Jabez Magomere named Rhodes Scholar
Jabez Magomere believes in completing what one has started, a mantra that has sometimes caused him real sweat. In the year of lockdowns, 2020, he signed up for the first ever Strathmore Ultramarathon with the thought of covering only a few kilometres but eventually crossed the finish line after the entire 100 km. It would be politically correct to say that he’s had the drive of the legendary Usain Bolt. Why? He summoned the same mantra through the rigorous application process for the Rhodes scholarship.
The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest international graduate scholarship in the world (first awarded in 1902), enabling outstanding young people from around the world to study at the University of Oxford. The Rhodes scholarship is awarded to two Kenyans annually, and approximately 100 people worldwide. For his efforts, Jabez made it to the final six, an achievement he still can’t quite believe. Well, he can, but he marvels a lot at its achievement.
“I did the final interview in late October, 2021. The panel of six were interested in my leadership skills, academic history, and the extracurricular activities I’ve been a part of. They focused their questions on impact. You know those intense ‘What have you (s)…?’ The likes of: What have you done in the past that has created impact? What do you want to focus your graduate studies in? What are you looking to make an impact on?”
“Ever been in a delayed anticipatory answer situation? It leaves you fretful and restless. This was me for some unforgettable hours after the interview,” says Jabez in an expression-filled half grin, half recollection face.
After the interview done on a Friday, he had to endure the agony of waiting for an answer till Monday. To deal with the anxiety that miraculously turns the short hours of a day into the slo-mo turn of the clock into a week, he kept off any means of communication until he was ready to receive the answer.
“I was terrified of the outcome because it’s painful to get so close to something yet lose it. I was one among six great applicants. To say the competition was tough doesn’t quite compound the feeling of this literal faceoff.”
Such anxiety has a way of gnawing at you. Itching for you to let free your fears or otherwise sink under their weight. When he could no longer avoid the outcome, he switched on his phone and received a couple of messages from a Rhodes representative who had tried to get in touch with him.
“I eventually had a call with one of the representatives. I am convinced that on boarding professionals undergo an interviewee anxiety inducing training to scare most of us, just for the fun of it. She began with: Unfortunately, we only take two applicants… I heaved, my heart sank, I braced for the disappointment, and consoled myself with the thought that I had tried my best. I mean, is it ever that serious? Of course I knew it was a big deal, and I was just trying to console myself.
She gave it a long dramatic pause, then continued, “…and fortunately you are one of them!”
“My hands started shaking, I murmured incoherently and was momentarily in a trance. I think my phone almost fell. I was short for words, elated, screaming internally while trying to maintain my cool like the gentleman this lady thought I was. I laugh a little when I reminisce the events of this day.
I had to make someone feel what I felt too. I toyed with this thought and decided to have a go at it,” says an excited Jabez.
To break the good news to his family and mentors, he employed the same style, “Hi! Unfortunately, they only take two applicants…” You can imagine what followed…
The software engineer at Twiga foods in Riverside now joins the prestigious list of Rhodes scholars for the year 2022.
Jabez graduated in the class of 2019 as the best student in Bachelor of Science in Informatics and Computer Science. During his time at Strathmore, he took part in a myriad of extracurricular activities: he won debate championships, performed in the talent show where he says he sang terribly and gave everyone a laugh, ran marathons to help Stratizens on financial aid and hosted (as the famously known on Strathmore streets as MC JB) student events and panel sessions on interesting conversations.
He heads to Oxford this September to join the Master of Science in Social Data Science. He’s eager to use computational data science techniques to answer social questions. “It’s multidisciplinary and cross cultural. So I get to collaborate with people from a totally different discipline in order to solve a societal problem.”
Why Social Data Science?
When I started out in life, I wasn’t the smartest. I flopped a lot, especially in primary school. I was transferred to a school and to an environment where my needs as a learner were catered for; I also realised I needed to put it the work in order to improve.
While at Strathmore, I spent 200 hours fulfilling the Service Based Learning at Marurui. Here, I encountered the high teacher to pupil ratio, which was 70 to 1, compared to the stipulated 40:1. With these kind of circumstances, slow learners do not get the attention they need.
