DU Alumni

Flawed power grid inspires Ugandan student to pursue degree in electrical engineering

Shem Kikamaze came to DU to pursue the education and know-how that would help his country address its power problems. Courtesy photo

Shem Kikamaze came to DU to pursue the education and know-how that would help his country address its power problems. Courtesy photo

For Shem Kikamaze, the light bulb clicked on when the electricity went off.

As a high school student in his hometown of Kampala, Uganda, where outages are a recurring problem, Kikamaze came to value every jolt of power. “It is always going on and off,” he says of the electricity. “It affects a lot of people. Students can’t study [at night] except by candlelight.” And consider, he adds, the problems an unreliable power grid pose for hospitals, where life-saving and disease-diagnosing machinery relies on a steady current.

So Kikamaze, a self-described math, science and technology geek, had an idea: He’d pursue the education and know-how that would help his country address its power problems.

Kikamaze didn’t know then just which professions might best tackle the job, so he Googled his way to an answer and began compiling a list of universities with solid electrical engineering programs. He was interested in U.S. schools partly because of the country’s much-touted emphasis on efficiency. “The U.S. is famous for that,” he explains.

When the University of Denver offered him the four-year, full-tuition Fraiberg Scholarship, established to help students from war-torn nations, Kikamaze packed his bag, arriving on campus just as the institution was preparing to host the first 2012 presidential debate. It was an exciting time at DU, and Kikamaze was delighted to witness events that were attracting the world’s attention.

Four years and countless kilowatts of brainpower later, Kikamaze collected his degree alongside the other members of the Class of 2016. His time on campus was characterized by aha moments and door-opening opportunities — some serendipitous, some of his own creation. It was also marked by a smattering of lows and a host of highs.


Among the aha moments:

Before coming to Denver, Kikamaze’s experience of winter was solely vicarious, acquired mainly through magazine articles and television programs. Uganda straddles the equator, so he had no need there for parkas and gloves. And based on photos of tourists frolicking in the snow, he thought winter couldn’t possibly bite.

When he told his friends he was bound for Colorado, they expressed concern about how he’d handle the cold. Don’t worry, he rashly told them, “‘There is no place that can be as cold as my fridge.”

If cold weather and snow took him by surprise, he was just as astonished by what he learned in the classroom. Classes in finance and economics gave him plenty of information and insight that he expects to use in his career and that offered him insight into his country’s challenges. But valuable as these courses were, it was a computer science class that captivated his imagination.

“I didn’t know how to code or anything, and I went to this class and it was so exciting,” he recalls. “At one point, I wanted to switch [majors] to computer science because it was so exciting for me.”

He ended up minoring in computer science and expects that his programming and coding skills will be useful whether he starts his own energy-related business or joins an established firm.


Among the opportunities:

From a series of campus jobs patched together for spending money, Kikamaze honed life and professional skills. At one point, he says, he worked as many as three jobs.

“It was hard, but I did learn something from each job. For example, from the bookstore, [I learned] I wasn’t assertive in my communication skills, my business communication skills.” With help from staff, he discovered how to break the ice with customers and ask them about their needs.

Other jobs offered similar chances for growth and paved the way for the opportunity he considers the best of his college career: a 20-hour-a-week internship with Xcel Energy.

Kikamaze started that internship midway through his sophomore year and wrapped it up right before graduation. At the utility company, he joined a team of four full-time engineers and another intern to address equipment failures at 100 substations across the state.

“Since there was so much work, it was great for me because I was learning as much as I could,” he says. In fact, his internship helped him gain admittance to Virginia Tech, where, en route to his career goals, he’ll enroll this fall in a graduate electrical engineering program.

The work experience alone made the internship worthwhile, but he also earned enough money to pay his younger brother’s tuition at Uganda’s Makerere University. That done, there was cash left over to build his mother, who had worked 80-hour weeks to make a better life for her sons, a house of her own.

“College has provided so many opportunities to me,” he says. “I felt like I could not have all this and have my family not having anything.”


Among the lows:

In the land of rugged individualism, Kikamaze learned that he had to work hard to retain his sense of individuality.

“Back home, I was an individual. I was Shem, and Shem was different from Joe, and Joe was different from Paul. I lost that when I came here,” he says.

Instead, he found that Americans were quick to generalize about Africa and Africans, failing to realize that Nigeria was not Rwanda and Sudan was not Uganda. “Being an international student from Africa,” he says, “I would talk to someone and they already had an expectation — a preconceived idea — of me.”

Kikamaze came to feel that he symbolized the entire continent and that his behavior reflected upon all Africans. That became particularly stressful during the winter break of his sophomore year. As an international student, he didn’t have any place to go once the University residence halls had closed at Thanksgiving. In anticipation, he had saved money for short-term accommodations but discovered, too late, that in Denver’s tight rental market, it was nearly impossible to rent an apartment for just six weeks.

And, as he saw it, it was just as impossible to ask for help. To his mind, he had failed to solve a problem, to achieve self-reliance. And that made him a failure — and worse, his “failure” might jeopardize opportunities for other Ugandans.

“For some reason, I didn’t expect my peers to understand. … [And] I didn’t contact the school or anything. If I told [anyone] I failed, how would that affect future admissions,” he asked himself.

Rather than risk compromising prospects for all other Ugandans, Kikamaze spent the break working at the DU Bookstore, showering on campus and, at night, occupying a sleeping bag in a storeroom at an apartment building occupied by the friend of a friend.

Today, looking back on the experience, he urges campus administrators to remember that first-generation and international college students may need help negotiating challenges that other students know how to handle. While he learned a lot from his six weeks of homelessness, it isn’t something he wishes on others.


Among the highs:

After four years of hard work, Kikamaze was delighted to don cap and gown at the University’s Commencement ceremony. But that experience pales in comparison to the moment when he learned that DU had recognized his high school achievements with a significant scholarship. He was only the second African to receive the Fraiberg Scholarship, which typically has gone to students from the Middle East.

“My parents could not afford college, so I put all my effort into high school. I tried to get some of the best grades, which I did. And I applied to so many schools and scholarships.

“When I think about what is the most exciting part of my life — between getting that scholarship and graduating — I think getting that scholarship is more exciting than graduating,” he says. “That was the best moment of my life.”



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