Becoming an academic superstar doesn’t happen overnight. It takes grit, character, and a community of true believers. Luckily for Naomi Mburu ’18 — UMBC’s very first Rhodes Scholar — she has all three.
by Jenny O’Grady
To read her resume, and to sense the shining future ahead of her, it would be easy to guess that Naomi Mburu was born an academic star. And, to a certain extent that is true.
In her senior year of studying chemical engineering, UMBC’s first Rhodes Scholar is predictably a whiz in the classroom and the lab. She’s also generous and patient, serving as a mentor to fellow engineering students and Meyerhoff Scholars, and a natural leader, exuding a quiet confidence beyond her years.
But, what makes Mburu special — and what has made her successful — is not some innate key to knowledge unattainable to others, but a deep desire to question the world around her, and the support system of family, professors, and friends at UMBC and elsewhere who have stoked and nurtured that flame from her earliest years.
As Mburu finishes out her final semester at UMBC, her packed schedule reflects the magnitude of her academic achievements — from an invitation to Washington, D.C., to hear the State of the Union Address, to a standing ovation at UMBC’s first basketball game in its new Event Center.
Amid all of the attention and interviews about the Rhodes, she and her family also continue to mourn the loss of her older brother, Nicholas, who unexpectedly passed away following a car accident just after the winter holiday. The loss shook them all, while also strengthening the bonds of her family and their local Kenyan community.
To handle so much takes strength, poise, and a true sense of self. One of her biggest fans, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski — who told the Washington Post he cried upon hearing the news of her award in November — has watched her adjust these past months.
“What’s so impressive about Naomi is that she is as grounded as ever,” he said. “One senses her humility and authenticity in that great smile. She talks comfortably about the research that she’s done, about her future in England in nuclear engineering. She shows us the true Renaissance spirit.”
And in so many ways, this is just the beginning.
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Over in the student apartments, Naomi Mburu ruins a pot of noodles.
It’s true: UMBC’s very first winner of “the oldest and most celebrated international fellowship awards in the world,” as defined by Rhodes, is still a bit wobbly with her cooking. She’s working on it, though, especially since hearing mixed reactions about the food options in England.
In the fall, she’ll continue her education in the Oxford lab of Dr. Peter Ireland studying heat transfer applications for nuclear fusion reactors. Over the summer, she’ll visit family in Kenya, and travel to Lindau, Germany, for an invitation-only Nobel conference. And in this, her final semester, where in addition to taking a full course load, she’s also TA-ing and coaching Lakeland Elementary students in math, and traveling many weekends for the National Society of Black Engineers, she’s also fielding media interviews, giving speeches — the whole nine yards.
Amid it all, she knows her weaknesses, and works to strengthen herself. Amid it all, she’s figuring out the noodles.
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The Early Bird
As a kid, Mburu struggled with math. Like so many, she just “didn’t get it.” But instead of complaining, and instead of letting her studies lag, she got up extra early each day to meet with her teacher Mary Ann Sankey, who was in at 6 a.m. to start setting up for class.
Together, they hashed out the numbers. Even though she had no idea of what she’d be studying five years later, Mburu somehow already knew that math would be the key to so much more. In her teachers at Mount Hebron High School and beyond, she found people who not only believed in her, but pushed her to challenge herself.
“Naomi came in before school started, and she was into it, wholeheartedly,” said Sankey. “She didn’t just want to know what the answer was, but how and why it was working. It’s a wonderful thing to see in a student.”
As a little girl, Mburu had a few jobs in mind for herself: inventor, spy, or pediatrician (although she ditched the last idea when she realized she hated blood). As her teachers broadened her view of what was possible, they also helped her shape her questions and her study habits.
When Douraine Donaldson, Mburu’s AP Calculus teacher recently heard President Hrabowski mention the word “grit” in a speech, she immediately thought of her former student, who she recalls never shied away from asking anything.
“I saw that level of determination as it was starting to emerge…you know, the no-fear attitude, the ability to question and wonder why, and push the boundaries,” said Donaldson, who described Mburu as a center of inquiry, drawing other students in to discuss a range of topics. “I think it really started to emerge in her junior year. And by the time Naomi graduated, she was just ready to take it on and challenge things even more.”
As she began to figure out what types of work she enjoyed, Mburu knew she wanted to get into a lab environment. As a junior in high school, she attended an admissions event at UMBC where she met now-retired professor of biological sciences Lasse Lindahl, who offered her a position in his lab that summer.
“There were a ton of freshmen in the lab and juniors, and they didn’t treat me any differently” as a high schooler, she said. “I had to read a lot for the first couple of weeks to understand what was going on, but after I had my grounding, they let me run experiments.” By the end of the summer, she was invited to present at the Summer Undergraduate Research Festival with her college-level colleagues — an experience that helped her get over a fear of talking about her work, she said.
It wasn’t long before Mburu was a freshman at UMBC, figuring out her next steps with the help of a new cast of teachers.
