VCSIA Winner — Cynthia Okoye
All through my academic journey, I have been blessed with great teachers and mentors — people who saw great potential in me even when I could not see it and did all that they could to support me. It has only been recently, several years later, that I have realized how fortunate I was and am. And that my
experience is not usually the average experience.
Every progression I have made since high school in Lagos, Nigeria has been heavily influenced by a mentor figure in my life. In all cases, they reached out to me first because they genuinely cared about my progress and my future. It was my school principal who urged me to apply to the A-levels program in
South Africa which I received a generous scholarship to attend. In A-levels, it was my advisor who first told me about the US college which I received a generous scholarship to attend. And in college, it was my Chemistry professor who encouraged me to apply to Cambridge for my Ph.D. which I did and ended up receiving a Gates Cambridge scholarship to attend. The amazing support that I have received along the way is an integral part of my story.
In many ways, I have defied the odds because as a young Black African woman, the statistics say that it is very unlikely that I should be where I am today. And this is a major reason why I am deeply passionate about mentorship and efforts to improve equality, diversity, and inclusion. I hope that through my efforts, others can receive kindness and support as I did. But beyond my personal reasons, a more equal and inclusive world is a great thing that we should all work towards.
I try to serve as a mentor both informally and formally. I have been a mentor in programs such as the BMGA Fellows Programme, the Black Girl STEM Mentorship program, and the 2021 Experience Postgrad Life Sciences program in which I have provided support on topics ranging from graduate school applications to navigating relationships. I also work as a session leader with the outreach arm of the Cambridge Admissions Office where I occasionally deliver taster sessions to A-level students aspiring to attend university. So far, I have found mentoring and teaching to be nothing short of rewarding.
In the 2020–2021 academic year, I served as Co-President of the African Society of Cambridge University (ASCU). It was during this time that I pioneered the ASCU mentorship program in collaboration with Africa of Our Dream Initiative (AODI). The formal establishment of the program was in response to my findings that Africans consist only about two percent of the international students at Cambridge. The program was to be led by ASCU in order to leverage resources from the university as well as to ensure
the credibility and sustainability of the program. The mentorship program provided guidance and support on the Cambridge application process for postgraduate applicants from Africa. I was instrumental in setting up and facilitating the core team, reading mentee applications, matching mentees to mentors, organizing general information sessions with panelists from the Cambridge community, raising funds to cover the application fees of mentees with demonstrated financial hardship, and serving as a mentor myself. So far, over a dozen mentees have received admission offers, and two have received full scholarships worth over £250,000. Plans for a second edition of the
mentorship program are already underway. This time I am serving in an advisory capacity to the core team and also as a mentor.
I hope to continue playing my small bit in the race towards equality and inclusion and I am honored that my efforts have been recognized in the VC social impact awards.