Uchenna “Uche” Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu never imagined that a bin full of plastic bricks could be used to build a career.
“I had never even heard of Legos before,” says Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu, recalling her introduction to the popular construction toy at an education summit about four years ago. Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu is one of 25 Mandela Washington Fellows at Northwestern this summer taking part in a six-week business institute.
Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu recalled how that day four years ago changed her life. As she turned toward another vendor, she saw a robotics display where children were operating machines they had helped program.
“I thought about how impossible it would be for my daughters to compete with students exposed to a curriculum that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM),” she says, noting that adult illiteracy affects nearly eight in 10 adults in her hometown of Nkpor, which is about 250 miles east of Lagos. “I am not a math or science person, but I saw this need and decided to pursue it.”
What started as an afterschool STEM program using a version of the interlocking plastic toys in 2014 has grown into an educational platform reaching nearly 1,000 children. Today, Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu is the chief executive officer of Edufun Technik, a company creating awareness and programming around a STEM curriculum.
Thanks to her participation in educational programming at Northwestern through the Mandela Fellowship, she is advancing her prospects to exert an even greater impact. This is the fourth consecutive year that the University has hosted a cohort of Mandela Washington Fellows, the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Members of Northwestern’s cohort of young African leaders are part of a larger prestigious group of 1,000 fellows studying at institutions throughout the country.
“The exposure to so many different people from so many different places has been amazing, especially when considering my community in Nigeria, which is a much smaller network,” says Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu. “We have learned so much from Northwestern faculty and our site visits, but one of the best parts of this experience is engaging with and learning from my peers.”
Northwestern’s program was developed through a partnership between the Program of African Studies and the Kellogg School of Management and is designed to challenge, inspire, and empower these young leaders. Highlights of this summer’s program include: academic courses focusing on new venture formation taught by Kellogg faculty; site visits to Chicago businesses and nonprofits; and cultural activities.
“There was this perception before I arrived that America is not like Africa, where everyone is friendly,” says Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu of her first visit to the US. “I thought I would get here and go about my day trying not to offend anyone, but Chicago is just like home. The people I have met have had a genuine interest in what I am trying to do and have even gone out of their way to help connect me with others I might learn from.”
One of those connecting points is Kim Moldofsky, a local blogger who runs the STEM-focused website Maker Mom. Moldofsky also founded a monthly Twitter discussion using the hashtag STEMchat.
“I will never forget the help that Kim has provided,” says Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu. “She has connected me with so many people in the cooperate and nonprofit world and those relationships will help in many ways to improve my business in Africa.”