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AN INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN: LESSONS ON PERSEVERANCE, DREAMING BIG DREAMS, and RESILIENCE.



“Throughout my academic journey, I have learned to do one thing: Never giving up.”

Brian Ngatunga

I heard the Zoom joining-in notification sound a few minutes after starting the session. Brian's face popped up in what was to be a split-screen accommodating our faces and what was on our backgrounds after joining the call. He looked happy and excited, and then he gave me a humble greeting in Swahili: Shikamoo kaka.

I replied to his greeting cheerfully—it quite reminded me about Brian's humble and respectful personality.

I met with Brian for the first time when I was in my last year of high school. He was among the students who performed magnificently in their primary school national examination. Therefore, he got selected to join Ilboru Secondary School (ISS) in Arusha, Tanzania, to do his secondary education. (ISS is a prestigious all-boys government school for gifted students.)

Because of his extraordinary personality and passion for nature and music, he got involved with the Roots & Shoots initiative (nationwide supervised by a "trailblazing scientist and compassionate activist," Jane Goodall, Ph.D.) at Ilboru. The Roots & Shoots initiative advocates for youth empowerment to bring "positive changes in their communities." And for Brian, he did impact his Ilboru community through his involvement in environmental conservation and by offering civic education through music.

In 2017, while still a student at Ilboru, he got a chance to go to the U.S. to represent the school at the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF) Music Festival in Asheville, North Carolina—where he formed strong connections that later proved fruitful in his academic journey. His story is what I was excited to learn further about, and that is why I was on that call with him.

Without further ado, I asked for his consent to record the meeting, to which he agreed.

After pressing the recording button, I started by giving him a general overview of our interview: "We are going to talk about your academic journey (your experience as a high-school-exchange student in the U.S. and your application process in your senior year)," I told him. "We will then wind up with your social life and how you prepare for attending college later in the Fall. Does that sound good?" I asked him.

"Yes, it does," he replied, attentively.

Siegfred: I have known you for four years now, and I always marvel at your interesting academic story. I just realized, however, that I have never asked you where it all started.

Brian: Well, it all started at Nyakahoja Primary School in Mwanza, Tanzania—a city where I was born. It is a catholic school deeply committed to impacting student's lives by equipping them with quality education and a strong sense of discipline. The discipline part was vital, and it was instilled in me quite early. Also, my mother was a member of the teaching staff. So, this fact gave me an extra push to want to do well in my classes. Fortunately, I did well enough in my primary school national examination to grant me a ticket to join Ilboru.

Siegfred: Interestingly, you have mentioned that your mother is a teacher: my mother is also a teacher, but I did not get that extra kick you talked about, unfortunately.

Both of us end up laughing after saying that.

Brian: Actually, my father is a teacher as well. Therefore, I would say we had that academic atmosphere in our house, and I got used to it with every pressure it brought.

Siegfred: Did that experience help you to adapt to the highly competitive academic atmosphere at Ilboru?

Brian: Yes, it did. In numerous ways. As you might know, everyone you meet at that school used to be the best student from his former school. So: there is that natural inclination to strive for excellence—day in, day out—that demands a high level of discipline and focus. I believe I got well prepared for that kind of challenge at my former primary school. Thus, it was not that hard to adapt to the academic pressure at Ilboru.

Siegfred: Tell me about your trip to Asheville, NC. I remember you and some other people were on that trip.

I struggle to remember their names or the names of the schools they attended. But Brian notices it; so, he respectfully interrupts.

Brian: It was me, a male LEAF drumming teacher and cultural keeper, and two female students from the St. Joseph Girls School in Kisongo, Arusha.

Siegfred: I see; you were the only one from your school. That is impressive! How did you end up on that trip, by the way, and how impactful was it to you?

Brian: I was a member of the Roots and Shoots initiative at Ilboru. I was involved in it—quite much. I had a great time managing the school garden—where we got the vegetables to feed other students from—and taking care of the river across the school campus—which students sometimes used to collect water from for washing their clothes and planting trees. We also did traditional dances, which I enjoyed because I liked the songs and the dances we performed. As for the LEAF music festival in Asheville: It was essentially a platform for connecting and creating a diverse international community through world music, arts education, and cultural preservation. The festival happened for two weeks. I made many friendships and connections, including the Hanna Family.

Siegfred: Is that the family that ended up sponsoring you to attend high school in the U.S.?

Brian: Yes, it is the one. I knew the Hannas from the festival. They sponsored my stay in the U.S. when I was attending high school.

Siegfred: I am curious to learn about one thing: What prompted you to want to do high school in the U.S. Well, I know everyone wants to chase the American dream; but, I guess you started quite early!

