23 Apr From Zambia To Harvard: Meet The ‘Mentee-Turned-Mentor’ Who Inspired Her Country’s First Robotics Team At 22
Harvard; one of the world’s most renowned Ivy League Schools is known to be the breeding ground for some of the world’s brightest minds, and Sela Kasepa – a 21-year-old Zambian student at the time – waltzed her way into the institution with head held high and shoulders very likely keeping up with the pace back in 2016.
Clad in baggy pants, a sweatshirt that is possibly two sizes above what should be her perfect fit, and straddling along with a backpack strapped right behind her, she could pass for any of the many freshmen who seem to have known they were headed for Harvard since their days in middle school.
But that’s not exactly the case for Sela. Unlike those who seem to have had it all figured out from the off, the Zambian was stuck in some kind of career-mulling limbo just months before she walked into those gigantic lecture halls as a bona fide student of the institution.
Long before that, she was anything but clear on her future plans, fiddling with different options as she tried to figure out what to do with her life. She had showed remarkable academic prowess. She was a bright student, alright. But being great at a lot of stuff doesn’t exactly make the job of deciding which path to take any bit easier.
Help came in the end, though, and this time, in the form of a CNN programme which did a feature on the first Pan African Robotics Competition; something that is considered the brainchild of Dr. Sidy Ndao.
It was supposed to be just another day in front of the TV, but something about this particular programme got her attention gripped in more ways than infotainment. She was captivated by what she’d just seen.
That same evening, in what was more of a spray-and-pray move than anything else, she sent an email to Dr. Ndao. To her amazement, he responded in less than 48 hours later. His reply was full of words of encouragement urging the young girl to give robotics a chance. And that was probably all Sela needed.
The Zambian was inspired by the Pan African Robotics Founder and after months of correspondence, she began to actually believe she had the chops to pull it off. Believe or not, those emails more or less set her on a path to becoming something of a mentor in robotics herself.
But even as the encounter filled her with unflinching confidence in her ability to cut it in the field, she probably never saw herself taking a class in mechanics at Harvard – something that happened just a few months after she sat through that programme on CNN.
Having completed her schooling on the backs of support from the Zambia Institute of Sustainable Development (ZISD), acing her GCSEs with 10 distinctions in 10 subjects, everyone thought her the goose that lays the golden eggs. But two years on from those glimpses of ingenuity in Zambia’s equivalent of the SATs, she was yet to really make anything out of it.
Several tertiary institutions in Zambia wanted her on their student list but she had a thing for a field that was clearly not the stock in trade of the schools back home. Sela was interested in astrophysics and this fueled her ambition to study at a university that advocated for holistic learning.
During those two years after she completed 12th grade, she busied herself by taking SATs on her own and applying for Ivy League Schools in the United States, though those efforts ultimately ended in futility as she couldn’t get her hands on any scholarship offer.
Because of the apparent hiatus, Peter Lungu, Executive Director of ZISD, wary of seeing such gifts go to waste or fail to reach its full potential, reached out to Sela because of her interest in the SAT programme the non-profit institution offers.
It was an action mostly aimed at supporting the young girl but it blossomed into something of a mentor-mentee relationship which saw Lungu doing his utmost best to keep her head in the game despite the many doors that had been slammed shut in her face.
Thus, Sela continued to apply to her desired universities. With his guidance, she retook the SATs and this time, she achieved a perfect score in Physics (800) and a 790 in Maths Level II.
On application deadline day, Sela submitted applications to Harvard, as well as Stanford, MIT, Michigan State University, and University of California Berkeley. In what was an amazing turn of events, all the applications were successful with each of the admission offer coming with full scholarships.
A couple of semesters after she accepted the offer from Harvard, Sela had the option of joining a robotics class. With the words from Dr. Ndao still ringing her head like an early morning call, she signed for the class and this rekindled her love for creating something that works. She had always been intrigued by the functionality of machines and this was her chance to build one herself. So, she jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s a time when you realize your hands are capable of doing so much,” she says.
Chatting over lunch with a Rwandan friend, the discussion soon moved from the food on the table to tech talk. Sela was especially fascinated by how Rwanda, a country that was ravaged by genocide and not exactly buoyant in terms of natural resources, was making groundbreaking progress in the field of tech and trumping whatever was happening in her own country.
Her friend had a simple explanation for the progress Rwanda was making, citing the country’s biggest resource as its people. It was a comment that sank deep into Sela’s heart.
“If we the people don’t take the reins to develop our country, no matter our resources, we cannot develop,” she says.
So, she took the initiative. Sure, one tree cannot make a forest, but it’s a start. And then, who ever said it has to always be a forest? In the weeks that followed, Sela surfed the web for hours looking for a robotics competition her country could take part in.
