[INTERVIEW] Jesse Oduro’s Journey to the 2016 Olympics


It’s fun to do the impossible.

Jesse Oduro is training to qualify to fence at the 2016 Olympics. He has a huge dream and The UP Lab is here to help.

We are partnering with Jesse to pilot our sponsorship program and work out the kinks in the program in hopes of directly helping more individuals achieve their biggest goals.

We interviewed Jesse a year ago and his message was, no matter the discouragement to keep dreaming. The important thing is to make definitive moves to get closer to obtaining your dream. That’s what he has been doing. Let’s catch up with Jesse and learn more about his fencing.

The last time we interviewed you for The UP Lab was over a year ago, can you fill us in on what has happened since then?

Quite a bit has happened. I completed a few projects and graduated from college. I completed an art piece as part of the TEDxUCIrvine talks, put together a benefit concert to raise $5000 for To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), and took an internship at the American Diabetes Association of Orange county as a grant writer for a couple of months.

I moved back home to the San Fernando Valley to sort myself out and figure out what I really want to do. The stress of the job market and not knowing what I wanted to do had taken a toll on me. Breakdowns had become normal and I would often wake up and ask myself, “What am I doing with my life?”

My parents have been encouraging me to go back to school but, in addition to taking out more loans, I wouldn’t know what to pursue. They have been pushing me to pursue money before passion. Although I understand that money runs our world, I don’t want to spend the energy and vigor of my youth chasing money. I want to make good money and enjoy the finer things in life but I want to do something meaningful to me. My family finds this naive and overly idealistic.

Instead of focusing so much on my future success, I’m learning to immerse myself in the process of obtaining success and allow myself to fully experience life. This has helped me a lot to become a well-rounded individual.

For instance, I recently took a part-time job at a Lowes Home Improvement Store. It looks bad that, as a college graduate, I’m working a low paying job, but to me its part of the learning experience. I’m learning how to work with people from all walks of life and adapting to a job I wouldn’t have been comfortable with earlier in my life.

I feel a lot of pressure from my parents to become successful, for which their measuring stick is the amount of money I  make. It’s not entirely wrong that these expectations have been placed on me. Where I come from, poverty is real and you’re a nobody if you can’t provide for your family. It’s even worse if your parents have sacrificed to get you to America and you don’t seek out a way to make a lot of money.

These expectations weigh heavily on me because although I want to make my family proud, I don’t want to sacrifice my personal agenda of doing something extraordinary with my life. I want to have the best of both worlds but I will place my passion first.


What’s your history with fencing? It seems kind of random.

It’s actually is a random story. I had never heard of fencing prior to moving to the United States. I saw it once when I watched the Olympic Games on TV but didn’t think much of it. I was a soccer player but, due to injuries and being out of shape, I wasn’t getting playing time with my high school soccer team.

I remember being frustrated on game day. My coach had cut me from the roster and, as I was walking to my locker, I saw a couple of students playing with swords. I was quite intrigued and stuck around to watch. Before I knew it, Mr. Schiller, the fencing coach, handed me a weapon to try it out. I practiced for about a month and entered my first competition where I took 2nd place in men’s novice foil and placed in the top 8 in both sabre and epee.

From there on, I became an integral part of the team and competed in the So. Cal Scholastic Fencing League. My teammates, Joseph and Bryan, and I qualified for the 2008 United States Fencing Association’s summer national tournament in San Jose, Calif.

After high school, I competed for UC Irvine against schools like UCSD (a division 1 ranked team), UCLA, Arizona State, UCSB and CalTech.


Why have you decided to fence now, again, after letting go of it during college?

Fencing is a passion. I’ve really enjoyed the idea of sword fighting since my childhood. I remember playing with my friends as a kid in Ghana and mimicking moves we saw from the The Three Musketeers and Zorro movies.

It’s unfortunate that due to focus on internships and work that I let go of fencing during my senior year of college. I never strayed too far away, though. I made time to regularly go to fencing practices and spectated at tournaments to stay in the community.

