Sela Kasepa attended her first semester at Harvard University in August last year. Just months prior, the 21-year-old was mulling over her education, uncertain of her future plans. That changed after watching a CNN insert featuring the first Pan African Robotics competition founded by Dr. Sidy Ndao. Sela was captivated.
That same evening she took a chance and sent a cold email to Dr. Ndao inquiring about robotics, and he responded two days later, encouraging her to pursue robotics. Sela found inspiration from the Pan African robotics founder and her interaction with him made her believe that she too could create with her hands. This encounter set a trail for her journey as a robotics mentor.
Sela never imagined that one day she would take a mechanics class, let alone at the prestigious Harvard University. She completed her schooling with funding from the Zambia Institute of Sustainable Development (ZISD), acing her GCSEs with 10 distinctions in 10 subjects. She had excellent grades and big dreams, but two years after graduating grade twelve she had little else to show for it.
Her passion for astrophysics fueled her ambition to study at a university that encouraged holistic learning – she took her first SAT tests on her own and thereafter sent applications to Ivy League Universities in the United States. Her first attempts were futile, with no scholarship offers.
During those difficult years of uncertainty, Peter Lungu, executive director of ZISD, reached out to Sela because of her interest in the SAT programme the non-profit institution offers. That small action pivoted into a mentorship relationship, with Lungu urging Sela to continue applying to her desired universities. After redoing her SATs with her mentor’s guidance, she got a perfect score in Physics (800) and a 790 in Maths Level II.
On the final day of call for applications, Sela submitted her applications to Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Michigan State University, and the University of California Berkeley. She was successful with each admission offering scholarships.
Two semesters in, Sela signed up for an engineering robotics class. The joy of creating something that works rekindled her love for the functionality of machines.“It’s a time when you realize your hands are capable of doing so much,” - Sela Click To Tweet
A lunch chat with a Rwandese friend turned to development talk. She was fascinated by how Rwanda, a country with few natural resources, was making groundbreaking progress far ahead of her own country. Her friend’s comment that a country’s’ top resource is its people, struck a chord. “If we the people don’t take the reins to develop our country, no matter our resources, we cannot develop,” she says.
In the coming days, Sela spent hours online looking for a competition her country could participate in until she eventually came across FIRST Global Robotics competition. Another cold email later, the organizers advised her to enlist Zambia. Even though she was above the age restriction to participate in the competition, she had the opportunity to mentor a Zambian team – if she could build one last minute. She picked up her phone to call Lungu to ask him to help prep a team to participate in the FIRST competition.
Lungu never expected to co-mentor a robotics team. He had never been versed in engineering or robotics. His role at ZISD was a vocational call after a long lucrative career as an auditor. When he was awakened in the middle of the night by Sela with the news that Zambia could participate in the FIRST Global Robotics if they got a team together, he did not hesitate.
While he already had access to the country’s most brilliant students, none of them had any knowledge of robotics before. The 2017 robotics challenge was about water and required tools, equipment, preparation, and travel for the competition. This meant that funding was needed for the team.