Patricia Muumba still recalls how her teacher once told her that she was nothing but a failure. As she wore her gown after graduating with bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Cornell University last month, she had more reasons to celebrate. Muumba recalls that she picked interest in architecture at the age of six.
Having studied at Greenhill Academy in Kampala, Uganda, Muumba was one of the students in the school when construction of a new school building began.
“I was fascinated by its aesthetics. The first year it felt like any other building. However, when the second year came around, I started to see a transformation as we, children all started to make the building our own.”
“Essays from old students were pinned on the walls in the English office and science experiment projects were displayed in the science labs. There was artwork on the walls of the art room and the library had little corners that students had started to make their own. It was in this building that I started to witness the relationship between architecture and education. It is in this place that I started attaching importance to space, smells, colours and sounds. At the age of six, I did not know that all this was preparing me for a career in architecture,” Muumba reveals.
Born to Frida and John Patrick Muumba, she went to Little Cranes Kindergarten in Bugolobi, Kampala. Muumba’s first days at the school were difficult because she could not speak any other language apart from her mother tongue-Lusoga. She says her mother believed that if a child understands mother tongue first, it would ease the learning process.
“On the first day at kindergarten, Aunt Julie, as she is known by all Little Cranes old pupils, was concern that I barely knew any English word. My mother asked her to be patient with me for one term. She had plans of changing schools in case I did not cope,” she shares. Muumba’s mother firmly believed that children should be literate and not necessarily English literate.
After term one, Muumba had learned basic English words. “It was a concerted effort to get me to learn English in that short period. My mother too was involved and she laid a strong foundation in my education,” Muumba says.
An interest is picked
Muumba left Little Cranes Kindergarten two years later and joined Greenhill Academy for primary school. “I was among the few children to walk in the halls of the new building, while Gladys Wambuzi was still alive. There was something about her that pushed learners to be extraordinary. ‘Walk with purpose,’ she often told pupils. And after a five-year-education in New York, I can definitely testify to the importance of walking with purpose,” she shares.
Muumba says primarys school moulded her into a mathematician, critical thinker and creative mind she is today. She fondly remembers her maths teacher- Katumwa who made her fall in love with numbers in Primary Three. She also reminisces about Kiyuba, her science teacher who taught her science, research, critical analysis of complex ideas. “These teachers made me believe that I could be anything I put my mind to,” she recalls.
Muumba’s confidence and passion, however, were shattered when she joined secondary school. “Learning 14 different subjects was overwhelming. My performance was worrying that it pushed my Physics teacher to tell me, ‘Patricia, you are going to be a failure.’ And for a while, I actually believed it”, she narrates.
Muumba’s mother, who was then living thousands of miles away in the USA, said she could not recognise her daughter when she came back home during vacation because she had lost her confidence and the zeal she once had.
Muumba relocated to the USA and joined a school, which provides a combination of the arts, technical education, sports and academic programmes.
“First day at school, I was excited because I did not have to wear a uniform. My life changed when I moved to Newton, Massachusetts as a junior in high school. I was thrown into the world of the unknown. But when I walked into Newton North High School, I found a school that spoke to me” she says with excitement.
It provided space for the young Muumba to pursue a design career and confront the difficult questions of life such as heritage, race and socio-economic status and one’s place in the world.
Time was not on Muumba’s side. By the time she settled in, she had 18 months to take final exams, build a resume, apply to university, figure out how to pay tuition and graduate from high school. This kind of pressure energised her to rediscover her love for learning.
However, there was another hurdle. University education is very expensive in America; an average state university charges approximately Shs38m a year. Yet at Cornell University, Muumba was looking at about Shs239m for an Ivy League education.
She applied to Dover Legacy Scholars-an organisation that offers academic support and mentorship to children.
“When I got the scholarship, one of the requirements was to choose a mentor from the faculty at college. A number of teachers expressed interest in mentoring me. “I chose the principal of my school because I believed that she was the only person that could push me to be the best,” she reveals.
She was also accepted to another programme called Transitioning Together that supports students in the Newton Community through the college application process.
“In that programme, I was assigned a mentor who was an architect. That mentor supported me through design school. My two mentors, my family and I had to choose the best school. Cornell University was our best choice because it excelled at architecture programmes,” Muumba explains.
Joining Cornell University
While Muumba sent out applications to other colleges, her heart was at Cornell. As months went by, she witnessed her classmates being admitted to other colleges. “The day I received the letter from Cornell University, I had to work till 9pm. My workmates kept asking me to leave so they would find out whether I had been admitted or not.
“Back at home, my dad and mum were in the living room. No one had my login credentials, so they had to wait for me to return home. ‘We are pleased to offer you a position to the Bachelor of Architecture Class’. The first line of the offer read.”
“This was my turning point. My mother could not believe the news. Going to an Ivy League school was a miracle,” she remarks proudly.
With five years of a design education under her belt, Muumba knew exactly what she wanted to do but was still struggling to find the purpose. But this changed the day she walked into a lecture taught by professor Assie Lumumba on education innovations in Africa and the Diaspora at Cornell University’s Centre of African Studies.
“She talked about how innovations in the African education sector impact students and African societies. This challenged me as a designer. I wondered how my skills as a designer could steer change, particularly access to quality education, a thing I am very passionate about. The more insights I got about teaching and education, especially in communities such as refugees, immigrants and people in developing communities, the clearer my vision became,” the budding educator recalls. This helped integrate her two passions- design and zeal to give others access to education.
She decided to pursue a minor in education as an undergraduate. She is currently pursuing a graduate school degree in Education to better understand the fundamental art of education.
She also a co-founder of a non-profit organisation with one of her colleagues at Cornell School of architecture, Olivia Haynie.
“This organisation is my means of investigating the opportuniies architecture presents to learners through technology and innovation, to create culturally and contextually appropriate educational spaces. The first project we are working on is a school building in Kapchorwa District. This school building represents a focal point for the community to gather as well as a place for children, community leaders, mothers and youth to gain knowledge and skills to be useful citizens to their community,” she explains.
“From the time we were little children, I have watched my parents sacrifice for my siblings and I to be the best we can be in life. They have given me more than I ever asked for. When it came to educating us, my parents went for the best and I am truly and eternally grateful to them.”
In Uganda, it is a common practise for for families to spend time in the countryside during the holidays. As a city child, going out to the village was Muumba’s favourite time of the year. It was time to climb trees to pick fruits and to fetch water. “This was a whole new experience for me, a child that had grown up in the city. Every afternoon at my grandmother’s house, children from the neighborhood gathered to share a meal with us. After the meal, I would gather the children to teach them English words. It was shocking to see my agemates unable to speak English and do basic maths. I wanted to do something about it. Whenever my grandmother hosted children at home, I interracted with them. I made copies of my school notes and took them to the village. At this point, I felt like I was making an impact,” she recalls of her journey into mentorship. Decades later, Muumba founded Engage Inspire Empower, a mentorship programme for immigrant children in the Greater Boston Area that helps children acclimate to the American education system and workforce by imparting lifelong career skills.