I have a huge opportunity to make history as Ghana’s first Olympic representative and, more importantly, I have the opportunity to introduce a slightly new sport to Ghana.

To some, competing in the Olympics is an impossible dream. It would be fun to do the impossible.

What do you foresee as being the biggest hardships as you work toward the 2016 Olympics?

The biggest issue so far has been getting access to higher quality training equipment and facilities. Fencing is an expensive sport and to compete at the Olympic level requires a lot of individual practice with a great coach. Money is tight and not having a large sponsor is my biggest roadblock at the moment. Other than funding, I don’t foresee many obstacles. With funding, I”ll be able to upgrade my equipment and afford more technical training. My coaches have confidence in me and I’m confident in my capabilities. My coaches’ confidence in me inspires me to do my best and I hope to make them proud by qualifying for the dream.

What does your training schedule look like?

I’m focused on developing a strong foundation with cardio work and weight room sessions. I plan to re-start full time blade work and technique training in September at Avant Garde Fencing Studios and Salle D’asaro. I’m hoping to raise enough money to afford more one-on-one sessions with my coaches.

I’m also on a nutrition program and plan out my meals a week in advance.


Which tournaments do you plan on participating in?

My coaches will help me decide which tournaments to attend based on my qualification route to the Olympics. At the time of this interview, I plan on participating in the Korfanty Cup in Chicago, the World Cup in Kazan, the African Championships, the Cole Cup in London and the North American Cup.

What do you do when you aren’t fencing?

I love all things music. When I’m not fencing, I’m out collecting records or at a concert to see some of my favorite bands and discovering new artists with friends. Music truly inspires my every step. I’ll be putting up a playlist from time to time on my website.

Check out Jesse’s website and support by liking his Facebook fan page!

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On The Rise: Naomi Primero – How to Figure Out What to Do with Your Life

1186194_10201490121368177_1671790335_n The thought of taking a year off from everything is paralyzing. I have to go to school to get a job! I’ve got to work to make money! A year off sounds like a long time, and it is, but it’s a year of figuring out what you want to do and learning about yourself.

Naomi Primero, Naomi Primero, 18, is finishing up her gap year before attending the University of California, Berkeley in the fall. She took a year off after high school to travel and figuring out how she was going to spend the next few years of her life. A year away from academic institutions has treated her well as she moves into the next chapter of her life to study a subject she’s interested in.

This is our interview with Naomi recapping her year off and the consequences of making risky decisions.

TUL: Tell us about yourself.

NP: One of the most constant things in my life is that I’ve been the short one. I used to be really sensitive about it and then I started to ask myself “Why should I be sensitive about it? I might as well use it and make fun of myself.” That’s kind of my ice breaker with people.

Embracing [my shortness] was something that I learned over time, and it was a challenge. I believe that change comes really slowly. It’s not something that happens just like that. The only reason people can perceive change is because they haven’t seen that thing in a while and something made them realize that change had happened.

I was already laughing about myself before I had even realized it.

What was your high school experience like?

I was home schooled up to 8th grade and went to a private high school in Massachusetts, about an hour north of Boston.

Looking back on it, my high school experience definitely gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of things, more culturally than intellectually. Since it was a boarding school, there were a lot of international students from across the world. My group of friends was made up of a girl from Florida, two girls from Chicago, a girl from San Francisco, and a girl from Shanghai.

What were you involved in during high school?

I ran cross country and I still run a lot. I was in the orchestra. I played viola and piano. I also sang in the choir. I did a lot of musical initiatives in high school. I was also in a musical so theater was a really big part of my life. I helped start a  music technology program. I was also a designer for random stuff like school spirit t-shirts and bags. I had been trying to get the school to allow me to paint murals for a long time–that didn’t work out but I’m glad I tried. *laughs*

One thing that I’m really proud of doing in high school was I researched solar power and the possibility of it on my campus. I had already been interested in environmental science during my senior year and I wanted to pursue that a little deeper so I decided to form my own [research] with my environmental science teacher.

