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Chatting with UMBC’s first Rhodes Scholar: Naomi Mburu

Naomi Mburu made history when she became the first UMBC student to receive the Rhodes Scholarship last week.

The Rhodes Scholarship is an international postgraduate award in which the top global students are selected to study at the University of Oxford. Established in 1902, it is the oldest international award ever and widely considered to be one of the world’s most prestigious scholarships. Several prominent figures have received the award in the past, including Bill Clinton, Dean Rusk, William Warren Bradley, Rachel Maddow, and Naomi Wolf.

This year, more than 2500 American students competed for the chance at being nominated for the prestigious award. Out of the 2500, only 866 students from nearly 300 U.S. colleges and universities were nominated, and just 32 of the nominees went on to become Rhodes Scholars. In all, there were approximately 100 students chosen across 65 different countries (including the U.S.) as Rhodes Scholars this year.

After the names of the winners were released on Nov. 18, Mburu admitted that she was shocked and even in disbelief when her name was called.

“Honestly I didn’t feel anything, it didn’t register to me … they said the first guy’s name, Nathan Bermel, and then they said my name and I couldn’t believe it. I just kind of sat there like ‘What? No, there’s no way’ ” Mburu said. “There was [even] one person who actually ended up being on Forbe’s ’30 Under 30′ list, and I was just like, ‘I’m just this person from UMBC.'”

Despite her initial shock, Mburu said that she eventually came to terms with it and was met with the congratulations of her friends and family.

“I called my mom [and dad] initially … then I texted President Hrabowski. And then I got a call from him and he was crying … and it hadn’t really sunken in yet for me. So he starts crying and then I started to cry. It was crazy.”

Mburu, senior chemical engineering major, has spent her years at UMBC involved with several research programs and student organizations. As part of the Meyerhoff and MARC U*STAR Scholars programs, she is a peer mentor to underrepresented minorities pursuing careers in STEM. She is also a member of the National Society for Black Engineers, and has helped increase the membership and attendance of the organization since her sophomore year.

As of now, she currently stands as the Region II Vice Chairperson for the organization and is working in a computer engineering lab under Dr. Gymama Slaughter, where they are working to develop a bio-fuel cell that can be used to generate power in the body without other external power sources to help patients with diabetes or pacemakers.

Despite her achievements, Mburu said that there were definitely challenges that accompanied being a female leader in STEM. Born to Kenyan immigrants, Mburu said that she always had her family’s support in her passion for the sciences, but that being a young African American female came with internal battles that she had to overcome.

“When I was working at CERN, there were no African-American scientists,” she said. “There were thousands of scientists there, [but] none of them were African American females. And they were all physicists. So there were a lot of self-inflicted barriers like, ‘I don’t look like anyone else.'”

Though she said that there were times where she faced mistreatment at other institutions due to the way that she looked, she said that those experiences taught her to be “more confident in herself” rather than dissuaded her from pursuing her major.

“You had to realize that ‘Yeah I look different than you, and I’m a different major. But I want to be here as much as you want to be here. I care about this as much as you care about this. And I don’t care if you respect me or not, but I’m going to get my work done. If I need your help I’m going to ask you, and I expect that if you need my assistance you’re going to ask in a respectful way too.'”

She added, “And once you set that precedence, they start to respect you more.”

Mburu’s future plans include pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Oxford in 2018, where she hopes to work on nuclear fusion reactor technology.