By Mukurima Muriuki
While most of the teenage world remained captive to the spell of online gaming or Netflix, Collins Mokua, a recent graduate in Neuroscience and Behavior from prestigious Columbia University, was already planning his future.
In seventh grade, he moved to the United States from Kisii, Kenya to further his education. The importance of education was a strong thread that had been interwoven into the Mokua family by both parents. His mother’s mantra of “whatever it takes,” along with support from his teachers, has been evident in Mokua’s life choices.
As the first person in his family to be educated in the US, he has confirmed that Africans, when given equal opportunities and support, can achieve the same success as any other ethnic group. His concern for the lack of Black representation in medicine along with his love of biology and chemistry from an early age led him to pursue a career as a neurosurgeon.
Mokua believes in the American Dream, however, he maintains that “it is just a dream until you work for it.” As well as going to medical school and starting a residency program, he has collaborated with his mother in creating an organization, SustainHope, Inc., to assist young high-performing and under-resourced girls in Kenya who want to attend high school. His life is a testament to all aspiring Kenyan youth who have big goals and dreams. The Latin phrase Carpe Diem (seize the day) reflects Collins Mokua’s approach to life.
This is what Mokua told African Warrior Magazine:
Congratulations on your graduation! How does it feel?
It’s still a surreal feeling to have lived what only 5 years ago was nothing more than a dream. While the pandemic modified how we celebrated the moment, it also enriched it. We will go down among the historic classes that have had to graduate during extraordinarily challenging times, that’s special and I definitely felt the weight of that moment during commencement. Overall, it’s a feeling of gratitude to my parents, family, friends, and community because I definitely did not make it to this moment in a vacuum
What did you graduate in?
B.A. in Neuroscience and Behavior
You went to college in one of the most prestigious universities in America-Columbia. As a child growing up in Kenya, did you think you would end in Columbia?
I did not even know of Columbia let alone the Ivy League until I got to high school in the US. To graduate from there was not even a fantasy because in my circumstances, then, to dream that far was incomprehensible – I did not have a picture to work to, I could not have envisioned what that would have looked like. I will say that my parents have always had high expectations of me and supported me immensely throughout my entire life. To have that as the backbone of my story is really what made this moment possible.
At what age did you transition to America? Did you attend the Kenyan school system?
I moved to the US when I was in 7th grade, all of my prior education was mainly in Kisii, Kenya.
What difference did you notice between the Kenyan school system and the American system?
Resources were definitely the most dramatic of differences. The schools were a lot bigger with access to wireless internet and computers. On the other hand, existing as part of the minority was new to me and I had to grapple with the social and cultural environments. Strikingly, I did not feel that students at these schools were any more capable than my peers in Kenya since I continued to perform at a high level following the move to the US.
How would you summarize your life growing up in Kenya?
Many of my favorite memories are tied to home. Due to the complexities of the US immigration process, I grew up with my mom as my father worked and lived in the US. My mother was a teacher and my father while physically distant was heavily involved in my life. The two of them together prioritized my education and that set me up well from my early days. While we were not wealthy, I always felt safe and cared for so that allowed me to grow my curiosity and soon I identified my love for the human body and ultimately medicine.
Take me through the moment your parents broke the news that you were going to America. What went through your mind?
The US had been a part of my life since my father’s move when I was two, but it was only made up of stories from him, images from the news, and my imagination. Later, when the possibility of moving to the US began to appear as a reality, I was elated because the US is definitely romanticized in mainstream media and that was all I had to go on at the time – the American Dream
According to US Census Bureau, Africans excel in academia more than any other immigrant group in America. Why do you think this is the case?
Our intellectual ability is not defined by our geographical location but instead by our access to resources. A similar trend can be observed in the US where we see that children from higher socio-economic status tend to excel based on measures of the American education system like the SAT and ACT. Therefore, the systemic and environmental shortfalls many African students have to overcome hinder the level at which they can perform intellectually. Humans are incredibly similar and so when provided the same opportunities and support, African students are just as, if not more, competent and able as any other population.
You attended Harmony Science academy for High School. Was this a deliberate choice?
My father chose the school because they have a focus on Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). While the school did not have a strong track record of sending kids to prestigious out-of-state schools, they did have a strong graduation rate and matriculation to college programs relative to other public high schools in the area. Nonetheless, I had key teachers who really set me up for success; Mrs. Mathew and Mrs. Ward strengthened my English and probably had the most dramatic impact on my academic trajectory because that was one of my weakest points at that time. The school’s focus on encouraging us to go to college, any college, meant that I had access to information about what it took to get in once the time came. As the first one in my family to school in the US, I had to source the information myself and piece the journey together. The conversations I had with my teachers gave me the will to aim high when it came time to choose which schools I would be applying to. Overall, I am grateful for the experience I had during my time there
You are focused on becoming a neurosurgeon. Where are you in the process of making this dream a reality?