[During my research,] I told my teacher “Mr. Black, you know I’m doing this because our school doesn’t really have a good history of having alternative energy, but I don’t know how far my research will go because they’ve already said ‘no’ so many times.”

He said “Well, you’ll start a seed, I promise. You’ll start a seed of thought and that’ll start everything.”

I visited my high school [a few weeks ago] and spoke to my teacher and he told me, “I wanted to let you know that three seniors this year took on your project and they’ve been working on the information. They’re going to present their ideas to one of the boards of the school and I already have students lined up for the next year to take over your work.”

That’s really cool!

You’re very involved in art, but you chose to study environmental engineering. How did that happen?

I literally have no idea. I thought I wanted to do biomedical engineering at the end of senior year. That was because I grew up in a medicine-based family.

It was actually one of the bigger reasons I decided to take my year off. I [asked myself] “Is that something I really want to do?” I volunteered at a hospital the past summers and I did not enjoy my time there. Then, I talked to my brother who suggested I take a year off to figure myself out. He had been suggesting it since March of my senior year. The first time he suggested it to me, I was like “Are you joking me? That’s really funny.” I made fun of him, but look where that got me.

It made sense. I was burnt out from high school anyway. I could take a year off and learn a lot about myself first before delving into college stuff, where they assume you [already] know what you’re gonna be. *laughs*

10432313_10203124259140600_1052818748_nWalk us through what you’ve done this past year from 2013 to 2014.

I actually had a college lined up [after high school] and didn’t decide to do my gap year until mid-summer. I was really scared because I didn’t think they would accept my request for deferral. Thankfully they did.

The first thing I did in the beginning of September was work on an organic farm in North Carolina for a month. It was cool because I was working. On. The. Farm. I would go out with my boots and I’d be plowing away at the dirt.

How did you find that organic farm to work on?

Through organization called Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms (WWOOF). It’s an international organization where farmers can sign up to be hosts and people sign up [to work] on a farm in exchange for food and shelter.

After that, I interned for an NGO called Sustainable Harvest International (SHI). They do different initiatives in Latin America and work with indigenous farmers on sustainable agricultural methods.

I was based in Punta Gorda which is the biggest town in Southern Belize–biggest means like 5,000 people. It was different because I was going into a totally different culture where things were not as efficient as they are in the U.S. I was there for about two months.

One of the things we interns worked toward was the organic fair–it was a big event for the farmers in Southern Belize. There was a lot of office work involved, but we also had the opportunity to go out to the villages to meet farmers and see their farms. Their farms were more like…the jungle. It was crazy.

During that time, I decided, or realized–whatever term you want to use–that I wanted to do environmental engineering. I was like “This is really, really cool. I think I want to do this.” It wasn’t really a moment of revelation–like an epiphany–that people always say. I just decided, “I’m gonna do this.”

I went back home in mid-November and reapplied to colleges until December.

January through March, I volunteered for the local conservation district. They had a technical and an education sector. Although I did have the opportunity to sit in a couple meetings with the tech group, I mostly worked with the education group.

After that, I went to Honduras with the UC Davis Water Brigade, I worked with a community to help complete their new water system. I got my sweat on pickaxing and shoveling out a ditch for water pipes. On the last day, we gave an education spiel to kids of the community about what we did and what they can do to help keep water clean and usable. Of all my trips this year, this was my favorite because of all the amazingly friendly people–both Hondurans and students–I met.


Do you recommend that all high school graduates take a year off?

Definitely. One of the things about my high school is that, since we are an “elite” prep school, a lot of students work really hard and expect to get into the best colleges. It’s a crazy competitive school. High school, in my opinion, has become a competition for college.

In high school, I feel like everything comes at you like bam!bam!bam! One [thing] right after the other. You’re so distracted by everything that you have to do. “Oh my gosh! I have to study for my SATs and my APs. And I have to get straight As or else my parents blah, blah, blah.”

