Rackham student Rama Mwenesi means a lot of different things to the people who know him within the University of Michigan community. To his fellow engineers — and many others, actually — he is the founder of E-MAGINE, a multidisciplinary student startup working to bring Internet access to remote areas in countries like Brazil, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Zambia.
To those others who know him from academia, he is a determined student, who has already completed an undergraduate degree in Industrial and Operations Engineering through the University — accompanied by two minors, no less, in International Studies in Engineering and Design Engineering as well as a certificate in Entrepreneurship. As well, he will be graduating this spring from an integrated master’s program at UM combining IOE and Health Management & Policy.
To his superiors and coworkers within the University’s health system, he is a health care engineering consultant, constantly seeking ways to improve patient care and safety, looking to avoid what he calls “stop-valve solutions” and instead concentrating efforts on long-term solutions and policies.
To those he works with through the office of Services for Students with Disabilities, he is a member of the Student Advisory Board, who has helped students all across campus through the development of outreach and mentorship programs, making the navigation of tumultuous waters just a little bit easier.
To the members of the University’s club boxing team, he is a trusted coach (and former four-year captain), confident in his athletes’ abilities and endlessly, tirelessly cheering them on when they enter into competition around the country.
He is all of these things to all of these groups of people, yet he still says most people don’t know him all that well. This, he elaborates, is because they don’t know where he’s come from, what he’s been through and just how difficult it has been for him to reach a position where he has garnered not one, but two Student of the Year nominations — the first coming in 2013, when he was still an undergraduate.
What the majority of these people are unaware of is that Rama suffered a brain injury due to multiple sports-related concussions when he was younger, and his doctors, he said, were uncertain whether he’d even be around today to tell his story, let alone to be nearing the completion of a second degree from an institution of higher learning.
“When I came here to Michigan and I realized I am quote-unquote 'disadvantaged' compared to the rest of my peers in certain aspects, neurologically that is … the question was: Am I going to give this up or not?” he said. “And then I reached out to the SSD [Services for Students with Disabilities] office and they really just transformed my entire experience here in terms of helping me understand what it is even that I’m going through.”
“It’s not like a broken arm or a broken leg where you can clearly see that so-and-so has, maybe, a challenge here or a problem there,” he continued. “The more neurologically complex these issues are, the harder it is to even explain to just any other person out there.”
Before coming to the University, Rama’s family and friends dissuaded him from doing so, saying they didn’t think it was worth it, that they thought he “wasn’t neurologically able to make it through.” But Rama was determined to seek out education in the United States, despite the fact that he might someday not remember a thing he learned due to neurodegeneration.
“My whole M.O. from the very beginning was, as cliché as it may sound: impossible is truly nothing,” he said. “Impossible is nothing, (and) as I look towards graduating in less than a month, this whole process — even this interview and everything — I am truly grateful for Michigan, truly grateful for the opportunities it’s awarded me.”
So yes, Rama is many things — an international student from Kenya; holder of an undergraduate degree in Industrial and Operations Engineering; a one-time double minor; a former fellow involved with the University’s hospital system; founder of E-MAGINE, bringing Internet access to remote areas in Africa and South America; a coach for the club boxing team; the list goes on. But the one thing he wants you to know is this: he has struggled along the way, has tried to be the most genuine version of himself he can be and, above all, he just wants to make a difference while he still can.
Nearing his second graduation from the University, he says, “This is something special, and this is something that I hope others can truly just, like, take a page, see, like, if this kid can do it, if this kid can do it … ”
And he can’t even finish the thought. He is so humbled, so grateful, so overwhelmed to be recognized for this award for a second time, that he cannot find the words to express what it all means. That’s OK, Rama. We know.