Sister Act: The Rhodes Scholar Edition

We spoke with Naseemah Mohamed, who in 2013 will follow in her sister's footsteps as an awardee.

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Naseemah Mohamed (Courtesy Naseemah Mohamed)

(The Root) -- Two sisters from the same African nation winning Rhodes scholarships -- what are the odds? For the Mohamed family of Zimbabwe, the lightning of international recognition has struck twice in less than a decade. In 2004, Shazrene Mohamed, then a Harvard astrophysics student, won the prestigious honor. And on Tuesday, the Rhodes Fund, which administers the scholarships, announced that Shazrene's sister, Naseemah, had won a 2013 Rhodes Scholarship -- the only "sister act" in the 109-year history of what may be the most renowned international graduate scholarship program in the world.

Naseemah, who at 23 is eight years younger than Shazrene, said she felt "humbled and grateful" as a Rhodes recipient, and thankful to big sister (now an astrophysicist at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, South Africa), with whom competition was apparently never an issue in childhood. "We were never rivals growing up, since we went to different primary schools," Naseemah told The Root on Friday via email from Zimbabwe. "However, before being sponsored to attend high school in the U.S., I attended my sister's ex-high school, where she was deputy head girl and a straight A-plus student, before attending Harvard University.

"Growing up, my sister was actually my role model. She knew she wanted to be an astronaut at the age of 12, and I distinctly remember her teaching me about the solar system when I was about 5 or 6. Shaz never, ever told me that I was too young to understand anything. She always explained everything to me (that was when I was willing to listen!)."

Born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Naseemah left that country in 2004 to attend Portsmouth Abbey High School, in Portsmouth, R.I. "Before attending Portsmouth High School, I was above average, but I was not focused enough to be at the top of my class," she said. On the strength of her skills at reading poetry, she was picked to enter a debate competition in Zimbabwe.

"To my surprise I was one of four students selected to represent Zimbabwe at the International Debate Exchange Program in the United States. By that time my sister Shazrene was studying at Harvard. When her Harvard host family heard about me representing my country, they thought I had potential, and they offered to sponsor me to attend Portsmouth Abbey School. They paid for everything, from my ticket to my school fees to my bedding. When I recognized the incredible opportunity I had gotten, I promised to do my very best, not only for myself, but for my family, and for my country."

For a 15-year-old girl from Zimbabwe, the Portsmouth experience was a major transition. "I had a huge sense of culture shock, especially since I was one of two African students in a wealthy preparatory boarding school," she said. "The way that I coped was by getting involved in almost every extracurricular activity offered by the school, so by the end of the day, I was too tired to feel homesick. I also coped at Portsmouth Abbey because of a few amazing teachers who supported me all through high school."

As a Harvard student, she was also the president of the African Students Association, co-directed the Pan African Drum and Dance Ensemble and made time for personal pursuits like ice skating and poetry recitals.

Naseemah said after the University of Oxford in England, where all Rhodes scholars study, her focus will be on improving education in her home country of 12.6 million people, a nation with a median age of under 19 years old. 

"I would ideally like to work with an international education institution to get exposed to different education systems around the world, as well as the technical work that organizations such as UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] or the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] carry out. I would really like my work to focus on developing nations, including Zimbabwe and other African countries." 

It's a desire borne of her own experience. "Having at one stage not been a high achiever, I empathize with students who haven't discovered their full potential," she said. "Winning the Rhodes for me is a testimony of the power of education opportunities in making the dreams one thought were never possible come true."

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