With all of those preparations and the stress that we put upon ourselves, we never actually give ourselves time to explore [ourselves] and to figure out the way our minds work. You can’t really do that without a lot of time off. That’s the major reason why I think people should take a year off. You literally have an entire year to do whatever you want.

But there’s a thing about that.

When you make a decision [at that age], it could be your parents making the decisions, but it’s ultimately you who makes the decision. When you let your parents’ influence make the decision [for you], you don’t really have a right to complain later because you let them do that.

When you take a year off, you can do whatever you want, but there lies the responsibility of taking care of everything that happens. If you screw up later, the blame’s only on you, but if you end up doing amazing things, good for you.

My parents and a lot of my friends were skeptical when I was planning my gap year. My dad would say “After this year you might not want to pursue an education anymore and that’s really important nowadays. You’re just gonna want to travel the world and you’re going to find some boy overseas and just leave us.” *laughs*

A friend said “Aren’t you just running away from college? Aren’t you just being scared?” Now that I think about it, it was the scarier thing to take the year off because  it was my responsibility to make sure I didn’t become a hobo by the end of the year.

I had to be motivated to do the things that I wanted to do.

There are lots of amazing things that everyone wants to do, but these ideas don’t come to fruition because they didn’t have the motivation or the energy to actually start doing it.

Are your parents glad you took a year off?

I’m pretty sure my mom’s been thinking it’s the best thing ever. I think she realizes the importance of this year off for me. My dad has always been the harder one to convince, but I think he’s beginning to understand and he better because my little sister now wants to take a gap year. *laughs*

How do you think high school students can convince their parents to be okay with taking a year off?

One of the issues with taking a year off, at least for me, was the money aspect because I’d be traveling. It was particularly tough [for me] because we were not in the greatest financial situation when I decided to do this. So I told my parents  “I’ll do this and I’ll pay off every single one of my trips and I’ll find a way to do it. I promise.” *laughs*

If you want to [take a year off], you can do it, you just have to find the way and the motivation to do it and take responsibility.

You just have to tell your parents “I know what I’m getting myself into and, whatever happens, this will remain my decision. Whatever result, whatever I become, either a hobo or an amazing, young entrepreneur, that will be all my responsibility. That will all be on me.”

What’s art’s position in your life now that you’re pursuing engineering?

It’s still a giant part of my life, but I know it’s not going to be the thing that I dedicate the most time to. It’s something that keeps me going.

I feel the profession that people choose isn’t because it’s a thing that they want to consistently do. It’s really based on the circumstances that they find themselves in and choosing a certain path between the things that they love to do.

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Best Thing To Do When You’re Overwhelmed with Work


As you continue striving for greatness, you’re inevitably going to meet moments of transition and hardship. Whether it be graduating from school, getting your first real job, getting laid off, losing a loved one, moving to another country, or getting married, these transitions are going to hit hard.

Perhaps you’ve dealt with a situation like this before already.

Remember when you realized you took on way too many responsibilities at work? Or that time you were involved in too many organizations and held too many leadership positions? Or when you were studying for your exams and realized you took on too large of a course load?

Remember being overwhelmed? By the time you realize it, it’s a too late to plan ahead of time.

You have 4 options.

These defining moments hit you when you least expect it. When thrown into such situations, it may seem like life-or-death and you become paralyzed.

You have to make a decision and your options boil down to:

  1. Drop everything and give up
  2. Complain about all the work you have to do
  3. Drop a few responsibilities to lessen the weight
  4. Hustle to complete everything you set out to do

Although option four is the most difficult, it is the best choice, with number three as the next best option (you will probably do a bit of number two as well).

It’s not just about working harder or smarter.

Hustling is better than working harder or smarter. Hustling involves a combination of working both hard and smart with a little extra umph. Hustling means to be aggressive or force one’s way, to work energetically. When you decide to step up and push your limits, you can’t be passive. You must be active, you must be aggressive and push forward.

You have to stay cool, strategize, and own the situation. You have to hustle.

