Gloria: Future Neuroscientist and Columbia Student
Gloria graduated from Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST) in 2018 and soon boarded a plane to attend Columbia University. Her passion for human behavior and brain science began while studying biology at GGAST. We sat down with Gloria as she shared her passion for neuroscience, how she found out she was headed to Columbia, her transition to life abroad, coping with a global pandemic, and her advice to her GGAST sisters behind her. Did we mention Gloria was also recently named Editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Science Journal! Don't miss this incredible interview.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Gloria Charite. I graduated from Gashora Girls Academy in 2018, majoring in Mathematics, Chemistry, and Biology (MCB). Mathematics and Biology were my favorite courses; I was fascinated by the “intangible” facts and “imaginary” reality of the mathematical world. The complex science of life unraveled in my biology classes caused me to constantly appreciate life. I was particularly interested in the advancement made understanding the intricate science of the nervous system; more specifically, how the brain’s functioning affects learning, decision making, and human behavior in general. In my senior year, Gashora’s former Principal, showed us an intriguing presentation on Artificial Intelligence (AI) after which, I was convinced I would pursue a career in brain sciences. Now, here I am a prospective Psychology or Neuroscience major at Columbia University. When I graduate, I hope to pursue a PHD in a certain psychology or neuroscience field. Probably, a field that explores the neural process behind decision making in hopes to understand how violence unfolds and how to prevent it.
Where were you when you heard you were accepted to Columbia University?
I applied Early Decision to Columbia University. With the acceptance rate being less than 6%, I was extremely nervous. I constantly reminded myself that I had done all I could and to hope for the best. A part of me was very convinced I would get in, while another would ask, “who I thought I was to be accepted at Columbia.” I was very distressed!
Fortunately, on the night of December 14 my little sister was born. The joys and excitement of welcoming her distracted my anxious thoughts. The next morning, I had literally forgotten about the admission. I woke up to do my chores as usual and as I was sweeping the compound, my best friend, Kathia, called. With a sense of urgency, without even saying hello she said, “Gogo, (that’s what they call me at home) tell me it went well?!” I paused for a second.
“Oh yes it did! Thank God Eliana, our little sister, made it safely.”
“I heard! But I was asking about Columbia. How did it…”
Before she could finish, I dropped the broom. I started shaking. I could hardly type the passcode of my phone to check the results. I gave her all the credentials and asked her to check for me. We were silent. After a couple of minutes, she started talking again. In an extremely disappointed voice she said, “You won’t believe what happened…” Before she could finish, I cut her off. “It’s ok! It’s not like I’m surprised, anyway.” “You got in!,” she shouted triumphantly. I do not recall what happened in the next few dramatic minutes of the subconscious expression of gratitude and unspeakable joy! I was incredibly happy; I felt blessed!
How was your transition to the US? What were your biggest challenges?
My transition to the US was smooth due to a couple reasons. Gashora and the US Embassy in Rwanda offered different workshops and other resources that prepared me for what was to come. During the orientation week, Columbia also offered many resources and gave us most of the information we needed to do well both emotionally and academically. On top of this, there were three other Gashora Girls on campus who helped me adjust rather quickly. In a few weeks, I had a big support group in place.
This said, however, there are inevitable challenges that come with moving into a new country. Meeting so many new people at once and being around a completely different culture was very overwhelming. For some reason, speaking English all day, something I would not have minded at all back home, was mentally taxing. I sometimes felt like I did not have words to say and longed to go back home.
The food was my biggest concern. Everyone talked about Freshman 15, an amount of weight gained during a student's first year at college, but I was hardly surviving. Whereas food products are not necessarily different from what we have in Rwanda, the way food is prepared varies significantly.
You were named the Editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Science Journal! What an honor. Tell us about your responsibilities?
Yes! It is such an honor. It has been four months since I joined the editorial board of the Columbia Undergraduate Science Journal (CUSJ). It has been a very positive experience and I had the opportunity to contribute to the journal we published in mid-December.
As the name suggests, the primary role of members on the editorial board is to sort, edit, and publish accepted scientific articles that are submitted to our journal. For a long time, I was a passive spectator of new scientific technologies and fascinating advancements. Now, I am enormously proud to be actively involved in the exciting process of producing science and making scientific information accessible to everyone.
