My professor guided me to apply to grad school
“Playing squash challenged me to push myself beyond what I thought I could achieve as an athlete. The whole student-athlete experience has been amazing.”
Kuzivakwashe Madungwe came to Mount Holyoke to study biochemistry so she could go to medical school. But then she met Jonathan Ashby, the Bertha Phillips Rodger Assistant Professor of Chemistry.
“The first few classes I took in chemistry made me think I really wanted to learn more,” she says. “I’ve taken enough biology to minor in it. But during my sophomore year I joined the Ashby Lab. It’s an interdisciplinary lab that focuses on analytical chemistry, as well as biochemistry. My project focuses on developing and fabricating electrochemical biosensors.”
Falling in love with the subject, Madungwe took more classes in it and spent her semesters and summers in the lab. In 2019, she and her lab mates joined Ashby at the annual meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers in St. Louis, Missouri — as the planning chair, he encouraged his students to attend and several presented their research.
In the end, analytical chemistry won out over medical school.
“Through the guidance of Dr. Ashby, I was able to apply to grad school,” Madungwe says. “He definitely has helped me through that process of figuring out which schools could be my potential school where I end up in the fall.”
Her strong connection with her coach, Erin Robson, and with the team, began when she was first exploring colleges with squash programs. Robson introduced her to current student-athletes, including one from Zimbabwe. “It helped to connect with her,” Madungwe says.
Once on campus, her teammates quickly became a support system, including helping her adjust to the winter weather and learning how to balance the challenges of being a student-athlete.
“Playing squash at Mount Holyoke is very different from how we played it back home,” she says. “It’s fast-paced and more intense. It challenged me to push myself beyond what I thought I could achieve as an athlete. The connections that I’ve made, the friendships — just the whole student-athlete experience has been amazing.”
Madungwe has been involved with the Betty Shabbaz Cultural Center since her first year, when she became the student assistant. “The Betty,” as the center is known, helps and supports students who identify within the African Diaspora through programming and social events.
The job has taught her a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion, she says. Building on that knowledge, she became involved with the Athlete Empowerment Coalition, a new student group under the athletics department. Madungwe is co-chair.
“We provide support and just a space for first-generation and ethnic minority students on campus,” she says. “The group isn’t exclusive to people who have those identities. It’s also open to those who are allies, as well.”
Mount Holyoke has taught her to be confident in everything she does, Madungwe says.
“Coming from Zimbabwe, which is a very conservative country, I’ve definitely had to step out my comfort zone and challenge myself in so many ways,” she says. “It has been a challenging experience but in a good way. I’ve seen myself grow throughout my time here.”
Madungwe will be starting a doctoral program in chemistry at the University of Minnesota this fall.
The Betty and Mount Holyoke’s cultural centers
“The goal of the Betty Shabbaz Cultural Center is to create a sense of community within the people on campus,” says Madungwe, student assistant for the “Betty.” “This includes faculty and staff and we also try to bring in the community as well, so that people can get to know each other.”
She’s speaking from experience, she says. “It can be difficult to meet people who look like you on campus, especially if you’re not in a student org or living in an LLC — Living-Learning Community. You might not meet people in the classroom. So it’s important to have that space for people to come and interact.”
The first campus cultural center, the Betty opened in 1969 for those who identify within the African diaspora. As part of her duties, Madungwe provides programming for students, faculty and staff on campus, including the homecomings that all cultural centers do at the beginning of the semester to welcome everyone back to campus. Some events are offered as part of Black History Month. Others focus on what is happening currently in the United States and around the world.
“We also post weekly open hours, which are just times for students to come by the house if they want to talk or cook — we have kitchens in the houses as well — or just be in this space that’s not a res hall room or classroom,” Madungwe says. “We also try to educate people on the student orgs that are affiliated with the cultural centers, as well as on the history of the cultural centers themselves.”
Mount Holyoke’s cultural centers support identities that are historically marginalized. They offer education, networking and sanctuary for students, faculty and staff. The centers provide programming and resources to increase cultural awareness and interconnectedness. As such, they allow students from targeted groups to explore their identities. Students within these identities and from across campus can use the cultural centers to develop their leadership skills.
Zowie Banteah Cultural Center, or the “Zowie,” promotes visibility and empowerment for Native American and communities of Indigenous people.
Asian Center for Empowerment, called the “Ace,” serves as a space that provides support, education, community and a meeting spot for students within the Asian diaspora.
Eliana Ortega Center, known as the “Ortega,” serves as a home away from home for students within the Latinx diaspora.
Jeannette Marks Center, aka “the Marks House,” provides support, resources and programming for LGBTQIA+ students and their allies.
The Unity Center is a space for students to gather, celebrate and engage in conversations and experiences across their differences.