Over the last 3 years, I’ve undergone a lot of growth; socially, academically and professionally. A key part of that growth has been the result of frequent self-reflection, through important conversations as well as my blog. A key purpose of this blog is to share what I have learnt, and continue to learn, with the hope that this will be useful to you in your personal journey. I have distilled these lessons to five brief and actionable points.
1. Worry about what you are doing and not where you are
When I was in high school, I remember being concerned about the opportunities I was losing out on because of ‘where I was.’ I was a student a middle tier public high school in Bulawayo, so really I was okay, but part of me constantly compared where I was relative to other students. I thought I was at a disadvantage because I did not go to a private school or live in a more affluent neighborhood. I often imagined how much more I could do if only I had access to the resources that students who went to ‘better’ schools, or came from more affluent families had. Even when I was preparing to head to Wesleyan University for college I was concerned about losing out on opportunities in my Computer Science career. In my mind not being at a ‘big name school’ like Stanford or one of the Ivies was a disadvantage. And no, the irony of feeling inferior at Wesleyan University, of all places, is not lost on me.
I have since realized that all successful people got to where they are by focusing on the what and not the where. Even though there are legitimate limitations that can arise from living/learning/working at a certain place, it doesn’t help much to dwell on on those limitations if you cannot change them. If anything, dwelling on circumstances you cannot change will only lead to frustration and diminish your potential to do meaningful work. Instead, focusing on what you want to do can yield very positive results that could allow you to escape those limitations.
At my high school, I participated in lots of extra-curricular activities, took on different leadership roles, and studied hard. I entered into various writing competitions for high school students and was constantly pushing myself. I let myself explore outside of the expectations that a high school science student in Zimbabwe could only have a narrow range of interests. That emphasis on doing more ended up landing me in the same interview rooms, award ceremonies and functions as the students from the private schools that I envied. In college, I decided to own my experience by pursuing all the things I loved relentlessly: Computer Science, Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy. Wesleyan is a small liberal arts college, so it wasn’t long before I met all the important people that could guide me in my endeavors. I no longer mind that I did not get into Columbia University, because I have taken my college experience at Wesleyan and made it my own. It’s also important to note, in retrospect, that of all the schools that I applied to, Wesleyan was my best fit, despite my obsession with ‘a bigger name’. Go Wes!
2. Surround yourself with the people that you aspire to be
Sometimes, the solution that sounds too simple to be true often is the best way to solve the problem. You have probably heard multiple versions of this phrase, but I am here to tell you that it actually works.
Towards the end of high school, most of us already know what we want to do in the next 10-20 years. I knew that I wanted to study Computer Science in the United States, but the path to achieving that was not as clear. I made the decision to seek out and connect with people that had the same aspirations as me and most importantly, people who were already where I aspired to be. EducationUSA holds monthly information sessions about studying in the United States. In my junior and senior years in high school, I remember going to every single one of those sessions. Most of my teachers and schoolmates probably thought I was being obsessive for attending identical general information sessions, but what they could not see was the different people I met at those sessions, mostly aspiring applicants, newly accepted applicants and returning students. Being around them, hearing their stories and often getting practical advice about things like balancing the SAT with my national exams made the path clearer.
I also had an interest in starting a tech related organization, through which I hoped to give back to my community. I was lucky enough to meet and connect with Dalu, the founder of Lead Us Today (at an information session at my high school). A lot of the work that I’ve done with Zim Code has been fueled by his advice and mentorship. A year ago, I met and connected with a fellow Zimbabwean who also studied Computer Science and had gone on to work at Facebook. Fast forward one year and I am now an intern at Facebook. Look for people who are doing what you aspire to do, and speak with them. Always look for opportunities to meet with people who are passionate about the same things you are.
