor society” at the University of Virginia, co-founded in 1904 by former law professor and acting Dean Raleigh C. Minor and named in honor of former student Edgar Allen Poe. He was inducted later that spring.

Yoosuf-Akinlaja recognizes his background and story aren’t what some might consider “normal,” but he also refuses to consider any part of it a sad tale.

“In Lagos, you were either very rich or just getting by. We had people living under bridges and I have friends in jail,” he said. “But I had both parents, we had food on the table, they sent me to a very good high school and now I’m graduating from UVA and going to Covington & Burling. So I consider myself very fortunate.”

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