Brian: You are right: Most people want to chase the American dream—and I am not an exception. Nevertheless, that is not what motivated me per se.

Both of us end up laughing for a moment.

Siegfred: Interesting. What motivated you, then?

Brian: Stories of the people I knew. The story of those who attended Ilboru and ended up at Harvard, MIT, and other high-ranked universities in the U.S.

Siegfred: I am assuming you are talking about Calvin Marambo—who graduated with a BSc degree in Biomedical Engineering at Harvard University—and Lesian Lengare—an MIT graduate with a BSc degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science?

Brian: Yes. That is correct. So, there I thought: “… if Calvin and Lesian were able to shoot for the stars, I believed that I, as well, could do it.”

Siegfred: And you are now on one of those stars!

Brian ends up smiling after giving him that response.

Brian: [While maintaining the smile] You could say that; I think you might not be wrong. So, after the LEAF Music Festival, I was in touch with the Hanna family once I went back home. By then, I already started dreaming about studying abroad one day, and I believed I could do it easily if I applied to international schools for my high school studies.

Siegfred: How many schools did you apply to, and where are they located? Did you get into any?

Brian: After finishing my Ordinary Level secondary education (Grade 10), I applied to two schools—United World College (UWC) in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, and the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Unfortunately, I got into none. And that is when the pressure started to build up.

Siegfred: How did you deal with that pressure?

Brian: I am Christian. I take my faith seriously: It is my shield. So, I prayed a lot because I believe in the power of prayer. Also, along with my prayers, I shared with the Hanna family my academic vision and aspirations. To my surprise, they informed me that they were willing to sponsor me to come to the U.S. to pursue my high school studies as an exchange student.

Siegfred: That was a piece of big news. I am assuming you had great relief after becoming aware of how your goal materialized.

Brian: It was a relief, for sure; but, it was not so for long.

Siegfred: What do you mean?

Brian: I had some immigration challenges. For some reason, after completing my junior year of high school, my exchange student status was not valid anymore. Therefore, I was required to leave the country. It was a hard time for me. First, leaving the country meant that I had to find a school willing to accept me to finish my high school education. Second, all this happened in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Siegfred: That must have been difficult for you.

Brian: It was. But I had a strong group of people that helped me to navigate the situation I was in: my guardians, my teachers at Asheville High School, my friends, and my parents. Their contributions—financially and psychologically—were vital to keeping me in high spirits throughout that tough time.

Siegfred: So how did you end up coming back to the U.S. to finish your 12th grade?

Brian: I had another idea in mind: Applying to a private school as an international student. But this option had one challenge: I had to pay for my tuition fee, which was expensive—I could not afford it, and I did not want to give my host family that financial burden. The Hanna family suggested that I open a GoFundMe campaign and share it with my close ones and their friends.

Siegfred: But you ended up finding a school in the U.S., right? If I remember it correctly?

Brian: Yes, I did. I got admitted to Kokomo High School in Kokomo, Indiana.

Siegfred: How did that happen? What did you do with the money you fundraised?

Brian: One of my connections shared with me the possibility of getting admission at Kokomo. And the good thing is that the school has dormitories for international students. Therefore, I had housing there, where I spent most of my time on weekdays. In addition, I had two host families in Kokomo. They welcomed me to stay with them over the weekends and school breaks, which I did. Also, the money I raised helped to cover tuition and my travel expenses—flight and visa applications.

Siegfred: Were you back home in Tanzania when you got into Kokomo?

Brian: I was at home. I stayed home for three months, but I was taking my classes online—just like everyone else for that matter because of the pandemic.

Siegfred: After knowing that you would finish your high school education in the U.S., I guess the American dream directed you to one thing: college applications.

Brian: College applications were next on the list. Initially, I wanted to start early, aiming for the early decision window; but, I was overwhelmed by schoolwork and the application process. Therefore, I just decided to proceed with regular decisions.

Siegfred: How did you go about it—the application process? Did you have any help?

Brian: What I did was narrowing down the colleges I wanted to apply to in order of choice. I obtained the application requirements from their websites. I also checked the essay prompts that I had to respond to on Common App. I then shared my essay responses with my connections in the schools I was applying to because I wanted them to know what I was doing. Also, I had help from my college counselor, teachers, and a professional college essay writer.

Siegfred: You did not do any standardized tests—ACTs or SATs?

Brian: I did not do any. The colleges I applied to waived the required standardized tests because of the pandemic.

Siegfred: How many colleges did you apply to, by the way? Did you get into any?

