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OAK CREEK - Oak Creek High School’s Class of 2017 valedictorian Nkazi Nchinda could be described as unassuming, but the 6-foot-4-inch 17-year-old’s academic career boasts on its own.

Nkazi will begin attending Harvard University in the fall on a full-tuition scholarship. Impressive enough. But the career goal he has in mind says even more about him.

He wants to focus his efforts on researching treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Nkazi is also passionate about fighting against the stigma associated with mental illnesses.

Climbing the Ivy

Nkazi is not the first Oak Creek student to attend an Ivy League school. He’s not even the first in his family — his sister Nzuekoh Nchinda graduated from Harvard in 2014, and his brother Nchinda Nchinda is a senior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, despite the family’s familiarity with Ivy League schools, Nkazi’s parents and teachers are excited for him.

Nkazi was one of 15 students across the country awarded a Bryan Cameron Impact Scholarship, a four-year, merit-based scholarship which covers the full tuition and qualified educational expenses at the recipient’s chosen collegiate institution.

Nkazi was also named a National Merit Scholar.

He plans to study biomedical engineering at Harvard. While his first love has always been STEM – an acronym for science technology, engineering and math – Nkazi is also involved a variety of other activities, including leadership mentoring for youth in Milwaukee. He also plays trombone.

'One amazing human'

Teachers and staff at Oak Creek High School describe Nkazi as one of the nicest and smartest kids they’ve ever met, as well as one of the most humble.

"He would never promote himself at all, but he is one amazing human," Spanish teacher Susan Tucknott said. "He set his goals high, he set them early, he worked to achieve them – he's a very well-rounded person."

For Nkazi, Harvard is just one stop along the way of achieving his goals – he emphasized that an Ivy League college is not his final destination.

"I feel like the media hypes Ivy Leagues a lot," Nkazi said.

According to Nkazi’s casual research, the top-performing state university students outperform bottom 50 percent of Ivy League classes.

"Something interesting over the past couple months is that people are like 'Oh, you're going to this college or that college – that means you’ll be successful.' But that's not really true," he said with a chuckle.

Nkazi has always been heavily involved in STEM and robotics.

He knew he was interested in biochemical engineering around sixth grade (though he would later shift his focus to biomedical engineering).

In eighth grade, Nkazi and two friends started "Inventors Club" at Oak Creek West Middle School, where they held after-school classes on things like how to make a simple motor or how magnets work.

Community-minded

Along with all his STEM involvement, Nkazi has served in several community service activities, especially in Milwaukee, with the youth-led nonprofit group Lead2Change.

Nkazi and team helped allocate several grants of $2,500 to various local youth-led projects. The group has also done community service projects, such as serving spaghetti dinners at Guest House of Milwaukee, a large homeless shelter.

"The whole idea is that we want to empower and inspire youth to go out … and give (them) the resources and passion they need to go and do community service," Nkazi said.

"Something that I really believe in is nonprofits," he said. "They make these huge changes, and they’re kind of behind the scenes, since we tend to focus on businesses because those are what we usually interact with."

"In school and out of school, he looks for ways to make a difference, never for the purpose of taking credit,” Tucknott said. “Just for the purpose of making things better."

While taking Spanish with Tucknott, Nkazi had the idea of translating his team’s robotics presentations so that a Spanish-speaking person would be able to understand them.

"It doesn't matter who he's working with, doesn't matter if they’re struggling or academically talented … he will get along well with everyone," Tucknott said.

To Craig Tohme, his Advanced Placement U.S. History at OCHS, Nkazi encapsulates what the U.S. was founded on: civic virtue.

"You put the whole of the community above the individuals. And that’s Nkazi."

Success story

While Nkazi has grown up in Oak Creek for most of his life, his parents immigrated to the United States from Cameroon when his older siblings were young children.

Nkazi surprised his parents for Christmas with news of his full-tuition scholarship.

"They were really excited," he said with a big smile.

Oddly enough, Nkazi’s favorite high school class was Advanced Placement U.S. History with Tohme.

"He went past his comfort zone and found interest outside of his strongest subjects," Tohme said. "Not that he really has a weak subject," he added.

Tohme credits much of the Nchinda siblings’ success to their supportive parents.

“(Nkazi) has such supportive parents who are so humble and unassuming, you would have no idea that they have children that are going to the most elite schools in the country,” Tohme said. “These are very grateful people.”

Healthy endeavor

Beyond Harvard, Nkazi hopes to enroll in a medical student training program, which is akin to joint MD-PhD programs. After completing his post-graduate program, Nkazi hopes to devote himself to biomedical research surrounding dementia.

During Nkazi’s involvement with Oak Creek’s chapter of HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America) this year, the club was involved in collecting MP3 players for a project involving music and memory, and the effect of music on people with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

"It's this huge field and there's tons of people affected by it," Nkazi said. "People don’t understand it, people don’t talk about it, and so that’s what I want to focus on."

"I honestly think we’ll read about it 15 years down the road; there will be some breakthrough,” Tucknott said. “(We'll say) 'Of course, it was Nkazi.' "

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