Arnold Chi Kedia is a firm believer in faith. Meeting life's challenges with an enthusiasm and contagious optimism, he believes that things happen as they are meant to.
But ask peers and faculty alike what makes this Master of Advanced Study in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) fall 2020 graduate unique, and it’s not the many accolades he’s amassed – graduating with a 4.0 GPA and the recipient of a prestigious academic fellowship – but rather his humbleness, his ability to connect with people, and how he’s turned difficult personal circumstances into a rewarding new path in life.
“In addition to being one of the smartest, hard-working, polite and most outgoing gentlemen I have ever met in my life, he never gives up,” said Shea Lemar, director of Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning’s Geospatial Research and Solutions, who teaches in the school’s Master of Advanced Study in GIS (MAS-GIS) program. “There's nothing he won’t achieve. Whatever he puts his mind to, he will never quit.”
Kedia first came to ASU in 2017 on a short-term research grant as a visiting geology doctoral student from the University of Buea in Cameroon. But as he conducted material science research in ASU’s School for Engineering of Matter, Transportation and Energy, military violence and social unrest in his home country escalated.
A number of Kedia’s professors and peers were imprisoned, while others went missing.
“I was told not to return home for my own safety,” Kedia said of the ongoing Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon that has since killed hundreds of citizens and displaced half a million others. “They're targeting mostly the English-speaking and educated population because those are the people that are being marginalized.”
Kedia was forced to abandon his doctoral degree and begin a new life in the U.S., while fighting the fear and worry for his parents and three younger brothers who continue to live in the heart of the war zone.
“It's been tough, but things keep getting better with time,” Kedia said of the past three years. “I had to restart life here, but timing was a true blessing.”
Humble beginnings and big possibilities
Kedia grew up in the hilly rural town of Bamenda in the northwestern region of Cameroon with an innate curiosity about the world.
His love for exploration and science led him to a bachelor’s degree in geology, then a master’s degree in the same field, but his love for GIS and visualizing data began when he needed to submit a digitized map for a final school project but couldn’t afford to pay a cartographer.
Kedia taught himself how to use GIS software through books and online videos. His professors were so impressed with his work that shortly after he was given the opportunity to lead the University of Buea’s remote sensing lab where he trained master's degree and doctoral students on GIS system operations and managed mapping projects.
“I love science and I like to understand why things happen the way they do,” Kedia said. “GIS helps me display results and ideas that I may not have been able to bring out into reality otherwise. It brings out all of my creativity and gives me room to continue exploring possibilities.”
Mapping a new path at ASU
In 2017, as a pending asylee, Kedia began to apply to GIS jobs in the U.S. But despite having years of technical knowledge and experience, employers turned him away, telling him that he needed a formal certificate in GIS and that his African university was unfamiliar to them.
Undeterred, Kedia met the challenge with a positive attitude. He was determined to make ends meet until he could go back to school, so he accepted a job at the grocery store Safeway as a dairy manager restocking shelves.
“To be honest, there were hard times, but I've been keeping a positive mindset throughout,” Kedia said. “GIS felt like it was the right place for me and I told myself, ‘OK, I need to get proper training on this,’ and as soon as I got the opportunity, I applied to ASU.”
In the fall of 2019, Kedia was accepted into ASU’s MAS-GIS program and quickly thrived in the environment familiar to him.
He mastered new software, reinforced old skills and gained new ones and all while balancing two jobs — his full-time work at the grocery store and a new role as a research assistant at ASU. But in the classroom, Kedia says, he gained not only professional skills but deep relationships with his classmates turned friends.
“My classmates are like family,” Kedia said. “We have a bond; we all experienced GIS with one another and helped each other. I knew no one in Arizona, they’re my closest family here, they’re my GIS family.”
From people coming to class early each night with drinks and food to share, to creating a 24/7 Zoom room where students could chat and commiserate during the transition to remote learning, Kedia said his classmates created an environment where their friendships flourished and made him feel right at home.
“I don’t know what I would have done without them. They are my second family,” Kedia said.
Kedia’s dedication, passion and commitment to his school work and the field of GIS did not go unnoticed by faculty.
In the spring of 2020, Kedia was awarded the Balling Family GIS Fellowship Endowment, an award given annually to one GIS student based on outstanding leadership and academic excellence.
Kedia said it’s scholarships and financial support opportunities like the award he received that has made all the difference in his life.
“I almost had to drop out of ASU because I couldn’t afford tuition after my first semester,” Kedia said. With limited access to financial aid as a non-U.S. citizen, he says it was only because of the generosity of extended family and friends that he was able to withdraw an education loan that enabled him to continue his studies.
“Thanks to this scholarship, and the generosity of others, I could continue to work and offer my skills with less worry about financial burden.”
Leaning into fate
Months later in July, when Kedia and his classmates neared the end of their GIS program and began applying for GIS jobs, Kedia’s U.S. working permit abruptly expired.
“I'd been getting phone calls about positions, but now I couldn't apply,” Kedia said, having to wait until it was renewed.
But undiscouraged, he focused his energy on helping his classmates in any way he could: reading cover letters, reviewing resumes and helping people prepare for interviews.
“My friends might have gotten positions easily out of school while I might not have, but I knew something better, something good was on its way,” Kedia said. “I was keeping my faith open and strong throughout that time.”
In September, his permit was reinstated and a month later, a position opened at a company Kedia was already familiar with. He had helped coach a fellow classmate through the interview process a month earlier for a similar role. He applied, and in December was offered a full-time position leveraging his GIS and mapping skills for a local communications utility company.
“Despite how crazy things have been, this (news) has just been a bright light,” Kedia said. “With this position I'm able to provide for my family back home in Africa and help my siblings. That's what has given me the strength, the opportunity to help others.”
Kedia looks forward to contributing to the local Phoenix community using his education and, in the future, sharing his knowledge with other students by returning to academia and becoming a professor.
“My plan at some point is to return to my home country, and hopefully I'll be able to give back to my community in colleges or workshops and teach people the skills I’ve learned so they can apply it to their lives too,” he said.
But until then, Kedia believes with a firm optimism that he's right where he’s supposed to be and on the path that was intended for him.
“Things just linked up in the right order,” Kedia said with a smile, reflecting back on his past couple years in the U.S. “To be where I am today, it's just amazing. Everything is possible. It's just a matter of time.”
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