Kamkwamba adapts to College life
By Christy O'keefe, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, January 13, 2011
Although William Kamkwamba ’14 has had many experiences that his fellow class members will not share — including growing up in an African village without electricity and coauthoring a bestselling book — Kamkwambe spent his first term at the College engaging in activities common to any Dartmouth student, including studying at Novack late into the night, walking into a fraternity basement for the first time and getting hit by a snowball during Saturday’s snowball fight.
Kamkwamba, a student from Masitala, Malawi, became famous for constructing a windmill that provided his native Malawian village with much-needed electricity. Kamkwamba later wrote an award-winning book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity & Hope,” about his experiences.
As a student at the College, however, Kamkwamba wants to be known as “just William” rather than “the boy who harnessed the wind,” Jacob Walker ’14, one of Kamkwamba’s roommates, said. Varun Ravishanker ’14, another one of Kamkwamba’s roommates, said that when Kamkwamba first arrived at the College, he never mentioned of his past achievements.
“At the first floor meeting we had to go around the circle and give an interesting fact about ourselves and [Kamkwamba] spent a minute saying there wasn’t anything interesting about him,” Ravishanker said.
While Kamkwamba adjusted to life as a Dartmouth student, he still continued to pursue the projects he began while in Malawi.
Although many members of the Class of 2014 went home over Christmas break to see their families, Kamkwamba traveled to New York, Minneapolis and Japan to promote his book, which was recently published in Japanese. Over Thanksgiving break, Kamkwamba traveled to Germany to accept the Corine International Book Award, an honor awarded to German and other international students in recognition of their excellence in writing and success with German audiences, according to the Association of Publishers and Booksellers in Bavaria’s website.
Kamkwamba first began to pursue his interest in engineering when, spurred by the desire to improve the lives of his family members and other village residents, he scavenged through a local junkyard in search of parts to build an electricity-producing apparatus.
In 2002, with the help of a bike-powered generator provided by a wealthy friend, Kamkwamba finalized his windmill, which provided electricity to his village as well as neighboring towns.
Only 2 percent of Malawian residents have electricity, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Following his windmill’s success, Kamkwamba pursued other scientific ventures and soon installed solar panels on the primary school in his native town.
Kamkwamba first visited the College in Fall 2009 to give a lecture at the Rockefeller Center on his experiences.
During his visit, Kamkwamba also toured the campus and met with College President Jim Yong Kim, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Kamkwamba said he eventually chose to attend Dartmouth because of its focus on undergraduate education and the opportunity it gave him to take a variety of liberal arts classes.
“I felt that I would have access to professors here,” Kamkwamba said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “I also liked that undergraduate students have access to the machine shop [at Thayer School of Engineering] here.”
While a student at the College, Kamkwamba plans to study engineering and take design classes, he said.
“I’m taking [Drawing 1] right now and took [Site Specific Art and Landscape Design] last term,” Kamkwamba said.
Kamkwamba said he will be able to apply the skills he has learned in his classes when he returns to Malawi after graduation.
“I’m hoping to implement and apply the knowledge I learn here so that I can help the people in my community and my country,” he said.
Although Kamkwamba’s transition to the College has not been particularly challenging, he has had to adjust to the weather and cultural differences, he said.
“There are some differences in the culture, but I’m just taking the proverb, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’” he said.
This winter, Kamkwamba said he plans to embrace the cold by learning how to snowboard.
“I’ve never tried it before,” he said. “I’ve only ever just slid on the snow.”
Kamkwamba’s writing class was one of his favorite experiences of Fall term, he said.
“It was a special writing class for international students and the discussion was so fantastic,” he said. “Even if you didn’t understand the book from reading it on your own, you understood it from talking to your friends and your professors.”
Karen Gocsik, executive director of the College’s writing program, taught Kamkwamba, describing him as “a real joy to have in class.”
“He’s thoughtful, he’s curious, he’s engaged and engaging,” she said.
Kamkwamba is hard-working and modest, his friends said.
“When he’s not in class, he’s in the library studying,” Yves-Marie Duperval ’14 said.
Duperval said he thinks that Dartmouth is a great place for Kamkwamba because there are plenty of activities to keep him busy.
“It’s a place where he can explore his imagination and his potential,” Duperval said.
Bryan Mealer also coauthored the book, released in 2009. The book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity & Hope,” landed on The New York Times Bestseller list in 2009.