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Making the impossible possible

Recent CSE graduate finds strength, opportunities, and mentors in the face of adversity

Joseph Ogega knows a lot about uncertainty and risk. They have followed him around since he was a child.

“Sometimes I think my life is like a movie,” said Ogega, who earned his Master of Financial Mathematics from the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) in May 2018. “I live on the generosity of others, and this makes me more determined to succeed.”

Ogega, now a quantitative analyst at Nextera Energy who studies variability and builds algorithmic models that help with pricing electricity contracts, was raised by a single mom in Nairobi, the bustling capital city of Kenya. When he was 13 years old, Ogega—and his three younger sisters—lost their mother to AIDS. Life as they knew it ended, and they were sent nearly 300 miles away to a relative’s home in the countryside.

Ogega sought solace in books and learning. He earned government-sponsored scholarships to attend high school and then college in Nairobi. He found full-time employment at a bank a month after receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics—and immediately stepped in to provide financial support for his siblings.

“I was lucky,” he said. “In my country, in most cases, you need to do a lot of networking and know a lot of people to get a job so soon.”

Two years later, seeking greater opportunities for himself and his sisters, Ogega landed in the Twin Cities. He had heard about the University of Minnesota from a cousin.

Kenya to Minnesota

Ogega was accepted into the post-baccalaureate Fundamentals of Quantitative Finance program at CSE, with hopes of qualifying for its professional Masters of Financial Mathematics program. Unfortunately, following his first semester of studies, anticipated funding from sponsors in Kenya failed to materialize, leaving him in difficult financial straits.

“I was so worried and thought I had to drop out of school,” Ogega said. 

“I had a small income from working a few hours each week at University Dining Services,” he explained, “but that wasn’t enough to cover my living expenses and also pay for tuition. I didn’t have enough to even go back home.”

Fortunately, CSE offers paid experiential learning that pairs students with faculty. Nearly 40 percent of students in CSE jump at this opportunity. Many of these hands-on positions are supported by a faculty grant or privately funded by generous donors and alumni who themselves have benefited from the experience during college.

Ogega had to knock on several doors before an open research assistant (RA) position, landed in his lap. His perseverance impressed some faculty members. Among them Chris Cramer, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the chemistry department and, at the time, CSE associate dean for academic affairs. Cramer, now the college’s associate dean for research and planning, connected him with a few colleagues including Dan Mitchell, an assistant professor who specialized in risk and operations management in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

“Joseph was an RA with me for about one-and-a-half years,” Mitchell said. “He helped me with a lot of data acquisition and formatting. This is an extremely time-consuming process, and he was very efficient.”

Joseph Ogega in his graduation cap and gown.
Joseph Ogega at his CSE graduation in May.

Ogega blossomed under his faculty advisor.

“When he first started, he seemed a little worried that he didn't know how to self-manage these tasks that were not clearly defined,” Mitchell said, “but as we worked together more he figured out what was going on and this led to him being a very valuable student RA.”

In addition to helping cover his bills, the research position gave Ogega a new career perspective. 

“I wouldn’t know anything in computer programming or the field of risk analysis and data mining now if Professor Cramer didn’t initially help me,” Ogega said. “Working with Assistant Professor Mitchell exposed me to new ways of learning and widened how I look at things today. He taught me everything that I’m proud of knowing.”

For family and home

A few weeks after earning his master’s degree, Ogega received a job offer. He moved to West Palm Beach, Florida two months later.

On one hand he’s thrilled. Working for Nextera Energy, the largest electrical power holding company in the United States, is “a miracle,” he said. On the other hand, he still misses his sisters. Ogega hasn’t seen them in person for nearly three years. “But they’re doing well,” he reported. One of his siblings who followed him to the University of Nairobi is graduating next month, and the younger two are teens in college and high school respectively.

“When we lost our parents, the only thing we could cling to was education,” he said.

“Through education we can make our life better,” Ogega said. “And, one day, we will have a home we can call our own.”

Meanwhile, Ogega is learning all he can on the job—and hopes to also give back in some shape or form to the college.

“I’m not sure where I would be without all the personal and professional support I got in the College of Science and Engineering,” he said. “I feel like everything is possible now.”

Story by Pauline Oo


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