3. Find stepping stones that will take you to where you want to go
I get a lot of messages mostly from students in high school or people from my city, asking me “how I did it.” I find it difficult to answer this question because the response to that question isn’t a concise an answer but a story. My life now is unrecognizable from what it was 3 years ago, because there is no clearly mapped out path from where I was to where I am now. It’s hard, if not impossible, to construct a straight line that connects 18 year old high school senior Alvin to 21 year old coding school founder Alvin. It becomes possible, however, if you trace all the small stepping stones in-between that I followed over the course of the 3 years.
Even though we all have clear and precise life goals, we may stumble because we want to look for one straight line that will directly connect us to that goal. Most of the times, this is not really possible. What we ought to do is break down that goal into smaller parts, that way we can plot smaller paths at a time and then find the small and feasible stepping stones that will help bring you closer to your goal.
I’ve had numerous stepping stones that brought me to where I am right now. The most notable, in my opinion, are meeting Dalumuzi, the U.S.A.P program, the P.C.S.E at Wesleyan, Zim Code and the Quip Engineering Diversity Scholarship. Each one of those stepping stones was pivotal because it opened doors to the next opportunity.
4. Don’t be afraid to be different
My lack of fear of being different has propelled my life in unexpected directions and allows me passionately and relentlessly pursue my dreams.
I went through a school system that promotes conformity and specialization. In high school, science students are supposed to stick to science, arts students to arts and commercials students to commercials. As a science student, I was supposed to be nerdy, have bad handwriting, not be very good at English and shy away from leadership roles or most sports and extracurricular activities. I found it very hard to conform to such rigid expectations. My favorite subject, prior to getting into the science class, was History and I enjoyed writing blogs, short stories and essays. I read a lot of Tolkien, Rowling and Wells. I also took on many leadership roles at school, including being Head-boy for a year.
A significant number of my schoolmates and teachers disapproved of my diverse endeavors and interests. “You are wasting your time writing English essays, and studying for American English exams (SATs) .” As it turned out, they were wrong because all the time I invested in “English Essays” paid off because I did it all with intent. They weren’t out to squash my dreams or hinder my progress. In fact, they genuinely thought they were looking out for my best interests by discouraging me, but they did not see things the way I did. Part of the high school experience is learning to balance well intentioned expectations with your individuality. If you listen to your passions, which speak loud and clear, that precise balance will become apparent to you and you will have to deal with criticism and disapproval. Always remember that the same people who discourage you when you refuse to conform are the same people who will cheer for you when you succeed. They have the opinion and you have the choice.
5. Be self-motivated
I get a lot of messages from people asking me about Wesleyan and studying in America. While most ask questions that are reasonable and concise, some ask me for very basic information that they could have found out from a simple Google search or a visit to an office. Some ask me to explain the entire application process to them on Messenger or to tell them the address for EducationUSA in Bulawayo or the SAT exam dates (as if I would know). The common thing among all these people is a lack of self-motivation to do all this basic groundwork themselves. This is problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, applying to American colleges is a very long, tedious and somewhat costly process that requires a lot of dedication. In order to succeed in it, one has to train themselves to do a lot of research and groundwork on their own. Asking for readily available information from someone else does not aid in that training. Secondly, when connecting with someone who is in a position to provide tips and advice, the goal should be to always ask straightforward questions that can’t be easily answered by another source. Asking basic questions translates to “I want you to do all the work for me” and this generally leaves a bad impression.
I remember when I was applying to college always making sure that I had all the information I could possible get on my own, before asking others for advice. This meant when I did ask questions, they were very precise and needed responses I could only get from another person’s experience. This kind of self-motivation creates momentum that will definitely come in handy when things get tough. When I got an Early Decision rejection from Columbia University, the momentum I had gained from always being self-motivated and proactive carried me through.
Edited by: Sisasenkosi Mandi-Togwe (Brown University ’19)
This is a summary of some key skills that have helped me progress in my academic and professional life. I highly recommend this for high school students looking for tips and advice on how to plan for their future and tackle the challenges that they face along the way. Feel free to share this blog. If you have any questions or comments, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.