A 2016 graduate of Aga Khan Academy (AKA) in Mombasa, Kenya, Barbara Nasila found her way to a leadership role as an architecture student at the University of California, Berkeley. Recently she spoke with us about her education journey from Kenya to California.

You grew up in Mombasa, Kenya. How did you first encounter the Aga Khan Development Network?

I grew up in a single-parent household in Mombasa. My mom drove a taxi, sometimes for the Aga Khan Academy. During one of her many trips for AKA outreach events, she was driving a guest through town and mentioned me and my leadership activities at my school.  Later I was invited to interview at the Academy for a possible scholarship.

What was your first impression of the Academy campus?

It was a very beautiful campus. It seemed out of my realm of possibility. Everyone was very nice. I put my all into that interview! But I did not expect to get in.

What was the most surprising moment from your first years at the Academy?

For me, coming from a local dilapidated primary school in Mikindani, Aga Khan Academy had in many ways a shocking visual impact. The first thing that struck me were the massive double-height doors of the common area and dining hall. Those gigantic doors seemed to be a kind of metaphor for what lay ahead of me, a metaphor for the many doors that would open from my experience at the Academy and how massively life-changing they would be.

The Academy welcomed me with open arms. Everyone I talked to had a warm smile on their face. The support I had while I transitioned into [International Baccalaureate] life was just as transformative as the grandness of it all. I remember most of the teachers and staff understanding that I didn’t come from a school environment that provided the same resources as others had. They took extra time out of their schedules to help me with seemingly basic things like how to save my work in my email. I ended up feeling more secure about school.

Another moment that sticks out: One day, when I was walking into the lobby, I saw art from a student who graduated the previous year. It was a beautiful African-themed painting and I thought, ‘I wish one of my pieces would be exhibited here.’ And earlier this year when I went back to visit the campus, I saw that my wish came true. This really made me feel like I was truly elevated in my time at the Academy to become the best version of myself.

The choir club was another surprising experience at the Academy. We made it to the finals of the national music competition and got to travel to Malindi, where the national choir competition was held for students from all over Kenya. Traveling together as a group was meaningful in many ways. It built my respect and appreciation for the arts and it opened up a new world of possibilities for me to explore. We got to truly experience the creative scenes in Kenya, performing with the greatly respected Safaricom choir and other artists like Sauti Sol.

How did the Academy shape your views of community?

For me, the Aga Khan Academy opened a world of giving back. It highlighted a quality in myself that I like—one that the Aga Khan Academy fostered in my many Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) activities—and that’s the quality of mentorship, leadership, and giving back.

I coordinated outreach for the UHAI, which is a Swahili word that means “life.” Our main goal was to improve the quality of life in the Mombasa area. One of our annual events was Fun Day. We created a day when children from local orphanages visit the campus just to have fun, creating a space for play that they don’t typically have in their lives.

Another favorite project was the Educating Girls in Science program, which outreached to other Kenyan schools to engage girls to be more active in the sciences and their communities. With a group of fellow students, I went to reach out to girls on Kenya’s coast province area with projects they could take and apply in their communities. In a way, it was road-tripping with my favorite teachers and friends. This statewide project facilitated a number of girls from different schools to use their class knowledge in the sciences to create a solution to a problem that affected their community.

In one community project, the girls created an anti-venom for snakebite with black stone. I found this solution to be ingenious in many ways because they drew from traditional solutions and improved on them with scientific elements. That experience was surreal because I saw myself in the girls we met in those schools who were going on this journey of education that could have been my own.

Another project was ‘Because I’m a Girl,’ which brought girls to the Academy campus to talk about community issues such as gender roles and rape culture.

I worked on these projects with my friends and there was a lot of bonding and identity building. I became more tuned in to the issues in my community and the many ways I could solve these issues while still in school.

You graduated in 2016 with a full scholarship to University of California at Berkeley. When did you first think of studying architecture?

Getting into AKA Mombasa opened my eyes to see the arts as a viable career choice. There I saw in the news how construction flaws were affecting people. I came to see architecture from a social perspective.

Thinking of architecture as a way of giving back has led me to participate in service groups in Berkeley. What I’ve learned is, there’s a housing crisis in all parts of the world and the need for creative solutions to housing is greater than ever.

How was your adjustment to the United States and university life?

AKA Mombasa set me up well. There I was in a school where everyone was from a different background so I became better at adjusting. When I came here, it was easier for me to be more active in class and communicate what I needed effectively. I also learned to love both diversity and pluralism and in many ways added that aspect into my interactions and my work.

Do you have an idea of what you’d like to do after graduation?

I’m currently applying to graduate school to get a Masters in Architecture and working towards getting a job with a licensed architectural firm somewhere in the world to gain meaningful experience.

In the long run, I want to work in the housing industry to solve issues of housing for low-income households and vulnerable communities.

AKA Mombasa emphasizes leadership and learning how to be a better leader. That led me to take leadership roles when I got to university. One role is on the board of the Organization of African students, where I served as Vice President and the American Institute of Architecture Students, Berkeley Chapter, where I was President. In both my leadership roles, my goal is to inspire a sense of community and a greater understanding of one’s community because I feel like only then can we perform in ways that strengthen us and the world around us. This was one of my greatest lessons from the Aga Khan Academy: to learn about my community, connect with it, and ultimately serve it.

See more about Barbara’s story on the UC Berkeley Center for Community Innovation site.