Skip to main content

ASU grad wondered what it took to be smart — now she’s headed to Harvard

ASU spring 2019 graduate Leah Nakaima

Leah Nakaima

April 29, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

When she was growing up in Jinja, Uganda, Arizona State University senior Leah Nakaima wondered why her teachers paid more attention to the American students.

They’re smarter than you, the teachers said.

Nakaima, who is graduating this spring with a degree in public health, including a minor in public policy and a certificate in public administration, wondered if it was the food that made American kids smart.

She made it all the way to ASU for college and as a Mastercard Foundation Scholar, and in her time as a Sun Devil Nakaima took advantage of everything ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus had to offer, serving in Undergraduate Student Government, participating in Next Generation Service Corps, creating the International Inclusion Club, working on wellness initiatives and volunteering at St. Vincent de Paul. She was admitted to the five-week Public Policy and International Affairs Program, becoming one of the first African students to participate. She wondered why she was chosen, so she asked a recruiter.

“Why did you choose me? I’m from Uganda. I just came here for a college degree,” Nakaima asked.

The recruiter told her, “You’re not only a girl from Uganda. You have way more potential than you may think.”

That was a wake-up call, Nakaima said. The recruiter encouraged her to apply to Ivy League schools for her graduate degree, so Nakaima applied to Brown, Syracuse, NYU, Harvard and Princeton even though she didn’t think she’d get in.

But she did.

After being accepted to and receiving funding packages from nearly every school she applied to, Nakaima decided on Harvard, where she will pursue a master’s degree in the fall.

“It feels overwhelming,” she said. “It’s my dream, but I still don’t believe it.”

Nakaima has learned a lot at ASU, including owning her own intelligence and potential. She said her dad told her when she was a child that people who go to Harvard go on to be presidents, which is appropriate, because Nakaima now sees her dream job within reach.

“My ultimate goal is to become the first female president of Uganda,” Nakaima said.

She’s well on her way. She’ll be shadowing a regional minister in Uganda this summer, and she has a platform in mind that would address the social determinants of health, youth education, entrepreneurship and more.

“I want to be the change,” she said.

As she prepares to take the next steps in her journey, Nakaima spoke with ASU Now about what lessons she has learned at ASU and where she’s headed next.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: When I came to ASU my parents wanted me to be a physician. I dreamed of being the doctor that cures my brother of asthma.

My parents didn’t want to know anything about policy. All they know is, the physicians do the work. They save the people. Telling them that I’m majoring in public health and [with a] public policy minor … [and] I’m thinking of concentrating on public policy, they were like, “Leah what are you doing?”

I tried to explain, “Daddy, you can treat someone, but if there is no law that is making you treat that person, you won’t treat them.” It was hard for me, but finally they are beginning to understand that policy is a way to go.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Treating people the way we want them to treat us.

We may think that is just a saying, but it’s really something big. … You never know what your neighbor is going through.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because it’s No. 1 in innovation. When I was in primary school, we had some American children in school. And I remember my teachers treating them really special. As a child, I was like, “Why not me?” And [the teachers] were like, “Oh, they’re smart.” And I was like, “Am I not smart?” And they were like, “But they are smarter than you, and that’s why we give them extra care.”

And I remember reaching out to everyone, my parents, my teachers and the kids, and I’m like, “Hey, what makes you smart? Everyone thinks you’re smart.” And I remember asking questions like, “Is there a food they eat in America that makes them smart? Or is it the upbringing?”

So I chose ASU first because of curiosity. I wanted to come and see what Americans did to be smart. And also because of being No. 1 in innovation.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: The professor who taught me the most important lesson in my life is Professor Jerry Oliver. He’s a professor in the [Watts College of] Public Service and Community Solutions.

He’s really great. I remember struggling with assignments and stuff like that, and he reached out to me and he was like, “Leah, if you don’t read you can’t answer anything. And you can’t pass. So you have to learn how to read and talk with people, communicate, tell them what you think and get responses.”

So he taught me how to read. I used to just skim through a textbook but not actually read. … He’s been very supportive. He has taught me how to be strong and hardworking.  

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: I have two pieces of advice for those still in school. First is get out of your room. If you are in your room, trust me, you are going to sleep or watch a movie or watch videos. … Get your assignments done on time, and [set aside] the last three or two days of your week to just go outside and go to all the extracurricular activities.

The best way I learned how to be confident is by constantly associating with people, talking to people and working with people. So get out of there and let people know you. Speak your truth, and they’ll respect you and correct you if they need to.

And the other thing is, you need to read. There is no way you can learn anything without reading. Yes, you can get word of mouth, but is that really what you want to get? No. You need to get firsthand information. So read your books.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot is the Undergraduate Student Government office. That is located in the Post Office [at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus] on the lower level. 

It’s the one place that I go to when I want to just talk or relax or study. It’s just a convenient environment for everything. There is coffee and snacks. It’s just a great place, and Undergraduate Student Government is something that has totally made my life the way it is right now. Without it I wouldn’t know how much of an influence I could be to fellow students. It empowered me to actually represent students better and actually learn from them.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m planning on leaving Arizona one or two weeks after graduation, and I will go straight to Uganda. First because I miss my family, and second, I want to shadow my regional youth minister. That is like a youth representative in that entire eastern region of Uganda.

I want to learn what he’s doing for the youth in my country because Uganda has the fastest-growing youth population, and that is leaving a lot of youth unemployed and on the streets so I’m curious to learn about what he’s doing and see if that’s a leadership position that I can start with in my country before my ultimate goal [of running for president].

I’ll be returning to the United States in August to report to Harvard. And I’ll be there for two years. But I’m thinking of transitioning from a master of public policy to a law degree.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I’ll just say access. And access is ambiguous. [I have a previous project] I call it Healthy People 2030. … The main goal for Healthy People 2030 is I want to improve health and well-being and the general lifestyle of people from developing countries. That can start in Uganda because I’m from Uganda and then will test the impact it has had and plan on moving it to the East African countries and then all over the world.

More Law, journalism and politics


Portrait of Elira Canga.

Former Humphrey Fellow returns to ASU Cronkite School for doctorate degree

Elira Canga arrived at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication a couple of years…

February 23, 2024
Portrait of Jemele Hill.

Jemele Hill to deliver lecture on race relations at ASU

Emmy Award-winning journalist Jemele Hill will be the featured speaker at the 2024 A. Wade Smith and Elsie Moore Memorial Lecture…

February 21, 2024
Eli Rosenbaum speaking at a lectern

Retired 'Nazi hunter' on international law as deterrence against war crimes

When it comes to using international law as a deterrent to protect the national security of the United States, is all hope lost…

February 21, 2024