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Martin Thulani Milanzi Brings STEM to Refugees in Zambia
They say good things come to those who wait, and whoever “they” are, they’d be right. Just ask Martin Thulani Milanzi ’24.
Shortly after beginning his first year at WPI in the fall of 2020, the chemical engineering major heard about Projects for Peace, an initiative sponsored by the Davis United World College Scholars Program that gives undergraduate students the chance to complete grassroots projects to promote peace and build understanding. While the opportunity was intriguing, the timing was a bit off—from traveling to the United States to start college (amid a global pandemic, no less) and wrapping up his own work with nonprofits and leadership trainings (more on those later), Milanzi was concerned that it would all be too much, too soon. So he decided to tuck the program away for later.
That, as it turned out, was a wise decision, leading to not only a successful first year of college for him, but ultimately an invaluable high school experience for students back in his home country of Zambia.
Bridging the Gap
Hailing from Lusaka, Zambia, Milanzi attended the Pestalozzi Education Centre, which educates students from Lusaka as well as those from the nearby Meheba refugee settlement. His time at Pestalozzi forced him to recognize his own privilege as a Zambian citizen.
“It felt like I was missing something that was happening right in front of me,” he says of learning of the struggles of his refugee classmates. In particular, he cites their difficulty in acclimating to Zambian culture and vastly different regulations compared to his own as a Zambian citizen. “There was a big gap between what they could access and what I could access.”
An example came during Milanzi’s senior year of high school in 2017. While he had several offers to continue his education upon graduation, his best friend, Vianne, was denied a scholarship because of his refugee status.
Martin Thulani Milanzi ’24
There’s a world far bigger than the refugee camp they’ve grown up in. There are countries around the world where they can travel and make a name and a mark for themselves, and I want to help give them the skills and resources to do that.
Disappointed and upset for his friend, Milanzi kept Vianne in mind as he was chosen as Zambia’s sole candidate to attend the 2019 Ashinaga Africa Initiative, a six-month leadership training program in Uganda. There, he learned about being a business leader in modern Africa and furthered his skills in using technology to support social development. It was also where he first heard of WPI.
But before his arrival in Worcester, Milanzi checked one more thing off his to-do list: completing volunteer work for the nonprofit Kucetekela Foundation. There, he mentored students and prepared them for SATs and the college application process. In much the same vein as at WPI’s project centers, Milanzi was also tasked with finding community service-oriented project opportunities for the students he mentored and, remembering his high school days, he chose to work with the Meheba refugee settlement.
The experience, he says, made him even more aware of not only the students’ lack of resources, but their endless ambition and enthusiasm despite their situation. When he was finally ready to revisit Projects for Peace, he knew exactly what kind of project he’d propose.
“I was definitely a bit nervous,” he says of finally hitting that submit button on his grant application. “But what stuck with me the most was that through it I would have a chance to go home and contribute something positive.”
Mentorship Spanning Continents
And contribute he did. Milanzi’s proposal was accepted, and with the $10,000 award he created “Education Meheba—Experiential STEM and Tertiary Education Support for Refugee Children in Zambia.” The three-week program allowed him to build on his time and experiences working with students through the Kucetekela Foundation, all while helping refugee students like his friend Vianne.
“There’s a world far bigger than the refugee camp they’ve grown up in,” he says. “There are countries around the world where they can travel and make a name and a mark for themselves, and I want to help give them the skills and resources to do that.”
During the summer of 2022, Milanzi returned home for the first time since arriving at WPI and ran workshops on everything from science experiments and associated careers to the use of technology to improve interpersonal skills. Other workshops focused on growing as a leader in Africa; writing college essays, scholarship applications, resumes, and cover letters; creating and maintaining a peaceful community; and providing mental health support specific to refugees.
It made for a summer of growth and learning for all, with no shortage of memorable moments. Two of his favorites: the reactions of students when they created a color change in a titration science experiment and then applied the science they learned to other aspects of class; and when a friend used Zoom to discuss the importance of technology in the 21st century, and how the students could use it to access opportunities and improve their livelihoods.
While Milanzi may be back in Worcester and further immersing himself in his own college experience—he’s the treasurer of the African Student Association, a student worker at the Rubin Campus Center, and a member of the club soccer team—his plans to continue Education Meheba are just beginning.
“We’ve got plans to help students with scholarships and connect them with mentors in Zambia and college students at WPI to be role models and encourage them to keep working and bettering themselves,” Milanzi explains, adding that they’re also working to find a way to make the program self-sustaining.
In the meantime, Education Meheba is still running strong in Zambia. Milanzi stays connected with the students on Zoom throughout the college application process, all thanks to his friend Vianne.
“He’s a project assistant with me, and at the end of the project, I had him share his story with the students,” Milanzi says. “Seeing him share his story, seeing myself as part of his story, it was an emotional moment, for sure. It really got to me and made me realize how much change I’m capable of bringing to my community.”