A participant recounts his introduction to USAP, his assimilation into the program, experiences and growth, and finally the realization of the importance of the program, from day one.
Brown University 12'
My phone rang, and I found twelve pairs of eyes turning to me, for I had disturbed our Chemistry lesson at my high school on that June 2007 morning I will never forget. I trotted out of the lab to the calm and soft voice of a man on the other end of the line. His name was Mr. Muchenje, he said, and he wanted me to come and collect my "package" at the US Educational Center in downtown Harare. Strangely, I found myself feeling weak and my heart throbbing – I wondered if it was excitement or anxiety, and for the rest of the day, an array of questions filled my mind. Little did I know that a priceless chapter in my life had been opened that day that a dream had come true, and I had gained what Nancy Kasvosve would call a few weeks later "a lifetime achievement." This was my admission into the highly acclaimed United States Student Achievers Program (USAP).
The first impression that USAP gives to its new students is one that lasts for a long time: You feel that you have certainly achieved something from day one. There are a lot of questions you ask yourself when you get accepted, and you are beside yourself with joy. I remember getting to school and hugging my friend speechlessly for two minutes, savoring that moment of triumph and supreme happiness. USAP students, famed for their intellectual curiosity and keenness to learn new ideas ask a lot questions about all the new things that are laid before them in their acceptance packages… "SAT's? What is USAP and what is it not? Liberal arts for a science student?" are some of the questions that are whirling in their heads, and those questions are basically not answered until the official first USAP meeting that marks the beginning of the exciting Usap journey.
Our first USAP meeting was an unforgettable experience…one of those days that will remain etched in your mind for all your USAP experience and life, something to which you can always refer to in the future for inspiration or for a hilarious reflection with peers. At this initial meeting you meet a colorful bunch of students from all over Zimbabwe, from as far as Chimanimani, Bulawayo, Chitungwiza, Masvingo, Rusape, Harare, Mutare, Gweru, from high-density townships and remote rural villages. These are the people who dream big like you, who want to scale great heights in life and suddenly you are brought together, the thirty-one of you, to begin the journey towards your dreams in brotherhood and sisterhood. You are going to share emotions, ideas and experiences with these people…and certainly bonds that will last for a lifetime have begun. That sense of belonging alone, as one family, is one of the greatest hallmarks of being USAP.
At this meeting you get to meet older siblings from the previous USAP class, students who have completed their year in USAP. Most of them are a few weeks away from flying to America to begin their studies at top universities and colleges and they are unable to contain their excitement. These USAP brothers and sisters are inspiration; they share their experiences, give you advice, and are visibly happy to see you start your own Usap journey. These 'elders' will prove to be an invaluable in the short time they remain with their juniors before they fly away to study in America – the advice and experiences they share with you gives a foretaste of what to expect in the important first USAP year ahead. I remember escorting Clyde Bango, now at Bates College, from the advising center half way across Harare in August 2007. As we walked, he relayed basically the A – Z of USAP from SAT Critical Reading to financial aid and the application process up to the emotional time when students receive their admission decisions.
USAP students also get comfortable with the culture of the US Educational Advising Center, their "home sweet home" for the next year, and basically thereafter for their whole lives. They learn and appreciate the calming and warm omnipresence of USAP's father Mr. Tapfumaneyi Muchenje. This soft-spoken gentleman will be with them throughout their USAP experience, helping them every part of the way.
There are spans of different things between the American and Zimbabwean higher education and USAP, and this is some of the most important new things USAP students learn and appreciate – the 'holistic' admission process that looks beyond mere academic grades, into other qualities and self attributes like leadership, motivation and dedication to community or cause, standardized tests (SAT's), financial aid, the 'open' curriculum are some of the new things that USAP freshmen meet.
SAT's are rather new to someone who has spent over twelve years in Zimbabwe's educational system, yet they are so important that for USAP students, the third term of their Upper Sixth form means chasing success on three fronts – the SAT's, A Levels and the preliminary stages of the application process (getting letters of recommendation, transcripts and other important documents). This, I believe, shows class on the part of the students and an ability to juggle responsibilities in a few months – responsibilities that could shape someone's future.
It is also during this stage that USAP students begin to ponder about the kind of college they would like to attend. I personally have learnt to keep 'an open mind' – for example, prior to coming to USAP, I thought there were only two worthy universities in the US - Harvard and Yale in America and held the false notion that getting into these two schools was quite easy. It was through the learning at USAP meetings with Mrs. Mano that I began to open up to reality – that there are countless world-class institutions of higher learning and amazing educational opportunities in America. Students also get to know the true meaning of the famed 'liberal arts' philosophy that drives American higher education.
