Caldwell College's Titilola Alao
Caldwell College

Caldwell College student-athlete Titilola Alao is giving up a year of eligibility, but not because of an injury or a lack of desire to continue playing. The Cougars volleyball player is beginning medical school as a part of Caldwell’s seven-year affiliation program held in conjunction with St. George’s University in Grenada. The program allows biology majors who complete their liberal arts and pre-med requirements in three years to begin medical school in their fourth year and thus earn a medical degree in a total of seven years instead of eight.

Alao is an excellent student, having earned a spot on the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference All-Academic Team last fall for posting a cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.50. She also was an Arthur Ashe Sports Scholar Award winner and was Caldwell’s Woman of the Year nominee for the New Jersey Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

As impressive as Alao was in the classroom, she was equally outstanding on the volleyball court. A 5-foot-11 middle blocker, Alao will leave as the program’s all-time leader in blocks and hitting percentage while ranking second in total kills.

Why not come back and add to the records, to the wins, and to the championships?

“I’ve been graced with this opportunity that is so massive, I wouldn’t want to trade it just to play volleyball,” she said, referring to the seven-year program. “Being a doctor is my dream and has been all my life, and I want to pursue that dream as soon as possible.”

“Titi exemplifies the kind of student-athletes we have at Caldwell College in that she has pursued excellence in both academics and athletics since she came here,” said Mark Corino, executive director of athletics at Caldwell. “She’s also a perfect example of a Division II student-athlete. She chose a Division II institution because of our seven-year affiliation program, combined with the opportunity to play volleyball at a high level. She excelled in both areas, and is now pursuing her medical degree. We are proud of her accomplishments, and we certainly wish her well as she continues to strive for excellence.”

Her decision to forgo her final year of eligibility is not a usual one, but she is not the usual student-athlete. As Alao developed into a talented volleyball player while growing up, her father, who came to the United States from Nigeria 35 years ago to attend college, was concerned that the sport would take time away from her studies.

“I had to convince him that I could use volleyball to get an education, and it eventually worked out,” she said. “Education has always been primary in our family.”

As she was being recruited by Caldwell and other schools, Alao looked for a program where she could go to medical school early. She found one, but it wasn’t at Caldwell.

“I told (Caldwell) coach (Megan Hrbek) that I wanted to go to a different school, because of the medical school program there,” Alao said. “When I described it to her, coach said, ‘Oh, we have that, too!’ I applied to Caldwell and once I got into the seven-year program, it all made more sense to come to Caldwell.”

Her arrival paid off immediately for the Cougars, who had won just four of 45 matches combined in 2006 and 2007, the first two years of the program’s existence. Along with a talented freshmen class that included all-conference players Amber Mosher and Lauren Roth, Alao helped Caldwell go 18-11 and capture the 2008 CACC North Division.

Although the team’s success continued into 2009 with another divisional crown, Alao was dealing with grief and loss. At the start of the season, her mother died after battling cancer.

“It was the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” she said. “My mother was the most supportive person in my life. She always motivated me. I just wanted to make her proud, and that motivated me to be the best in volleyball and in everything I do. I think about her often and I just want to make her happy by doing my best.”

On the court, she suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament that ended her season after 17 matches. Faced with a long and difficult recovery from a serious injury without the supportive and motivating presence of her mother, Alao did not know what to expect as the fall of 2010 approached.

“Everyone told me that things are never the same after an ACL injury,” she said. “But my recovery went well, and I came back and played well right away.”

With a healthy Alao, the Cougars racked up another North Division title and took the next step, winning the program’s first conference championship and qualifying for the NCAA Division II East Region Tournament.

“Before the season we said that this will be our year,” she said. “I’m very proud to be a part of the first CACC championship.”

Not only is Alao Caldwell’s first CACC Volleyball Player of the Year on the Cougars’ first championship team, she is the first student-athlete and the first female to attend medical school as a part of Caldwell’s seven-year affiliation program with St. George’s.

Sook Choi, professor of biology at Caldwell, sees the connection between being a successful athlete and becoming a doctor.

“Any successful athlete must have commitment, motivation, discipline and focus while being flexible enough to be a good team worker,” she said. “Successful doctors must possess the same characteristics. They must be able to work as a good team member for the good of patients, and must be disciplined, motivated and committed to the profession.

“In the last three years, I have observed Titi closely, and from my more than 40 years of teaching and advising students into the health professions, I know that she has all of these attributes and more. As a female minority, I know that she had to overcome many obstacles to be a successful athlete as well as an outstanding student. My gut tells me that she will be a successful doctor someday.”

Although Alao has been focused on becoming a doctor, she is unsure of what direction she will take once medical school is over.

“The kind of doctor I want to be changes all the time,” she said. “I’m interested in emergency medicine, and I’d like to participate in Doctors Without Borders (an international medical humanitarian organization that assists people in need). My ultimate goal is to open a hospital in Nigeria.”

Like any coach, Hrbek will miss having her all-conference and all-region middle blocker on the court this fall. But the early departure was hardly a surprise.

“Early on I knew what her priorities are: God, family, academics, volleyball,” Hrbek said. “She always has been that way, and you can’t say that about everybody.

“We’ll certainly miss her presence on the court. She is a fierce competitor, and she always found a way to get a kill or a block when we needed it. The fact that she’s leaving with a year left makes it a little tougher, but we know she has more important things to accomplish. We appreciate everything Titi has done for the program, and I know she will be successful in this next phase of her life.”