"It was [a] really fun experience but [it] also put me in contact with some pretty cool students from across the country," Kukoyi told ABC News. "A lot of them are older and they're like seniors or juniors that applied to many prestigious schools."
That was his original inspiration. Now Kukoyi, his school's first Black National Merit Scholar, has been accepted to more than 15 prestigious universities, including Stanford, Yale, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, Emory, Rice, Johns Hopkins, Duke, the University of Alabama, Case Western Reserve University, UAB, Auburn University, and Washington University in St. Louis.
He has also been awarded more than $2 million in scholarship offers.
Covid sparked his interest in public health
Kukoyi eventually decided to attend The University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill and has accepted the school's Morehead-Cain Scholarship, the oldest merit scholarship in the country. "With this scholarship, I’m able to choose the path less traveled by—the road not taken—and define my own journey," he wrote on Instagram.
The teen hopes to pursue a career in Health Policy & Management, a decision impacted by the pandemic, and his efforts in helping the Alabama Department of Health get residents vaccinated.
Last August, Kukoyi was among the four winners of a TikTok contest for Alabamians between the ages of 13 and 29, sponsored by the state health department. The contest was part of the department's way to encourage students to get vaccinated against Covid-19 before the school year started.
At that time, Alabama had the lowest vaccination rate in the U.S — a fact Kukoyi brought to his audience's attention in the video.
In the video's text, he said, "So why did I get the vaccine? This is my way". He then added that Covid deaths shouldn't be "normalized" and that the vaccines are "safe and effective".
"Covid really sparked [my interest in public health] because that was the first time that I really saw how clear the health inequities were," Kukoyi told ABC news. "African Americans had a much higher chance of dying from Covid than white Americans ... it was almost like there were two separate pandemics impacting our nation, and we saw [some people] marginalized and impacted way more."
Achievements aside, Kukoyi wants to be known for his impact on people
Kukoyi now hopes to inspire other students to apply to schools that may not have considered earlier. "A lot of kids that I talked to didn't think they could apply to the bigger schools or get into the bigger schools" or were concerned about the costs, he said. "But there are other resources available to students to kind of help with that."
He added that several competitive schools offered much more extensive financial aid than state schools.
As the only Black male student in all of his school classes, he also hopes to better things for the underrepresented populations.
Along with his fellow National Merit finalists, Kukoyi has set up free tutoring for those in need of more academic support or resources, and for those seeking to take the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.
"... I feel like a lot of the disparities that we see with standardized testing are because these underrepresented minorities in low-income communities often can't afford the same levels of [test preparation] that their wealthier counterparts get," he said. "So by establishing free tutoring programs, that could kind of help to equalize the playing field."
The child of immigrants wants to be known for helping people, regardless of his accomplishments.
"I want my legacy to be one that's focused on impacting other people. I suppose a lot of people in the pursuit of their own goals can kind of forget what it's all about," he added.