A Conversation with Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, Who Just Swept the Ivies

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by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

At just 17 years-old, Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna has a resume that far outpaces many of those twice her age. The senior at Elmont Memorial High School in Long Island, New York,  was a finalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. She'll present her research on cement that will keep oil rigs in tact at the White House next week.

On March 30, she learned that she was accepted to all eight Ivy League schools and four others. including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University.

I talked to Augusta about who inspires her to work so hard and how she aspires to help others do the same.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you choose which schools you were going to apply to?

I definitely wanted to apply to schools where I know their academics. My parents have really taught me the importance of education, [and] the importance of taking advantage of any opportunity that you're given, especially academic opportunity, so decided that Ivy league could potentially offer me what I was looking for in terms of achieving a very high level education.

How did you feel about your chances of being accepted?

The admission rates of these schools is very intimidating, so I didn't, necessarily, feel like I was going to be accepted in to all the schools. I was just hoping and praying to get accepted in to one of these schools because these schools are very honorable and prestigious institutions. I ended up getting in to all eight Ivy League schools, which is still very surreal.

Last year, another student from your high school, Harold Ekeh, was also accepted to all eight Ivies.  Did that influence your aspirations?

I would say, especially since this has happened twice in a row, what this really indicates is the power of the Elmont community, the community that both of us were raised in. This community not only describes the students, but also the teachers. We are educated in a community where the teachers literally come in during the wee hours of the morning, as early as 6 a.m. and then leave really late, at,  like, 8 p.m. They're spending a lot of hours in school, and they're pretty much doing this all to see that students realize our full potential. 

His success and my success can be attributed to the Elmont community and the fact that the students just support you so much. I have seventh graders who come up to me and congratulate. They're not as informed about college, so they ask for more clarification of what exactly I achieved and ask how it's possible for them one day.

Are you leaning toward Yale at all, because that's where Harold is?

No. Of course Harold and any other students who go to any of these respective colleges would encourage me to go to their college, but I'm very impartial to all of the schools. I know that each school offers an invaluable educational experience. Now its time for me to actually research about each school in detail. Learn about the little intricacies and the traditions and things that really define each school, and I hope to do that throughout this month of April and also visit as many of the schools as possible.

You are Nigerian. I've heard that Nigerian parents are very serious about education and achievement. How did your parents help you achieve your academic goals?

Yes, I guess you can say that Nigerian parents are very serious about education. In terms of first generation Nigerian children, these children see how their parents tend to come and immigrate from Nigeria to America. Most times the reason is to seek more opportunities, not only for themselves as parents, but also for their children. That's often the case, and I think Nigerian parents do a great job of teaching and telling their story to their children and informing their children why it is important that they take all the opportunity that they're offered seriously and not take them for granted.

I think that's what my parents have done a great job doing but it's also important to note that my parents are not helicopter parents. They don't ask me each night have I studied, have I completed my homework. Of course they act as any parent would, in terms of wanting me to be as successful as I can be [and] wanting me to achieve as much as I can achieve. However, they were not constantly over my shoulder and making sure I did this or signing me up for crazy academic programs. They didn't do any of that. I think what they did was show me the importance of valuing my education and from their stories and from their experiences, I took that and used that as my motivation to make my parents proud and show them that all of their sacrifices are not in vain. 

You are graduating as valedictorian of your class. You have a better than perfect GPA. I'm sure that there are lots of stresses that come with achieving at this level. How do you manage that stress?

I guess the most stressful year for many high schoolers is junior year. That was definitely my most stressful year. It was horrible but I got through it. I was able to get through it because of the power of collaboration. When beginning my eleventh grade year, I was taking four AP classes, and I remember in my US history class, specifically, my teacher told us to make a study group because study groups would be very integral for us to do well, not only in her class, but to just get through eleventh grade year.We all developed our own different role in the group, which made it much more successful.

What do you hope to accomplish in the future? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years, I am not sure where I see myself. Something that I've learned in high school was to have an open mind.  If you asked me in the beginning of the year what I see myself doing in ten years, I would say finishing up medical school, being on my path to becoming a doctor, but I found that I have so many different interests.

I don't know if this can be achieved in ten years, but I want to be a mentor those who have not had the same Elmont support system that I have had. I'd like to be a mentor to people like that. I say this because last Friday, the day after I learned I got into all eight Ivy League schools, I had the opportunity to attend a STEM summit, where I was a keynote speaker at an event where underrepresented students who were interested in STEM attended. At the end of my speech, a group of girls from Yonkers, who go to the trade school, came up to me, and one of the girls told me how she really wants to go to Stanford but she has no one in her school who has ever gotten in to a school like that. 

I was really touched by that. She was asking me for advice, and she told me how she didn't have many resources. I felt kind of sad because in my head I was like, "what do I tell this girl?, what can I tell her?" I really want to serve as a mentor for students like her and show students that you shouldn't only focus on one thing because people naturally like many different things. You shouldn't limit yourself to just one thing. Have an open mind. That's something I definitely see myself communicating with people. It's not in the next ten years, but, ultimately, before I die.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

I would say that my best friend is my biggest inspiration because she's so quirky and she's just so relaxed. She always relaxed. She's always chill, even in the worst situation. She always has a certain calm to her, and she always has good vibes. I would definitely say that she inspires me especially when I'm frenzied.

Photo: Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna

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