May 16, 2015
SMU (DALLAS) — For SMU graduating senior Ketetha Olengue, wearing a pacemaker isn’t a hindrance. It’s what spurs her desire to help people battling both heart conditions and “the human condition,” she says.
On Saturday, Ketetha will earn two degrees that will send her on her way to becoming a cardiologist: a B.S. in computer science from the Lyle School of Engineering and a B.A. in chemistry from Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences. After four successful years as a SMU President’s Scholar (a merit-based scholarship paying full-tuition and fees), Ketetha can now celebrate her acceptance into the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, where she’ll receive a full-tuition scholarship.
Ketetha traces her physical and emotional strength to one of her life’s lowest moments, when, at age 9, the first of three pacemaker surgeries left her with a significant scar. Her maternal grandmother, in Burkina Faso, Africa, told her, “Do not cry. It is a souvenir.” From then on Ketetha would see her congenital heart condition “as what makes me different,” she says, “and what will help me make a difference in the lives of others.”
Another powerful experience would happen in Ketetha’s first year at SMU, when as a member of the Embrey Human Rights Program’s Student Leadership Initiative, she was given an opportunity to study human rights issues in her parents’ native Africa.
Over the course of two emotionally painful weeks in Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa, Ketetha witnessed others’ scars — from brutal genocidal violence, prejudice and poverty. “It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” she says, vowing to one day return and help. “When you see the battlefield you just can’t walk away from it. There’s so much need.”
That trip also strengthened her bond with her parents. For the first time she could understand the obstacles they’d overcome, and the “all-work-and-no-play lifestyle” they adopted after moving to the U.S. in the late 1980s – her father, from Cameroon, worked as a mechanical engineer, and her mother, from Burkina Faso, pursued a career in the health care. Ultimately, the Olengues would move to Austin, where Ketetha was born 1993, and later to the Dallas-Fort Worth region, where she would graduate from Colleyville’s Heritage High School in 2011.
Looking back, and ahead, Ketetha is thankful for her grandmother’s confidence-building advice about her first scar, and her “life-changing education” at SMU, “where each of my three passions — chemistry, computer science and human rights — could finally come together. I’ve seen what can be accomplished with the support of people who really care about others,” she says, “and what great need there is to do just that.”
Before starting medical school in August, Ketetha will travel to South America to offer technological and promotional support for Minga Peru, the nonprofit champion of indigenous peoples’ rights whose founder, Eliana Elias, was awarded the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program’s inaugural “Triumph of the Spirit Award” in 2014.
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