It was a fete that impressed not only Americans but the world at large. A 21-year-old female student from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) became the first UMBC student to win the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, guided by her values and interests as an adept researcher.
Naomi Mburu, a chemical engineering scholar, is not just any other student. She’s a second generation immigrant born of Kenyan parents Joseph Mburu and Joyce Mburu. AW Magazine recently had a chat with Naomi where we talked about her Kenyan connection, landing the prestigious scholarship and the invitation by Senator Ben Cardin to attend the State of the Union address.
Who is Naomi Mburu?
I am a 21 year old student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County born of Kenyan parents.
How long have you lived in Ellicott City?
I have lived in Ellicott City for 12 years.
Do you miss your mother country? When was the last time you were in Kenya?
I was born in America, but I was able to visit Kenya when I was five years old, and I plan to visit again this summer. I look forward to visiting my family and exploring the beauty of Kenya.
How did you find yourself persuing Chemical Engineering?
I really enjoy solving practical problems, and I am interested in nuclear energy generation. Nuclear engineering is not offered at most universities, so I chose chemical engineering as a way to introduce myself to the concepts of engineering that may be relevant later in my career.
How has it been being a female student in such a course?
I have enjoyed being an African-American female engineer because I feel like I am trailblazing the way for more minorities to join the field of engineering. I see it as a challenge, and I am always excited to change the perception of minorities in the field. There have been times that I have experienced racism due to my gender and race, but I have had very supportive people in my life, including my friends and family, who have made sure that I continue doing what I have set out to do.
You became the first UMBC student to win the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. Were you aiming for this?
A professor approached me in my freshman year and suggested that I apply for this scholarship. I kept that thought in the back of my mind for the next few years, and then during my junior year I sat down and had a meeting with the prestigious scholarship advisor at my school to start to craft my application and prepare myself.
What was your first reaction upon getting the scholarship?
I honestly could not believe it. I felt like I was living in an alternate universe. All of the finalists that I had met were such amazing people and I knew I would be happy for whoever had won. It’s still sinking in, even now, more so because I am the first from my University!
How about your family? How did they react?
My family was way beyond overjoyed, and they still are. They have always been proud of me, and they were so happy to see all of my hard work pay off.
You are now a celebrity in Ellicott City. Has life really changed much for you?
I have a number of interviews lined up. I have also been asked to speak at many events. This is very exciting. Also, people that I do not even know have come up to me to congratulate me and let me know how much this means for the community. This warms my heart.
10. I’m sure many people have called to congratulate you. Do you mind sharing the most touching message you have received?
The most touching messages have been from people in my community that I do not know, who felt compelled to reach out to congratulate me or even ask for advice on how they can get to where I am now. I love working with other students to help them accomplish their goals, because I know so many people have helped me along the way.
11. You are about spend three to four years inventing a better way to build a nuclear fusion reactor or close to that. How does that feel?
I am very excited to finally be on my way to working on nuclear fusion, because I have wanted to work in this field for many years. Europe is the center of much of the world’s work in fusion, so I will have a truly immersive experience in the work currently supporting the development of nuclear fusion power plants.
12. Back in Kenya, is your village aware of your achievement?
My family in Kenya has let me know that the community there is overjoyed and incredibly proud of my accomplishment.
Were there times when you would feel like ” I can’t do this” or “it’s a bit challenging?”
Every time I looked at the profiles of the past Rhodes Scholarship winners, I felt somewhat intimidated by all that they had accomplished and also by how different I was from the majority of them. Many of them were athletes, I am not. Most were male, or Caucasian, and studying some variation of humanities or social sciences. I am an African-American woman studying engineering. However, I had to look past that to be confident in myself and accentuate my unique characteristics.
My time as a chemical engineering student has definitely been difficult, because much of the material is not intuitive to me and required long hours of studying. Juggling all of the activities that I have been involved in on top of my studies has been difficult and there were times I felt like giving up, but I had a goal in mind that kept me going.
Your mom works at Maryland Baltimore County. How did she help you find your way?
My mom is always open to supporting my journey, and she is the main reason that I came to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a Meyerhoff Scholar. However, she knows that I am a fairly independent person and has allowed me to find my way.
She had told me that many people have congratulated her on the success of her daughter, and people have asked her for advice on how she raised a Rhodes Scholar.
15. Senator Ben Cardin invited you for the State of the Union address. How was this experience for you?
I was incredibly honored to be invited for the State of the Union address. I am interested in learning more about how the political world operates, and this was a fantastic introduction to that world. I was able to meet many senators and other congresspeople with their guests.
It was really interesting to see the division in the room during the President’s speech, as most of the Republicans would cheer for everything he would propose and the Democrats would only cheer selectively. It was also informative to see how little representation scientists and engineers have in Congress. It is interesting that the people determining how our country is run are primarily of the same educational background, gender, and race. That motivated me to encourage scientists, engineers, women, and people of color to seriously consider running for office to make the government more representative.
16. Did you meet Donald Trump in person?
No, I was not able to meet Donald Trump in person. I only saw him during his speech.
17. What does your achievement mean for immigrants in general?
The immigrants are making positive impacts in America, and these positive impacts are rarely highlighted because the press tends to highlight all of the negative aspects. I am proof that children from immigrant families are helping to further American society in may different realms, including the field of science.
18. Can you speak Swahili?
19. Where are you planning to visit once in Kenya?
I am planning to visit Kenya (my village) this summer. I plan to visit Mombasa, Lake Bogoria, Hell’s Gate, Mt. Longonot, and Masai Maraa, just to name a few.