As the saying goes, you never know what you’ll find until you actually look. Her efforts soon paid off when she came across FIRST Global Robotics competition. All it took was another cold email – like the one she sent to Dr. Ndao years before – and the organizers advised her to enlist Zambia.
Although she was above the age limit of persons permitted to take part in the competition, she could still put her talents to use by mentoring a Zambian team, but there was no team. Well, except she could put one together at the eleventh hour.
Sela grabbed her phone and dialed Lungu to ask him to help prep a team to participate in the FIRST competition. To Lungu, the phone call came out of the blue and he had no experience handling such an assignment. And that’s because Lungu never expected to co-mentor a robotics team.
He was great at guiding and supervising but all these years, it’s been restricted to helping students find their vocations and identify their career paths, nothing technical. Lungu was not versed in engineering and robotics. His role at ZISD was more or less a vocational call after a long lucrative career as an auditor. But now, it was time to step up.
Lungu was jolted from sleep in the middle of the night by Sela’s call and when she told him of the chance to participate in the FIRST Global Robotics if they put a team together, he took it up like something he was born to do. Of course, he was helped by the fact that he had access to the most brilliant students in Zambia, but none of them had any kind of knowledge of robotics.
Water was the focus area for the 2017 robotics challenge. This meant that such details as tools, equipment, prep, and travel had to be sorted. A lot of money was needed if they were going to have any shot at pulling it off.
Not one to be cowered by constraints, Sela got busy. As is apparently her style, several cold emails seeking sponsorship were sent to several individuals and institutions, much of it yielding nothing. The usually bright-faced and upbeat Sela was starting to feel the pangs of the situation.
She met with a professor of hers over a cup of coffee. The said professor had noticed some gloominess in her mood as of late and when she probed Sela – who was, in fact, one of her brightest students – she made mention of her struggle to secure sponsorship for the team she was helping put together. Amazingly, a few days later, the same professor hooked her up with sponsors for three of the team members plus a mentor.
After nurturing the local team in Zambia to some extent, Lungu reached an understanding with Ethiopian Airlines and having pulled some strings, he landed a significantly-discounted airfare which allowed all seven members of the Zambia Robotics team to travel for the competition.
Having already learnt a bit of robotics at Harvard and boasting a natural knack for the field, Sela was on her way to making a swift transition from mentee to mentor, which was itself a daunting prospect.
“It was scary on my part. This is something new. (You’re) mentoring people in a new area, I was nervous about that. I’m grateful to Mr. Lungu who helped me co-mentor the team.”
Sela basically taught the team all she knew about the field. Thankfully, the team members were just as fascinated and interested about the whole thing, so grasping concepts wasn’t too much of a problem. With some assistance from Lungu, she got the team prepped for the competition.
As missing her classes at Harvard will be tantamount to shooting her herself on the foot, Sela had to make do with watching the proceedings from a laptop screen. Team captain, Mwengwe Mpekansambo, was instructed to shoulder all the machine-building responsibilities whenever Sela was away at class.
There was this one time their device broke down completely during trials and the necessary repairs were carried out over a video call with Sela spelling out instructions from class. Working all night, the former head prefect at Fatima Girls encouraged her six teammates to fix the problem.
With no prior knowledge of robotics until they walked into the makeshift robotics shop at the ZISD center back home in Zambia, Makasa Mwamba, Mphande Phiri, Chewe Malupenga, Clivert Mande, Jireh Katebe, Ephraim Mulilo, Meek Simbule, Njavwa Kabandama, and Mary Ngoma all helped Zambia to a 32nd-place finish out of 163 participating teams in the competition.
It was more than a respectable finish for what could be described a team of ‘novices’ and this feat was, in no small part, the result of relentless push from Sela Kasepa who was juggling the demands of a school like Harvard with the needs of the team.
For Sela, winning the competition was never the plan. I mean, it would have been some feat but she was under no illusions.
“For me, this is not just about competing. I want the idea to spread. Robotics is not just about building a robot; it is realizing we can do something with our hands,” she says.
The world of robotics has since opened up her mind to a world of limitless possibilities. She’s has mentored the team to a few other competitions, including the global robotics competition that took place in Mexico last year. And she has her sights trained on helping the young robotics team achieve even more.
Her vision for the team is to see to it that they all imbibe a sense of responsibility and ownership. She wants their endeavors to go beyond seeking and securing sponsorship for competitions to becoming a top tech team championing innovation in the Southern African country.
Sela also hopes for mini-robotics competitions to spring around Zambia so that a platform can be afforded to promising, new talents too. She admits to the journey being full of trials and challenges as she has had to combine the needs of the team with the demands of a competitive learning environment full of new challenges and rigorous study.
Inspired by ZISD Founder, Chiluwata Lungu, an aerospace engineer himself, she still has dreams of becoming one. Even as unemployment poses a problem especially among the youth back home, she is quite optimistic that the multifaceted nature of the STEM fields can help create immense opportunities for millennials like herself.