Kristophe Zephyrin ’21: Building Community on All Levels
Even as a child, Kristophe Zephyrin ’21 had grand ambitions to save the world and improve the human condition, starting with a dream of creating urban green spaces in his hometown of Houston, Texas. “I was a weird kid,” he laughs. “There’s concrete everywhere in Houston, so as a 14-year-old, I decided ‘I’m going to build green spaces when I grow up.’”
He was drawn to the hands-on nature of civil engineering. “I hate being behind a computer; I like being around people, and civil engineers basically create change for people,” says Zephyrin, who ended up combining his civil engineering major with a second major in environmental & sustainability studies. He is now a graduate student in the Science and Technology for Innovation in Global Development program, continuing his quest to solve global problems in innovative ways.
As an undergraduate, he was a member of the first group of students to travel to the Ghana Project Center, where teams focus on codesign, community development, and infrastructure. For his Interactive Qualifying Project, he helped to build bridges in the eastern region of Ghana, deliberately following the lead of local residents in formulating solutions.
“Being there was an eye-opening experience. As a Black person coming from America, I’d never been in a place where there’s just Black people,” says Zephyrin, who is of Haitian and Guyanese descent. “We were really developing community, helping them understand how they can further implement changes.” Years of colonialism, where solutions from the Global North were imposed without local consideration, made it hard for native innovators and change makers to be successful.
We were really developing community, helping them understand how they can further implement changes.
“This is the type of work I really want to do. I want to go to a community and use my experience to bolster their knowledge. At the end of the day, they are the experts in their environment. I can’t come to their home and say, ‘You need to build it like this.’ But I can use my engineering skills to work with them to develop new solutions.”
His Major Qualifying Project experience in Guyana was even more transformational. Working with the East Demerara Water Conservancy, one of the main watersheds near Guyana’s capital, Zephyrin developed a site plan for a research park. Eighty percent of the country’s population lives on the coast, and climate change is manifesting more frequent, devastating floods. The project became the basis for his master’s thesis, and he hopes to ultimately establish a new project center there.
“We want to educate the youth of Guyana not only about the risk of floods, but also about hydrology and natural sciences so they can work on problems in their own country,” he says. Many Guyanese are educated, he says, “but they end up leaving the country because they may not see the value of staying. This project will provide a space for professionals to do actual research and help develop that research culture.”
We want to educate the youth of Guyana not only about the risk of floods, but also about hydrology and natural sciences so they can work on problems in their own country.Kristophe Zephyrin ’21
Zephyrin’s passion for community building is also evident in his many activities outside the classroom—from helping promote fellow fashion lovers through his photography and brand-building skills, to investigating the Black experience at WPI as a research assistant. He is particularly proud of his work with Worcester’s African Community Education, where he introduces young refugees to the field of engineering and helps develop their skills.
“It’s crazy and inspiring for me to see someone who has been displaced still going out and doing great things in their new community. These students are thriving. They are doing so much with so little; they’re pushing me to do better,” he says.
An Alpha brother for life
This passion for service, instilled in him by his mother and his Aunt Miss—his grandfather’s aunt whom he credits as the most influential force in his youth—led him to a significant achievement: Being inducted as Worcester’s first and only brother of Alpha Phi Alpha Inc, the first intercollegiate, historically African American fraternity, whose members include Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Cornell West.
According to its mission statement, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. “develops leaders, promotes brotherhood and academic excellence, while providing service and advocacy for our communities.” The initiation process is intense, involving extensive tests that require 90 percent pass rates, but Zephyrin is working with other recruits in hopes of establishing a chapter at WPI.
“We take our brotherhood very seriously. Once you are a member, you are a brother of Alpha for life,” says Zephyrin. “I’m ambitious and I have a lot of things on my plate, and Alpha supports me through all of it. We push each other. I was just talking to one of my brothers, and he said, ‘I just got my PhD. When are you getting yours?’”