It feels really shocking how close I am to becoming a practicing physician. With the completion of my bachelor’s, I now have to attend a medical school for four years, after which I will complete a residency program and finally be board-certified to practice. So you could say I am halfway there.
Why do you want to be a Neurosurgeon and not say, a Lawyer or Banker?
My curiosity in becoming a physician began at a really young age when I would have chats with my mother who was a high school biology and chemistry teacher. Later I discovered that I love psychology and using my hands. When I did dissections in labs, I found the process was deeply stimulating and it pushed my desire to learn more about the human body. This was all grounded in an intimate recognition, over the year, for the need for access to quality healthcare in communities I was a part of in Kenya and the US.
Black representation in medicine is very low and while I grew up being treated by Kenyan doctors, they were heavily limited by access to technology and information. Transitioning to the US, I learned that while significantly stronger in terms of resources, there exist systemic barriers to access that have led to disparate health outcomes for communities of color across the country. The combination of a feeling of responsibility to the community and my intellectual curiosities have led me to my interest in neurosurgery.
Some Kenyans back home deride Kenyans who come to America to pursue nursing. A common phrase they use includes “Kuosha nyanya”. What would you tell Kenyans back home? t
The American Dream is a dream until you work for it and the nursing profession has opened so many doors for a lot of immigrant communities, especially Kenyans. The process to be a nurse is straightforward, and with so many in the community who has gone through it, there is growing support for those just starting out. This often takes the form of knowledge and resource sharing.
The job market for nurses is very strong and secure with great pay and benefits, if one can get over the stigma and ego, it is almost a no brainer to become a nurse if you are facing the mountain of challenges that all immigrants have to shoulder once they land in this country. Additionally, both my parents being nurses has propelled our family to heights none of us dreamed about and allowed me to attend Columbia.
Do you have siblings?
Yes, two younger brothers and a cousin that is like my older sister
How have your parents supported your goals?
My parents have supported me by exposing me to a lot of spaces of opportunity and growth. Throughout high school, they sent me to programs meant for students with an interest in medicine, paid for me to go on a college tour with my school, and affirmed my ability to excel by celebrating every milestone I made on this journey. I could not have more selfless parents committed to my success, “whatever it takes” as my mom would say.
How important is parental support to a child?
It is critical, and while it does not only come from parents, validation and leadership are the compasses that guide the growth and development of a child. Parents that create an environment that is not restrictive and encourages exploration allows children to generate dreams and develop a strong identity and sense of self
Do you have a mentor? If yes, What are some of the things you discuss?
I have several mentors; some in medicine who encourage me through this process, others just for life advice at the different stages of my growth. Therefore, my conversations with my mentors are dependent on the nature of our relationship.
While in Columbia you went to Kenya to work on a project. What was the project about?
I did two projects in Nairobi an oral health promotion project with Lea Toto clinics and a mental health project looking into long-term care, dementia, and intimate partner violence.
You have won multiple awards in your academic life thus far. What are some of those awards?
For graduation, I was the recipient of the King’s Crown, Senior Marshal, and a Multicultural cord awards for my on-campus leadership. Additionally, I received 2x Dean’s list academic awards.
You graduated top of your class in high school and were a valedictorian. Were there other immigrant students in your class? Did fellow students treat you any different because you were a foreigner?
I did actually have three classmates who were Kenyan for the first two years of high school. My campus was predominantly made of students from immigrant families, mainly from South America. While there was always bias in certain situations, my academic performance and leadership allowed me to navigate the campus and form relationships with students and teachers alike. I let my work speak for itself.
In 5 years, where does Mokua want to be?
Ideally, I will be graduating from medical school, gearing up to start a residency program.
Do you find time to enjoy sports and extra-curricular activities?
It’s essential to have non-academic interests, for me those revolve around music. As part of Ijoya at Columbia, I was a dancer and also dabbled as a DJ.
What do you think about Kenyans in Diaspora in general
We are a resilient group of people with incredible potential to succeed.
What would you like to tell students who just received their KCSE results in Kenya?
Your performance does not define you, that means; if you did well, congratulations, stay humble, and if you did not score as high as you hoped, keep your head up and learn from the mistakes you may have made. Life is a lot more than anyone moment in time.
Are you open to mentoring young Kenyans who want guidance on the right path to follow to be as successful as you have been this far?
I am an active mentor of a number of young people already, and I am always open to sharing with anyone that reaches out. Shameless plug for SustainHope Inc, an organization that my mother and I launched to help young, high-performing and under-resourced, girls in Kenya attend high school. As part of the program, I have also hosted a number of mentorship events in the US aimed at sharing the knowledge about the process to college to the Kenyan youth in the diaspora. I welcome anyone interested in supporting or being a part of the organization to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org
What is your favorite book?
Going down River Road by Meja Mwangi is always the first title that pops up in my head when I’m asked this question.