Above all, USAP students learn to relate to their fellow USAPers. I find no worthy word to use, whether these are classmates or colleagues, because your fellow USAP students become more than that…they are probably the unique fusion of classmates, siblings and friends all in one – because they will experience everything together.
USAP students find that meeting thirty, new and intelligent faces from all corners of Zimbabwe is just amazing. Mazvitashe Mangisi, Thornhill High's 2007 Vice-Headgirl and the first Usap student at a meeting who could name all of her USAP peers correctly, is one such student… "Meeting all those amazing people is fun", she tells me with a smile. "Thus far, I have learnt to be active and never to give up amid hassles. I enjoyed meeting my peers and their unique but fascinating personalities. We have become such a loving family that tears well up in my eyes every time that I think that soon we'll be all scattered across the United States of America."
Gerald Mandevhana, Gokomere's chess wonderboy and one of their top students for 2007 agrees: "USAP is like finding you had a home you never knew about - having 14 sisters and 16 brothers who tell you it ain't wrong to believe in yourself, and a mother who loves you as you are."
"I am privileged to be part of this amazing club of Zimbabwe's finest intellectuals, and USAP is a life honor that defines everything I do and will do in my life,." says Ike Siyenzile Gapara, USAP's 'math wizard' who has represented Zimbabwe in the Pan-African Mathematics Olympiad , "I feel proud every time I walk through the gates of our Educational Advising Center."
'A' level examinations are crucial to USAP students, and they take them with the zeal they are well-known for, without complacency. Yet that is not all we have to do. While preparing to write A level exams, USAPers are also busy studying for SAT I and II exams. Within three weeks after their final exams, USAPers have to complete a rigorous application process while their non-USAP counterparts have started their holidays. For four weeks, the US Educational Center was literally our home, as we finally completed our applications. This is the time that USAP students get to get together more and know each other better. "It was a great challenge completing the applications, but amazingly we did. It was really because we all knew what was at stake – life-changing opportunities in America" concludes Ike. Just before Christmas, when the world is merry and in celebration, the papers that carry their dreams are ferried to the States to be mailed by USAP student volunteers.
The new year begins with great hopes for the USAP family…hopes for employment during the year…hopes for improvement in personal skills and the broadening of intellectual horizons… hopes for a refreshing period after the wear and tear of Advanced Level…and above all, hopes for the greatest dream that every USAPer bears: that of getting admitted and funded to attend a top school in the United States of America.
So USAP students start looking for jobs, and they work everywhere – teaching and internships at companies around Harare or the areas in which they stay. USAP students also benefit a lot from the computer, Internet and library facilities at the US Educational Advising Center – where they check their application statuses, research on current affairs, probe more into the nexus of American life, higher education, politics and just about everything American as they prepare themselves for an educational pilgrimage to the world's greatest nation.
The Food for Thought seminar series, an open discussion for youth that is open to the public and held at the Educational Advising Center every Tuesday also helps USAP students open their minds. Here students discuss a wide range off issues ranging from art to politics, business, education and all the social issues of the day. They also get to meet amazing leaders and personalities in the community e.g. a parliamentarian from Glen Norah, Poets for Human Rights, a successful high school drama club, a prominent women's activist or even a veteran American civil rights leader who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. At these Food For Thought Series, students also learn to debate constructively, argue and share ideas with other youth. The skills that USAP students learn during this period are going to prove invaluable when they finally get to the US.
All this time, USAP students also wait patiently for their admission packages from the colleges to which they applied. One by one, emails and letters that carry the schools' decisions come holding students fates in their hands. Whether or not they end up in America in their first year, USAP students remain resolute on their goals and their 'American dream' never fades…After all, USAP is not all about a scholarship… it is about what you learn, the new family that you have, the dreams that you share and that person you become. One adage rings true to me when I think about USAP: "The greatest reward of a man's toil is not what he gets out of it, but rather who he becomes."
So there are a thousand words to describe the USAP experience. I believe that one day I will become a leader in my country and do great things in life - the turning point of which was entering the USAP family. I am proud to have this lifetime achievement, and of all my badges, it is the USAP one I wear with the greatest pride.
Achievers for life are we!