On December 17th, 2021, an accelerated lub-dub sound suddenly made me freeze during what had otherwise seemed to be a chill Netflix movie night. “It is the D-Day!” I could not stop thinking about it. While expecting an email around that time, I took some time to reiterate my goals, fears, what I had gone through, and my trust and faith in God. Later on, after summoning all my courage, I finally opened the long-awaited email. I then discovered that, against all odds and breaking impassable barriers, I had been admitted as a rising freshman into Harvard University—a dream I had never thought possible!
What does the phrase "take risk" mean? I suppose this is nothing new to you! Unlike you, I knew nothing about it until I found myself in a circumstance that would drastically alter the course of my life, the lives of those in my family, and the lives of many who have ever had a dream. I have known since the age of ten that I have a disability. For the past ten years, I have had to endure the constant fear of being rejected and the fear of what other people might think of me. I often found myself in settings where I was overlooked, relegated to the margins, and marginalized due to my physical appearance. By a twist of faith, despite everything that had happened, I found a community that saw me differently and welcomed me accordingly and which I will forever consider my family; the Open Dreams Community.
Two years ago, I graduated from Government Bilingual High School Etoug-Ebe in Yaounde with 25 points. I then fell victim to the "crowd movement" which consisted of preparing and sitting for competitive entrance examinations in the hopes of landing a placement, a secured life, and a secured job after graduation. This choice did not work for me though it often does for others. Unfortunately, or as I'd rather say, fortunately, I was not successful at the entrance exam I sat for. As a common alternative to succeeding in a competitive exam, I had to enroll at a private university where I began my college life. However, the college option did not work out for me either due to language barriers and a significant financial burden, so I audaciously decided to drop out of the university without telling my family. I found refuge at Open Dreams, an international non-profit aimed at equalizing access to educational opportunities for high-achieving but underprivileged students who aspire to pursue their dreams of studying abroad and leading social change. After receiving a warm welcome into this multicultural and international community, I set my mind to work tirelessly to secure a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my family, my community, and myself. Therefore, after leaving the university, I wholeheartedly started my journey to an Ivy League University.
The journey has never been smooth. To begin, English was not my first language, making it challenging to learn how to write; graduating from high school with almost no extracurricular activities to brag about, lacking any "special" talent, and experiencing extreme physical and financial insecurities. I ignored all the insignificant comments spotlighting my physical appearance and committed fully to this experience. After my admission into the highly selective and prestigious Open Dreams Summer Academy in August 2020, I made myself noticed through my tireless efforts to prove my dedication and resilience, after which the Open Dreams Team decided to waive all of my fees. I was able to apply for admission and scholarships, take international examinations and standardized tests, get internet access, and have access to a functional laptop that I could use to explore the best of my abilities without being limited by finances. I was drilled on how to write essays, search and compile a solid college list, and I got introduced to the admissions and scholarship application processes. I got immersed in community engagement and volunteering and learned how to write a report and a resume. I had to step outside my comfort zone to learn teamwork, leadership, and public speaking. Due to COVID restrictions, this training was very intensive because it condensed everything we needed to know into a few weeks. As the program progressed, I noticed a slight change in myself, which became more pronounced over time. Upon the program's completion, I had the good fortune to have bonded with Akwese Majolie, an Open Dreams Scholar who is a MasterCard Foundation Scholar at the African Leadership University-Rwanda, who was happy to mentor and personally travel with me through every step of my journey. Without prior knowledge of essay writing and the concepts that go along with it, I decided to take it upon myself to do whatever it would take to prevent my parents from ever having to spend money on me again. Besides, my (un)impressive profile, combined with the fact that I had literally no background in English, public speaking, or scholarship-related ideas, regrettably could not qualify me for any potential scholarship opportunities.
Despite having a sparse profile, I began working on several scholarship applications after the orientation period. During the 2020–2021 academic year, I applied to over 20 institutions in the US, about 24 institutions in Turkey under the Turkish Government and YTB scholarship programs; a few institutions in Japan under the MEXT scholarship, about seven institutions in Africa under the MasterCard Foundation Scholarship, a few institutions in Canada and Europe, and a couple of institutions in the Middle East as well. Despite my best efforts, I failed to secure any concrete opportunities for myself, which allowed for a period of deep introspection, self-doubt, and what I refer to as the Biggest Risk I have ever had to take.
Flashback to a couple of paragraphs earlier, I mentioned leaving the university without telling my family, and until this point of retrospection, I still managed to keep it a secret. I went through a depressive episode; I did not know how to tell them that I had not been attending school for a year despite leaving the house everyday. I was going to interact with the wonderful family I had met a year earlier (Open Dreams) while honing my skills and building my profile. Noticing my predicament, the Country Director of Open Dreams, Akaba James, called me in for a conversation during which he told me that I had the intellectual promise and something significant was undoubtedly awaiting me on the path ahead. Added to the continuous teachings, advice, encouragements, trust, pride, and fatherly love Sir Akaba had for me, this conversation was energizing and revitalizing. And, afterward, I put all of my fears aside—or, I should say, I acknowledged them and used them as fuel to do even more. Despite how challenging things seemed to be after that, I never stopped reminding myself of my origins and the goals I have for my family and community.