Brian: I applied to seven colleges [Brian raises his hands and starts counting his fingers while mentioning the colleges]: MIT, Harvard, Duke, Yale, Cornell, UPenn, and Northeastern. However, unfortunately, I got into none.

Siegfred: That was a bummer, I reckon.

Brian: A big bummer. I was disappointed. But then I approached the application process with an open mind—that anything could happen. I believe that mindset helped me going through that period of receiving rejection letters.

Siegfred: Did you have any backup plans? Maybe, applying to state universities?

Brian: Yes, I had a backup plan. I ended up applying to twenty colleges, and I ended up getting into all of them.

Siegfred: Twenty colleges! Did you write essays and answer the prompt questions for all of them? That must have been an arduous task.

Brian: Certainly—it was a hard thing to do. But I had to give it my all, ensuring that I applied to as many schools as possible. One thing, though, happened: None of these colleges offered me a full scholarship. Because by the time I submitted my applications, the colleges had already given most people competitive financial aid packages. So, I got back to square one—thinking about raising money for my college education. Some people advised me to take loans, but I was not ready to do that.

Siegfred: What did you do, then?

Brian: I shared this challenge with my network of friends and teachers. One day, my teacher who taught me Economics during the Fall semester of my senior year of the high school asked me if I wanted to have lunch with him. I agreed: I did not have much to do that afternoon. I must say that that was probably the best lunch I have ever had because what ended up happening was a great miracle: He offered me $ 12000 as his contribution towards my first-year college expenses.

Siegfred: Twelve thousand dollars!

Brian: Yes, twelve thousand dollars [speaking with conviction]! I was astonished. I thought, "... at least now I have some money that I could use to enroll in a community college." Because I still had to figure out how to pay for the rest of the three years of my undergraduate education. Wait a minute. I forgot to mention something.

Siegfred: Another miracle?

Brian: A flashback—more or less. At some point in April, my college counselor asked me for my updated resume. I did not have an updated one then. I was stressed by what was happening—getting rejections and thinking about paying for my college expenses for the schools that offered me admissions. Therefore, I had not worked on my resume for a while; regardless, I had to update it and send it to her.


Siegfred: Did she tell you what she was going to do with your resume?

Brian: Yes, she did. She told me that she planned to send my resume and transcripts to some colleges. At that point, however, it was hard for me to believe that anything fruitful would come out of that effort.

Siegfred: You will be attending Alfred University in Alfred, New York, this coming Fall on a full-ride scholarship. How did you get that offer? Do you mind sharing about that?

Brian: Absolutely: My counselor posted an inquiry on a Facebook group for high school college counselors that she knew could have helped. She asked if they knew any college(s) willing to offer a full-ride scholarship or a better financial aid package to a student like myself. And that is how Alfred University in Alfred, New York got on my radar: One of the members in the Facebook group responded that the university might be able to offer me a scholarship. My counselor ended up contacting them to make a further inquiry.

Siegfred: I am assuming that Alfred University asked you to apply after showing an interest in you?

Brian: Yes, they did. Initially, it felt like nothing concrete would happen from that effort. Because, although my counselor reached out to them in April, they did not get back to her until June—June 7th, to be exact. The university eventually got in contact with my counselor. They apologized for the delay and told her that the school was impressed by my story and academic prowess; thus, they were willing to help if I was interested in applying. I was interested in applying, of course: I was desperate. So, right away, I stopped everything I was doing then and started working on the application.

Siegfred: After you applied, did they get back to you as fast as you put together the application?

Brian: They got back to me promptly, with an admission offer. And, on top of that, they gave me a full scholarship for all four years of my undergraduate education. I got numb for a few minutes after receiving that information. The euphoria was crazily intense; I froze—totally.

Siegfred: Amazing! Amazing!

Brian: Yes, it was. I felt a huge relief. I graduated high school successfully, with honors. And I now have a full-ride scholarship for my college education. I am forever grateful to all who helped me, especially my high school counselor: Mrs. Davis. She believed in me; she advocated for me in incredible ways that I could never imagine. I am thankful to her: she has changed my life.

Siegfred: So, how are you preparing yourself for starting college later in the Fall? Have you decided what you will be studying?

Brian: Sarah, my guardian, has helped me put together a wish list of my dorm room and school supplies on Amazon. I have since then started collecting the items. Also, so far, I am considering a major in Computer Science and a minor in Business. Probably, that choice might change in the future; but, I highly doubt it because I am passionate about Computer Science. I want to become a Software Developer. That is my dream.

Siegfred: And what about your social life? Was it hard for you to fit in socially in school and the family you lived with when studying at Asheville and Kokomo High Schools? And how did you deal with homesickness if you ever experienced it?