How have you managed the last year with the pandemic?
Until late 2019 the number “2020” triggered thoughts of success. I dearly held onto the promises of the famous slogan, “Vision 2020.” Many organizations had ambitious goals of eradicating poverty and achieving equal health rights by 2020 and achieving unity and inclusivity. I assume you had your own personal aspirations too. To say that 2020 let almost everyone down is probably an understatement.
When they announced a national lockdown in February, Columbia immediately went online, and students were required to go home. You can only imagine how confused and anxious international students like me who could not go home felt. Thankfully, the school allowed us to stay on campus. But the loneliness and challenges of living on an “empty” campus are unspeakable. However, this provided me with an opportunity to find new hobbies and be in touch with family and friends. The lockdown helped me figure out that I am a social introvert. I was amazed at how much work I got done and how much I enjoyed my alone time.
I would not say that I “managed” 2020, but I surely quickly adjusted to the new normal, and I am grateful for all the support I received from family, friends, and the Columbia community at large. The thought that humanity went through and overcame other pandemics kept me going.
Looking back on your years at Gashora, do you feel it prepared you for college and beyond?
Looking back at my first day at Gashora this is how I would describe it:
The campus was quite scenic. Students who had attended the same schools in Ordinary Level (middle school) were happily conversing and hugging one another. I, on the other hand, was the only student from a lesser-known government school in the rural part of Northern Rwanda. I had no one to talk to, laugh or gossip with. My thoughts drifted from the chatty girls to the quiet classes--at the moment-- then to the three years ahead. The day took forever to end. The thought of spending three years at Gashora gave chills down my spine. I winced. “Thank God no one has come to talk to me,” I thought to myself. I barely understood a word from all the people around, who spoke English at the speed of light.
My enrollment in Gashora Girls Academy, being an anglophone institution, presented itself as an opportunity and a challenge. I had only attended Francophone schools, and at home I spoke my local dialect (Kinyarwanda). My moment of terror finally came when I learned that I was in the same class with students who had ranked top three in the National Examinations. In the same Exam, I had ranked... God knows where.
It is mind blowing that despite all these challenges and more, I graduated as the valedictorian of the class 2018. I do not say this to show off such an outstanding accomplishment, rather to present myself as a living testimony of the transforming nature of the Gashora community. Yes, the people at Gashora are unique. I got unprecedented support from all angles. The amazing administration, teachers, friends, uncles, and aunts that work tirelessly towards each students’ success is such a beautiful demonstration of what teamwork can accomplish.
My years at Gashora taught me two important lessons that have been serving me well at Columbia and life in general.
Your past, specifically family and education background, do not determine your success.
You cannot get there alone. You need other people, and you should always strive to be there for others. Success is a team effort.
What advice would you give to your Gashora sisters who are currently at Gashora looking ahead to their future?
Me and my friends used to joke that Gashora is “Harvard high school” because of how busy, and sometimes overwhelming, it can get. Well, now I guess I would say it is “Columbia high school” (hahaha). Regardless of whichever it compares to, I can hear you complaining because I also did. But whereas it is sometimes not obvious why you have to do what you are doing; I can assure you that in due time it will pay off. Knowing how to balance academics with extracurricular activities while still prioritizing self-care is something I always thank Gashora for training me to do.
Those essays and research papers, write them even when you do not feel like it. You shall later thank your teachers for giving you exactly the necessary skills you needed to have. Also, the English language policy, yes, go ahead and follow it. You may complain about it now, which is okay as you complain in English (Haha), you shall later thank Gashora.
Finally, endeavor to use all the opportunities put in place to help you. Go to the teacher's office hours, they are always ready to help you. Participate in extracurricular activities and build those lasting connections with your fellow students and the Gashora community at large. Reach out to the Gashora alumni, we are cheering for you and ready to help as much as we can.
You will graduate in 2023. Have you begun to think about what you want to do after graduation?
Yes. I know for a fact that I want to get a PHD in a neuroscience field. I dream to work at Columbia University's Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, and if all goes well, I shall work there before and/or after going to graduate school.