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Howard Gensler | Philly.com | September 17, 2019

Former Penn women's basketball player Princess Aghayere is using the sport to empower women in Liberia

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Princess Aghayere came to the University of Pennsylvania four years ago to play college basketball and receive an education that would help her get to medical school or do something else to better the world.

She had been a basketball star at South Lake High School in Reston, Virginia, but as a freshman at Penn — where she majored in health and society and minored in political science — she would spend most of her first two seasons on the bench. A 6-foot forward, she had All-Ivy frontcourt players Sydney Stipanovich and Michelle Nwokedi ahead of her. It wasn't easy.

"It took time for Princess to adapt to the daily rigors of Penn, both academically and athletically. But she matured immensely," Penn women's basketball coach Mike McLaughlin said. "She started to blossom toward the end of her freshman year and the beginning of her sophomore year."

And once her adjustment was complete, Aghayere soared — and scored. As a senior leader of Penn's 2019 regular season Ivy Champions, she was named second team All-Ivy and second team All-Big 5, averaged 12 points and seven rebounds per game, and was a clutch, versatile shotmaker from inside and out. She also played with a toughness that belied her soft-spoken demeanor.

"She was truly passionate about being a great teammate and player," McLaughlin said.

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Penn was late in recruiting her, Aghayere said, but when she visited the campus and the city, it felt "intimate and comfortable." She liked the coaching staff's sincerity and the women who would be her teammates.

"A lot of what I liked about Penn was being able to explore different things, travel the world, study abroad," said Aghayere. "I wanted to go back to my African roots."

At the time, she wanted to be a doctor or do something in health care because she wanted to help people, and she still may head down that road. But since her graduation in May, Penn and basketball have helped her take a different path — a 4,600-mile one to Liberia, where she has just arrived.

With Penn friends Summer Kollie and Oladunni Alomaja, Aghayere started Rebound Liberia, a youth program whose goal is to use basketball to empower girls in the small West African country.

Planning the program was time-consuming and difficult for Aghayere to balance with her schoolwork and basketball, but anyone who ever watched her attack the hoop knows her tenacity. Besides, said Aghayere, "If you really enjoy something, you make time for it."

The time paid off. This past spring, while she was out running, she got a phone call from Penn President Amy Gutmann telling her that Rebound Liberia was one of the winners of a $100,000 President's Engagement Prize (which is open to seniors graduating by August of the prize year). The award will also provide a $50,000-per-person living stipend for Aghayere and the two women on her new team.

Aghayere will now be spending most of the next 12 months in Liberia — one of the world's poorest countries — working to develop the program, which in addition to building confidence through sport, will offer girls personal development workshops and literacy skills. It kicks off Nov. 23-24 with the first annual Rebound Liberia Basketball Tournament in Monrovia, a harbor city on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. The goal of the program, Aghayere said, is "to help girls figure out the next step after high school and to eventually expand it nationwide."

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Although Aghayere traces her roots back to Nigeria, she and her two Rebound Liberia partners, one of whom is Liberian, thought that working in a smaller country would allow the program to have a bigger impact. Although Monrovia has slightly more than a million people, that's almost a quarter of the country's population.

"The stories out of Liberia are always [about] Ebola or civil war," Aghayere said. "We want to help change that narrative."

Aghayere is especially well-suited to take on that challenge, Gutmann said.

"Princess is an all-star on and off the court," the Penn president said of her 2019 prizewinner. "She embodies what it means to be a Penn ambassador on a global stage. We're thrilled that the President's Engagement Prize is giving Princess, Ola and Summer an opportunity to impact young girls' lives in such a powerful, meaningful, lasting way."

McLaughlin, meanwhile, couldn't be happier. "Princess exceeded my expectation in every positive way. In the minds of her teammates, she left Penn as one of the all-time great players and people. Rock-star status."

Aghayere, however, is way too humble to remind anybody of a rock star. She just hopes to use the lessons she learned playing basketball at Penn to help change girls' lives in a country an ocean away.

"We had a great team at Penn, and we really like each other," Aghayere said.

She gives the coaches a lot of credit for creating that team dynamic, for recruiting the right girls and getting them to understand their different roles.

"In high school, you just want to play," she said. "At Penn, you learn there's so much more than just playing, and you realize you don't have to be a star to be a part of the team."

For more information about Rebound Liberia, go to reboundliberia.org.

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