Unsure of her major choice and looking for more hands-on experience, she approached Gymama Slaughter, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, during her freshman year, and left the meeting with a permanent spot on Slaughter’s team. In that role, the lone undergraduate chemical engineer among graduate-level researchers, Mburu learned quickly to stretch herself as a questioner and communicator.
“She’s a go-getter, she always hits the ground running, and she’s never afraid of whatever you’re going to give her…she’s excited and ready to do it,” said Slaughter, who has encouraged Mburu to follow her imagination in terms of what she studies, and has watched her student learn as much from her missteps as her successes.
“We all do fail miserably at times,” laughed Slaughter. “It’s important to allow students to fail rather than give them the answer all time…or they’re not really learning. It’s nice when a student like Naomi comes to you and says, ‘I read this, and I think this will work for us’…and I say: ‘Sure. Let’s try it.’”
Even in college, some old habits die hard. When she had trouble wrapping her head around a concept in Lee Blaney’s class on chemical manufacturing type processes, Mburu showed up early for office hours — and stayed for a full hour and a half, he said.
“I could tell that if I had to call the office hours closed and not get to that closure point with her, that it would drive her crazy,” said Blaney, an associate professor of chemical, biochemical and environmental engineering. “She wouldn’t give up on it.”
Both professors agreed she has the spark to take her work far — both as a researcher and as someone who can change the face of science.
“It’s a wonderful and a fulfilling feeling to see somebody that works with you is able to make such huge leaps in their own academic career, and I think that having the Rhodes and having the opportunity to go to Oxford and work with people from all around the world is wonderful,” said Slaughter. “I am simply overjoyed.”
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Last year, Naomi willingly enlisted in a 10-mile race called the Tough Mudder — an obstacle course filled with pits to cross, walls to climb, and mud as far as the eye can see. She and her friends came out of it covered from head to toe in dirt, tired but smiling like crazy.
If life is a race, Naomi is cool with it. She’s one of those people who genuinely loves the rush of air into the lungs. Running clears the mind, and keeps her level.
And if life is an obstacle course, she’s more than prepared for whatever challenges may come.
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Keys To Success
The process of applying for the Rhodes Scholarship is nothing close to easy. It involves writing multiple essays, asking for up to eight letters of recommendation, and participating in a series of increasingly pressure-filled interviews spanning a range of knowledge beyond one’s chosen field.
So, last August, when Mburu told April Householder ’95, director of undergraduate research and head of UMBC’s then-brand-new office of prestigious scholarships, she wanted to apply for all three of the UK’s top prizes (the Rhodes, the Gates Cambridge, and the Marshall), Householder admits her first thought was, “You’re crazy.”
But Mburu pushed on, taking Householder’s challenge to think it over seriously. The following week, she returned to the office, paperwork in hand, ever more determined to get it done. In the weeks that followed, Mburu worked with Householder and staff in other campus offices to get her applications ready, practice mock interviews, and — in short — train for the marathon that is prestigious scholarship competition.
“One of the things that made her successful in this whole process is that she took every opportunity that UMBC had on offer and she followed through on it,” said Householder. And she did it so well that she actually won all three awards (though she could accept only one).
“She knows her worth, she knows herself, she’s taken the time to really get to know what she’s capable of,” said Jackie King, associate director of the MARC*U*STAR Program, in which Mburu participates. “So I was not surprised when she said, ‘I won the Rhodes.’ I said, ‘Of course you did.’”
Outside of the Rhodes, and despite the newness of UMBC’s specialized office, the university has a solid history of success with prestigious scholarships. In previous years, staff in the Honors College and elsewhere have coached applicants, many of whom have gone on to win the top UK prizes, as well as Fulbrights, Goldwaters, and others. (See “Serious Scholarship”.)
Simon Stacy, director of the Honors College, who has worked with a number of them over the years says that while many applicants to these top scholarships nationwide come from the Ivies — and with years of grooming for just such situations — UMBC students come to the table with grit and the willingness to quickly learn how to play the game.
“Naomi is open and self-confident, which I think is absolutely crucial for the Rhodes process because everybody is accomplished by the time they get to an interview, and an awful lot depends on the ability of an applicant to connect with the interviewers and to represent themselves as effective leaders — as someone like Naomi can,” he said. “Her ability to make herself known in a way that does her credit without seeming self-aggrandizing is such a striking thing.”
Add to that the four years of support and fellowship she’s received as part of the acclaimed Meyerhoff Scholars Program — which stands at the forefront of efforts to increase diversity among future leaders in science, technology, engineering, and related fields — and you can see how the community has truly stood behind her efforts. It’s a place where “we are all looking out for each other,” Mburu says.
“We always tell students there’s no limit to what they can do if they work hard, as long as they do their part to hold up a high personal standard of excellence,” said Keith Harmon, director of the Meyerhoff program. “The talent is here.”
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Where do you find your strength?
For Naomi, it’s a combination of things: It’s her family and friends, who keep her grounded, who bring her joy. It’s the Kenyan community in and around her neighborhood experiencing the highs and lows of life together. And — above all — it’s her spirituality, her faith in God, that pushes her through the tough times.