I based my final year project on these experiences and built an app that uses machine learning to assist young kids access personalised learning at an affordable cost. I brought in tech as an enabler to potentially reduce the cost of personalised learning as kids in low income areas can’t afford after-school tuition.
But I was coming from the tech background. Imagine the impact collaborating with someone from the field of education would have on such a project. The social data science programme and the Rhodes scholarship gives me that opportunity.
The application process
I applied to the fords: Stanford and Oxford. I like to say that one ford accepted me and one rejected me.
After receiving the Rhodes scholarship in November, I celebrated for about two weeks then began the process of applying for the programme at Oxford that takes a cohort of only 40. Being a Rhodes scholar does not guarantee automatic admission into one’s programme of choice. The assumption is that Rhodes candidates are competitive but one still has to put in the work that the application process calls for.
This success is everything team efforts. A “harambee” of goodwill support if I may. I had assistance from Edi Kago and my dad who both pushed me to think abroad and get into grad school when I was still young and unfettered. The Financial Aid office at Strathmore University even footed the application costs (if you can, please insert a mind blown emoji here). I never needed to worry about the number of schools I would apply to. Through them, I got an exemption from the TOEFL exam. Kevin Muchemi, Head of Financial Aid, also linked me up with Cecil Yongo and Allan Mukuki, who took me through a mock interview.
How many times did you have to write your statements?
Let’s begin with the first draft. I read it and thought I should just append the name Shakespeare because I had produced a piece of art that could only compare to Mona Lisa in terms of writing. I then sent it to a Rhodes Scholar and to Kevin Muchemi for the first review.
When their feedback came in, the only thing that was not highlighted in red were names and pronouns. It definitely needed rewriting. They then shared resources on how to draft, what information to concentrate on… What it taught me was to be receptive of feedback.
From my experience, when you need reviews, don’t send it to your peers because they will be thinking just like you and they will only hype you up.
The other thing I would stress on is the time needed for the writing process. Ensure you give yourself time because it’s an iterative process.
What are the benefits of being a Rhodes Scholar?
The Rhodes Scholarship, besides giving you funding to access exceptional graduate school education, gives you access to the Rhodes Scholar community. I can now potentially reach out to other Rhodes scholars from previous cohorts and partner with them in creating solutions.
In addition, the scholarship incorporates training that develops us as multicultural leaders and helps the scholar harness your technical ability to grow global problems.
Do you have fears?
Yes, and no. As human beings, we tend to compare ourselves to others. You look at the previous scholars and what they’ve achieved and you feel some imposter syndrome creeping up on you. And that’s totally fine. It depends on what you do with the feelings of anxiety. I also think growth only happens when one is uncomfortable. So now the fact that I’m being uncomfortable, and with very brilliant people, I guess I’m growing as a person. And so I don’t necessarily have the pressure to create a very huge impact. That’s not the goal for me right now. It’s more the interactions I have and in the small way that I get to interact with people that I am able to create some sort of change.
Any words of wisdom?
You are putting your best foot forward and it might be rejected. You even list you were a prefect in class one. It’s a reflective journey that reveals yourself to you. So even if you don’t get it, there are so many benefits to going through the process. You have fears – what if I don’t get it? If I don’t, what happens?
Still, I never thought I’d get the scholarship because it was so competitive. I looked at the people who are Rhodes scholars, people like David Ndii and former US President Bill Clinton. So when I looked at my bio, I wasn’t sure I would get it. But I was like, hey, let me give it a shot. My elder sister, a Doctor, also encouraged me to give it a shot.
Has it changed you?
I would say it has in some ways and it definitely will once I’m in the programme. It’s an achievement to have completed the applications. James Clear notes in ‘Atomic Habits’ that every decision you make is a vote to what your future self is going to be. Being able to complete the process meant that I can start something and see it through. It helped me to self-audit my life and be grateful for what I have been able to do but also look at what I still have to do. It’s a humbling yet fulfilling process.
This article was written by Wambui Gachari and Francis Kabutu.
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