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A Columbia Engineering Senior Set on Making a Difference

Even as an undergraduate at Columbia Engineering, Victoria Chibuogu Nneji used her skills as an applied mathematics major to solve real-world problems. She did quantitative analysis at Teachers College on how changes in financial aid could affect student performance at community colleges. As an intern at the Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp. (NMIC), Nneji was part of a team of Kenneth Cole Fellows who evaluated the possibilities for new worker-owned cooperatives in Washington Heights. And for her senior project, she focused on an algorithm developed by genomics researchers at Columba University Medical Center to identify genetic networks leading to psychological disorders.

Nneji loves to solve problems – “that’s my thing,” she says. Born in Lagos, Nigeria, the 21-year-old Nneji emigrated to the United States at age 5 and grew up in Durham, N.C. She credits her hard-working mother for instilling early on the value of education.

“We actually lived in a trailer park in rural South Carolina for some time, but my mother never gave up on getting us into environments with greater educational resources,” recalls Nneji. “Although I’m part of the first generation in my family to pursue higher education, my mother works so hard to ensure that I have everything I need to do well in school.”

“In whatever career I have, I aspire to do great things for the people I serve”

Nneji spent her last two years of high school at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), a free, public, residential high school where students study a specialized curriculum emphasizing science and mathematics. Says Nneji, “The school’s motto is ‘accept the greater challenge,’ and that I did.”

While still in high school, Nneji had the chance to learn what it would be like to be an engineering student at Columbia by participating in the Columbia Engineering Experience (CE2), a program that invites underrepresented students from around the country for a three-day program on campus.

While here, prospective students paid a visit to Google’s offices in New York City and learned about scholarship opportunities. As a result, Nneji ended up spending the summer before her freshman year in California as a Google computer apprentice. The Engineering School’s “CE2 literally changed my life,” she says.

It was during CE2 that she also realized that “being in a city like New York at a global university like Columbia would provide me with an environment to stretch my reach and grow in my potential.” And she believes it has. “Whenever I meet someone new, regardless of whether the conversation is about something ‘techy’ or something ‘artsy,’ I don’t ever feel like I can’t contribute something valuable,” says Nneji.

One constant in Nneji's undergraduate career was her willingness to volunteer. She taught SAT math classes for local high school students at Columbia’s Double Discovery Center; participated in Community Impact, the campus-wide nonprofit that places student volunteers in community organizations serving Harlem and Washington Heights; and worked with Undergraduate Admissions, helping to recruit and interview high school students. And of course she found the time to enjoy the recreational and cultural opportunities that New York City is famous for, including Broadway shows, neighborhood food tours and bike riding along the Hudson Greenway.

Just before Commencement, Nneji was still unsure exactly what she would do after graduation. She was weighing two job offers that would let her work on more innovative ways to use technology in an educational setting. “In whatever career I have, I aspire to do great things for the people I serve,” says Nneji. “I want to be in a position of solving problems and leading a team toward decisions that have positive returns.”

—by Melanie A. Farmer, Columbia Engineering

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