Alumni Profile: Alain Shema - Class of 2014-Carnegie Mellon University Africa - Carnegie Mellon University

Alumni Profile: Alain Shema (2014)  - Persistence and a Leap of Faith Leads to Fulfilling a Dream

The road to CMU: “I studied overseas without ever leaving Africa!”

Born in DRC, Shema’s family moved back to Rwanda permanently in 2004, settling in Gisenyi on Rwanda’s northern border. Shema was soon to leave again, this time to Uganda for his undergraduate studies at Sikkim Manipal University, which is an Indian institution with a campus in Kampala. He completed his BS in IT in 2010.

While still a student, he obtained a job in software through sheer determination. Having no experience with computers, Alain set his sights on working for a startup called Better Data and persisted with the owner until he, at last, allowed him to work, he even to the point of asking no wages in the beginning! Shema credits this job with most of his software learning during his university years. He developed web applications to take care of stock management for the intermediary super-dealers of mobile “airtime” cards, using a PHP-like language.

In August 2010, Shema left Better Data to join Edulink Holdings, a diverse company with a university, a healthcare clinic, a sports club, and real estate in its portfolio. He looked after their networking and system administration. At the beginning, the work was very exciting as he was setting up the equipment from scratch, however, later the job became more routine and Shema decided he needed a change.

He had started to think about studying for a master's degree in 2011 but could not afford it. In September of that year, he read an article about Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) opening in Rwanda and his initial reaction was “this can't be.” 

At this point CMU had yet to propose any financial assistance but Shema was undeterred. 

“Admission rate was about 30%, and scholarships about 50%. The toughest was to get admitted so I took my chances.”

He resigned in January 2012 in order to focus on his application for the master's program in information technology (MSIT).

“I took it very seriously, Lillian [CMU recruitment and student services coordinator] still remembers me as the student who followed up a lot.“

He remembers vividly getting an email from CMU later in the year and the slow mobile download speed which meant he had 10 anxious minutes before he could read the letter!

“They sent me an offer in July and that was the best night of my life.”

Only after he had quit his job and been accepted, were the scholarships and financial aid announced - Shema’s leap of faith had paid off.

CMU: The local advantage “I’m glad I did my studies at CMU in Rwanda”

Along with the rigorous coursework, Shema had to complete the CMU internship as a condition of graduation. While at IBM Research in Nairobi for his internship, he worked on two projects, one in business  - created an app for businesses to register themselves for adverts on buses and the other in education: raspberry pi for education.

For his practicum project, he worked with RICOH research arm, based in California, on how to tackle the problems of polypharmacy [use of many drugs concurrently] and self medication. The idea was to link the medical profile to an application which would give personalized advice on the suitability of the medication from a simple photo of the packaging.

“CMU was a really transformative experience. I always wanted to be a scientist but in Africa it is complicated. Even my dad said, 'don’t think about it'. I have a cousin who is a chemist and he can barely pay his own bills. When I went to Nairobi and saw people who are PAID to do research, it really opened my eyes. This was my dream.”

As one of the top students in CMU Rwanda, Shema was supported to spend Spring 2014 in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh is different, I’m happy I did my education in Rwanda. There is a spirit of “we are all in it together,” in the US it seems like everyone is on their own. CMU is a tough experience and doing it as group is much, much better. Those four months [in Pittsburgh] I never felt so lonely in my life.“

He describes three phases of CMU-R students, only somewhat tongue in cheek:

  • Honeymoon Phase, just after admission
  • Depression Phase, as the assignments and expectations kick in, and then
  • ToHellWithIt Phase, where the student accepts the expectations and decides to simply do his/her best

 “I almost left school in the first semester – the expectations were totally different from other school systems.“

Shema thinks that the class of 2015 and beyond have really benefited from what his class went through in the program's first year. The course has adapted better to the students, and the communication flow is much better now than before.

Life after CMU: “People think ‘I have technical skills, let me just make a product’. This doesn’t work.”

Shema has been busy since his graduation one year ago, taking on a Teaching Assistant role in CMU and being involved with two startups. As a TA he assisted Prof. Aminata Garba in a wireless networks class and advised students on how to publish, and worked with Prof. Patrick McSharry on mobile data. His startup involvements are quite diverse: TEGA (bus tickets on mobile phones), Village Mobile moVie (solar powered mobile movie theatre for rural areas).

“People think ‘I have technical skills, let me just make a product.' This doesn’t work. You need business savvy.  VMV is succeeding because we have a strong sales person on board.”

Shema leaves CMU-R and Rwanda in August to join the Information School (iSchool) doctoral program in Syrcause University in New York. His research focus will be on data analytics in developing countries. The professor who assisted him to get admitted was a CMU postdoc “I think she was happy to have another CMU-er on board. There is a large faculty on data analytics which gives a good choice of supervisor so it’s a good place for me.” 

So how does he feel to finally be living abroad?

“I know what to expect after 2 years in the US system so I feel good. This time I’m going there for the long run. I’m going to be invested unlike the Pittburgh semester. Having lived in 8 different African cities already, this is the first time in my life I know where I ‘m going to be for the next 5 years!”

Good luck to Shema for his PhD studies. We are sure he will do us proud. Given that he has been with us from the very start, his presence will be missed. 

Related Links

MSIT Program in Rwanda

http://www.cmu.edu/rwanda/degree-program/msit/index.html