Despite not being able to secure a scholarship, my first gap year was superb. I was part of the team that worked on great projects, among them the TiC Summit (courtesy, Bill A. Njoh), the Open Dreams Summer Academy, a US Embassy-sponsored Instructional Technology Program, and many others. Additionally, I had the chance to participate in volunteer work and community-building initiatives like the Aviva Day, World Cleanup Day, did visits to the less fortunate, and free computer programming classes, among others. The Goodwill Fellowship 2021, Harvard-founded Aspire Leaders Program, International Youth Math Challenge 2020, Google Africa Developer Scholarship, and Social Shifters Global Changemaker program are just a few programs for which I got selected. These significantly improved my resume, preparing me for the upcoming application season. During my second gap year, I supplemented the activities above with a variety of others, such as the (re)school Sprint 2022, Harvard-founded Aspire Leaders Program, won the Goodwill Fellowship Mini-grant to execute a tree-planting and sensitization project, and a lot more. I also worked on groups and individual projects, managed teams to complete tasks, and built myself in the process. I focused more intently on my essays and laid greater emphasis on sharing my thoughts and story through words. At Open Dreams, I collaborated closely with a few mentors and peers while continuing the application process. I kept applying to a few other universities, but this time around, I was more deliberate in my college choice. By mid-October, after submitting applications to a few schools, I made the audacious decision to apply to Harvard University, a school we all believed I did not stand a chance of getting admitted. Keeping an unwavering faith in God, working hard, and trusting the process, I began working on my application to one of the world's top and most prestigious universities. Forghap Prince, an Open Dreams Program Facilitator and a graduate of the Pan-African University helped me with his thoughts and criticism after I had completed the requirement and written my essays. I then refined the essays and, filled with great hope, I clicked the SUBMIT button that would change my life.
I first thought it was surreal when I opened an email from the admissions office informing me that I was shortlisted for a Harvard interview. Though this was not an admission, or should I say yet, it was still great news for Open Dreams and me. Everyone was amazed and offered to help me prepare for the interview. I will always be grateful to Michael Nkwenti, a fellow Cameroonian and member of the Harvard class of 2025, who helped me prepare for the interview despite not knowing anything about me. I was ready for the interview, thanks to my thorough preparations and the advice I got from all those who dedicated their time and efforts to help me prepare. Tom Hamel, a senior international admissions officer, conducted the interview. He created a warm and welcoming environment that relieved my tension. We spoke for about 45 minutes, during which I revealed more about myself and my plans to attend Harvard. I also learned more about him, his time at Harvard, and the incredible experience I would have if admitted. As the conversation ended, he wished me well and expressed his hope of seeing me on campus the following fall.
As I awaited the final decision from Harvard, it seemed time had stopped moving forward. The days seemed to drag on very slowly, and silently, tension and anxiety were burning me out. I started fasting and placed my hope in God, who has unquestionably been with me throughout my journey. Thankfully, I eventually got the "Congratulations" I had long awaited. Hurray!!! I had at last succeeded. I had broken a barrier and paved the way for everyone else who has ever had a dream but was constrained by the belief that they never stood a chance. Informing my parents, family, and friends of this accomplishment has been the most memorable part of this successful journey. I will never forget my parents' shock when I told them I had dropped out of school and had secretly been working on my applications for almost two years without telling them. The struggles, setbacks, rejections, tears, and sleepless nights had paid off, and now the time had come for me to take off. The wait had been worthwhile. It was difficult to leave my various families; I managed to retain my tears as I watched my parents and siblings struggle to control theirs. Although it was sad to part ways, it was necessary for a better future.
I am now a Crimson! I am aware that harder challenges await me on my journey ahead and that the road will not always be clear, and I accept that I still need to find my path and prove my worth. However, as I wake up to this new reality, I put on my most valuable weapons—my smile and my resilience—and prepare to deal with whatever comes my way. Indeed, I think that those who work hard to realize their dreams while believing in themselves are the ones who eventually succeed. Life truly is like an orange, with success being the delicious core that can only be gotten after penetrating the hardcover; hard work. I understood this deeply after pouring in my all during my application process to Harvard. Can I boast of achieving this amazing dream on my own? Definitely not. I am sincerely grateful to all those who supported me in any way. I would not be who and where I am today without you.
Thanks to you all, this "once a dream" is now my reality. I will not end this without thanking Game Changers for the community engagement and volunteering opportunities they made available and for enabling me to discover my passion and explore my love for the environment.
Special thanks to the US Embassy in Yaounde for all the community engagement programs they made possible for me to attend under the umbrella of Open Dreams, which helped me build my desire to serve and create a positive impact in my community. This success will not have been possible without the immeasurable and incomparable support, trust, love, and care I received from Blaise Buma, Cristina and Hans Kullberg, Co-founders of Open Dreams. Alongside Akaba James they all worked restlessly, from taking up the financial burden of waiving my application fees, and paying for my international examinations, to purchasing my flight and handling my accommodation and feeding, amongst others.
Special thanks to Dr. Qiwei Shi, Alex Lawrence, David Takang for welcoming and accommodating me in the USA through the transitional period to Harvard
To my fellow Cameroonians and all Open Dreams Scholars, the bar and expectations have been set higher. Nevertheless, I am not the first and will certainly not be the last to get in from Open Dreams. So, know that Harvard and the Ivys are within reach and all you've got to do is believe and put in the necessary effort.