This is how I hustled.

The last time I was extremely overwhelmed with work was–surprise–in college.

I was taking a class about radiochemistry techniques and an advanced organic synthesis lab, committed to 20 hours of research a week and working 12 hours a week in retail. I was also VP of a dance organization and starting my first business in addition to some smaller projects.

Looking back, I realize that I could’ve given up. I could’ve been easier on myself. I could’ve asked for less hours at work, put less hours into research or dropped a class. But I chose not to sell myself short. I forced myself to work efficiently, to work hard and smart, and to find a way to enjoy everything I did. I made every second count. I hustled.

I brainstormed for my business while I ran experiments. I practiced singing while walking. The monotony of working in retail allowed me to mentally review chemistry concepts. I took an hour each night to schedule the next day by the hour. I learned to move from one thing to another, turning switches in my brain on and off, redirecting my attention and learning to focus on the topic of importance in each situation.

My social life was almost non-existent, but the sacrifice was worth it because I came out stronger, smarter, and more capable.

You probably have been or will be in the same position, or a more difficult situation.

What do you get when you hustle?

When you choose to hustle, you not only fulfill your responsibilities–you push your personal limits. You grow. You realize that you’re more capable than you thought.

No one else can make you realize that.

When you decide to push your limits, your brain kicks into overdrive mode to increase your output. You take a huge step toward unlocking your potential. After completing everything, you realize you’re capable of taking on a volume of work that you would’ve been overwhelmed by before. Your confidence increases and you believe you can achieve more in the future.

By hustling, you turn an obstacle into an opportunity for success.

Hustlin’, Hustlin’

As you continue to become comfortable with more and more work, productivity and hustling become natural elements in your daily life. This is not limited to work or academics. This applies to any situation that involves completing a task whether it be planning a party, organizing a dinner, completing a project, or starting your own business.

It’s easy to take on a lot of responsibilities and tell people how much work you have to do–it’s easy to give off the perception of being busy. It’s an entirely different thing to actually do everything you say you’re doing and hustling to get where you want to be.

The next time you feel overwhelmed, remember that it’s a brief moment of hardship that will contribute to your long-term development.

It’s about the hustle.

Let us know what you’re hustling to accomplish in the comments below!

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Image source: Karl Orotea

Stop Your Addiction to the Inspiration Buzz


Is productivity important in your life? I’m almost completely sure the answer is yes. The idea of being busy is so deeply embedded in our culture that we even brag about losing sleep because we’re so busy.

The reality is, in a world dominated by social media, the modern definition of productivity has become extremely skewed.

What do I mean?

You probably feel productive when you:

  • Watch a TED talk
  • Read a “how-to” article
  • Watch a “how-to” video
  • Read a self-improvement article
  • Read a celebrity’s tweet and talk about it with your friends
  • Share a video from Upworthy
  • Share an inspirational article from Buzzfeed

Does any of this sound familiar?

These actions give the illusion of being productive, because well, you’re doing something. It’s extremely easy to argue that you’re being more productive. A TED talk taught you something new. A Soul Pancake video taught you that being grateful makes you happier.

We get a buzz from those things. The buzz is amazing. It makes us feel like our innards are made up of puppies, kittens and cotton candy. That buzz makes it easy to convince ourselves that whatever is inducing such an awesome feeling is good for us. That we should do more of it. It becomes addicting. Video after video, article after article, “I’m being so productive because I’m becoming a better person!”

What will you do with your newly-gained knowledge? What will you do when you’re in that state of happiness?

Generally speaking, a reasonable measurement of productivity is your ratio of output to input. The time or work you put into something is your input. The result of your input is your output–a completed project, an A on your exam, a happy client, whatever you desire.

However almost every single situation above has nothing to do with getting closer to achieving your goals. You aren’t being productive by doing those things, you’re being less productive because those things delay the achievement of your goal. You don’t produce anything. You put in time to read the article and watch the video, but the output–new knowledge–often doesn’t lead to anything of importance.

