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Joel is a 2017 ALA graduate and is currently completing his Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering under the prestigious King-Morgridge Scholars Program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his first year, he quickly landed an internship with the Jones Leadership centre where he facilitated campus-wide leadership workshops to students before returning to ALA in the Summer of 2018 to intern as a Global Scholar’s Educator. In the Fall of 2019, he was recruited by the International Students Services to work as Reach Ambassador where he continues to work as a cross-cultural speaker in the Madison area.
Later that Summer, Joel worked as an Engineering Intern for three months at JP Cullen, a Wisconsin based construction company that deals with very large complex projects. He went on to complete two internship tenures with CG Schmidt, a large construction expertise organization, where he’ll start his career full time as a Project Engineer after his graduation.
Following his arrival in Uganda as a refugee when his family fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joel experienced the challenges that most children in refugee camps and rural communities face. He was, however, fortunate to attend ALA where he was exposed to design thinking, entrepreneurship and leadership. Some reflection on his learnings led him to develop programmes to help tackle social issues, one of the greatest being poor education.
The idea for 5 Sta-Z, a game allowing children to learn through play, was developed at this stage. The board game is comprised of Maths, English, Science and Social Studies modules from Uganda’s school curriculum and allows students to learn from each other in a fun and engaging way. He developed this game together with his friend and business partner, Anson Liow, who also has experience with refugee communities in Malaysia, where he grew up and did voluntary work. My Home Stars, a thriving business that has received several accolades over the years, was built through this partnership and continues to successfully raise funds to scale the business through competitions, crowdfunding initiatives and donations. They have ambitious plans to reach as many refugee camps in Uganda as possible through this model.
Joel received a Young Leader’s Award from Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, an award that recognises exceptional youth between the ages of 18 and 29 leading positive change in their communities. Their game and work have also received growing attention in Wisconsin, having been featured in several magazines and newspapers such as Love Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Journal.
We connected with Joel to gain more insight on his journey so far:
Why is education so close to your heart?
It is very hard to say when I started becoming very passionate about education but my family has been a big influence. Both my mom and dad never went to school, but from as early as I can remember, they always emphasised the importance of taking school seriously and why education has the potential to change one’s life. I am the last born in our family and as I grew up I also had the privilege of watching my elder siblings go to school before I did. Even though we were living in the refugee camp at the time, an environment that can sometimes be limiting, my siblings seemed to have high hopes for the future and were so liberal in the way they thought. I don’t think I fully understood what was going on then, but over the past few years, as I went through school, I have come to realise that education does have the potential to unlock minds and give big hopes for the future regardless of one’s background and starting point.
I have always counted myself lucky to have had parents who believed in education and inspiring siblings ahead of me. I hope that through my work I can be a big brother to some children who share my background.
What have you learned from building the game and the business?
I think my biggest takeaway so far has been the power of collaboration and the beauty of people coming together. Most of the time, articles have been published highlighting my face as the person doing the work, but if I am to be honest, all that I have done with My Home Stars has been possible through the collaboration of my classmates, friends and mentors. The 5 Sta-z idea itself was born during my time at ALA and the first two prototypes built were accomplished through collaboration with my classmates. When I came to college, I couldn’t do much on my own and that is how I ended up bringing my good friend Anson on board. When it comes to raising the funds that have enabled us to run My Home Stars, most of it has come through kind donations from friends, mentors and even strangers who believe in the work that we do. As such, the understanding that it doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do, you still need a community of supporters and collaborators, has been my biggest takeaway.
What are your plans going forward, both for your career and business?
I am excited to start my construction engineering career this coming Summer with CG Schmidt. From an early age, my dream was to become an engineer and build houses for people and with CG Schmidt’s mission of creating exceptional facilities that improve the lives of others, I think this will give me a great starting point.
With regards to My Home Stars, I still plan to continue working on it, given that social entrepreneurship and giving back to my community is a passion. However, I am also aware that working as a full-time engineer might get busy, so over the past year, I have been working to make sure that some of the people on the team can take on more leadership responsibility as we continue to grow.
What does the future of Africa look like?
Very hopeful and promising! I am daily encouraged to see the dedication, inspiring work and projects that many colleagues are working on in various sectors, all directed towards benefiting their communities on the continent. With my passion for education, most of the time I’ve found myself talking to friends about educational programs that they want to implement and why these will improve on the existing curricula. It is so energizing having conversations with my Engineering colleagues on how we need to build skill sets that will provide sustainable and affordable housing infrastructure that will cater for Africa’s growing economy and population in 30 years to come.