“It’s a big part of who I am,” she says of her Christianity, her parents nodding beside her.
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Those Most Dear
At the very beginning of Mburu’s journey are Joseph and Joyce Mburu, her parents, who emigrated from Kenya in the 1980s. Kind and hardworking, they fell in love while students at the University of Baltimore, both earning multiple graduate degrees as they built a family with Naomi and her older brother, Nicholas, a 2016 financial economics alumnus.
In their comfortable home, mother and daughter wear matching bracelets woven to spell the word “Kenya.” As the parents have infused a love of their heritage and spirituality in their daughter, so have they nurtured a deep desire to learn.
Joyce’s parents were both teachers, and her father was a pastor; Joseph’s father was a businessman who wasn’t able to go to college, so “going to college was very important to him, and he did the best he could to send us to the best schools,” he said.
They try to be supportive without babying her, they laugh. When she started exploring prestigious scholarship options, they stood by her — even giving her a subscription to The Economist for Christmas to expand her world view — knowing full well a win would take their daughter to the other side of the Atlantic.
“You have to step away, but keep a watchful eye,” said Joseph. “You let her find her way — because that’s how they grow. That’s how they develop.”
“We are so proud of her,” agreed Joyce, who for years worked in the business office at UMBC and was able to be close to both of her children as they attended school.
When her brother, Nicholas, passed away in January, the family was comforted by the close-knit Kenyan community, both in Maryland and afar. But Naomi found herself dealing with an uncomfortable imbalance between the best and worst pieces of news of her life.
“I was flipping between those two emotions all the time — the extreme happiness about winning the scholarship, and then the sadness of him not being here,” she said, adding that he had looked forward to being interviewed for this article.
Through it all, Mburu’s friends have also proven a powerful positive force in her life, offering emotional support, laughter, late night snacks, and unflinching love. Her friend Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, a math and econ major, uses the words of King Solomon to describe their friendship: “As iron sharpens iron, so does one sharpen another.”
The night Mburu found out she won the Rhodes, Anna and friends scooped her up and took her for her favorite meal — Kabab Hut — and some delicious Korean bakery treats. As they chowed down, her roommates and neighbors in the Hillside Apartments pulled together a surprise party for when she returned, complete with confetti, cake, and about a thousand hugs.
“They have all been just super, super, super supportive of everything I’ve done,” Mburu said of her friends. “We’re not competing necessarily against each other; we’re more so trying to make sure we’re getting better together.”
In fact, many of them played key roles in her Rhodes journey, providing serious feedback on her essays, and tossing potential interview questions back and forth between them. One of those people was Adrian Davey, who befriended Mburu the summer before their freshman year.
“I jumped with joy and yelled in my room,” he said, out of joy for his friend.
“The icing on the cake is that through it all, she remains humble,” said Olanike Awotunde, another friend from the Meyerhoff program.
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The night UMBC opened its new Event Center, the seats were packed with fans. On the sidelines, behind the video cameras, Naomi stood waiting for her cue, decked out in a black t-shirt with gold paws across the front.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, UMBC Athletics would like to offer a special welcome to Naomi Mburu, the first Rhodes Scholar in UMBC History!” As she walks to the center of the court, the crowd erupts in applause and a full-on standing ovation, cheering wildly.
This is a very UMBC moment, and Naomi is very much a UMBC star.
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The Big Picture
Speaking to a group of high schoolers from Baltimore City this spring, Mburu fields a common question: “Have you ever felt like you couldn’t do something?
“I guess sometimes it seems like, ‘Oh, this person’s never failed at anything, but I fail at things all the time,’” she reflects. “I really enjoy talking to them at their level and explaining that I struggle with things all the time. I’ve failed tests before…I still fail tests.”
This one-on-one is a huge part of who Mburu is, and who she hopes to be for others. Besides studying nuclear fission and trying to solve the energy crisis for future generations — no biggie, right? — she’s also hoping to act as a positive role model, just as so many of her teachers have for her.
“There are so many people who have helped me along the way,” she says. “I think it’s really important for people who aren’t in science to understand what’s going on in the scientific world — especially young people who are deciding what they want to do, because sometimes it can seem like a hurdle that they can’t surpass if they’ve never even had anyone to talk to about science in a way that they understood.”
Speaking of relatability, Mburu found out some exciting news about her new lab at Oxford: She’ll actually be the second Kenyan woman Rhodes there.
“I sent her an email and she emailed me back instantly,” she said, smiling. “I’m so excited.”
Soon she will be packing for her summer travels, and figuring out a new life in England. As she reflects on the last half a year, and thinks about all that lies ahead, she feels good. She’s on the right track.
“Sometimes it’s been exhausting having to go from thing to thing to thing, but I really enjoy what I’m doing,” she says. “I get excited to think that someone would think that my story is inspirational, and they could do the same thing, it it makes it all worth it.”