The distinguishing factor is that you do something after you watch a TED talk or watch a how-to video or read a self-improvement article (yes, even the articles here on The UP Lab are useless unless you take some action).

Watch a TED talk that pertains to what you’re interested in studying! It’ll make you appreciate what you’re learning and become more interested–maybe even develop a passion that you will pursue a career in!

Read a how-to article–better yet, read a how-to book–related to a goal you want to achieve, like how to graduate college debt-free or how to make a resume that stands out. Then, here’s the kicker, actually do it!

Read a self-improvement article like 30 Things to Start Doing for Yourself then apply it to your life.

It’s one thing to get a brain-buzz from feel-good videos and articles that make you laugh and lectures that supposedly make you smarter.

It’s another thing to take action and use those resources that to improve your life, to reach your goals, to help someone else reach their goals.

Stop getting buzzed off Buzzfeed.

Go do something unparalleled.


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Photo source: Karl Orotea

Dancers Supporting Education in Kenya at Kenya Dance SoCal


The rumbling of the bass pounds on my eardrums as I watch UC Irvine’s very own Chinese Association Dance Crew (CADC) complete their dance set. Their black t-shirts, accented with gold pockets and gold trim, glimmer in the red lights on stage. The music fades out and the crowd cheers, individual names are screamed and the tremendous amount of support for these dancers is undeniable.

CADC was one of many dance teams to perform at UC Irvine’s Kenya Dance SoCal this past weekend, hosted by Kenya Dream at UCI. The UP Lab was honored to be a sponsor of the event.

The parent organization, Kenya Dream originated in northern California through the idea that, as millions around the world suffer, there are a few who are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy various luxuries in life. Why should this be? Kenya Dream is dedicated to improving educational facilities in Kenya in hopes of providing opportunities for the less fortunate to also enjoy life.

Kenya Dance is a charity dance showcase event which featured various dance crews from respective local areas and has featured teams from MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. The event strives to raise funds for Kenya Dream to achieve its mission of providing Kenyan students with better education.

“Kenya Dance is a good collaborative event of bringing together dance teams from around California. The headliners definitely give a motivational presence for people here,” says Lesmond Chow, a third year student at UCI and vice president of B-Boys Anonymous, a freestyle dance club at UCI. “For most of the people here, it’s their first time performing on stage so Kenya Dance gives an opportunity for dancers to experience what it’s like on stage, being themselves and having fun.”

Each dance team had their own uniform ranging from dapper outfits complete with a bow tie to custom shirts with handsewn patches made by the dancers themselves.

During intermission, the contrasting outfits could be seen scattered throughout the lobby of the stadium. Groups naturally formed, dancers introduced themselves and learned from each other. Teams mixed and mingled.

It was a physical manifestation of the vision for Kenya Dance. People from various backgrounds came together and were unified by one purpose.

David-Njoroge-I Eunice-W Peter-M Mildred-B
David Njoroge I.“I want to be an airplane engineer.” Eunice W.“I want to be a doctor.” Peter M.“I want to be a space scientist.” Mildred B.“I want to be a banker.”

“I have a special place in my heart for Kenya Dance because I did it back in Norcal when I was on a  junior team and my roommate, Danica, is on the board for Kenya Dream,” says Alli Woo, a third year student at UCI who performed at Kenya Dance this year. “[Danica] puts a lot of work into researching all the organizations that they send their profits to so it’s nice to know that they actually help.”

This year, Kenya Dance partnered with the Tiyya Foundation, Orangewood Family & Children’s Center, and The School Fund.

“We work with The School Fund which is like a third party organization. We provide them with the funds and they provide us with students who we will fundraise directly for,” explains Rachel Yip, the Kenya Dream marketing coordinator. “We have donation jars and you can see exactly which students we’re fundraising for.”

The money raised from this year’s Kenya Dance will go toward funding scholarships for the Kenyan students shown above, David Njoroge I, Eunice W, Peter M, and Mildred B.


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Photo source: Juicy Photos