Short Stories

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#MadeinRwanda

By Ruth Keyso, Director of Alumni Relations & Giving


In her boutique-office on the first floor of a two-floor flat located 15 minutes from downtown Kigali, Rwandan fashion designer Sonia Mugabo ‘08 is thinking up ways to make people feel beautiful.

Two years ago, Sonia started her eponymous fashion line. Working alongside an assistant and a tailor, the trio surround themselves with samples of Sonia’s clothes and sketchbooks, working to create a line of clothing that fits and flatters both women and men.

“I design everyday-dress that’s boho and comfortable,” says Sonia, describing her garments. “I use primarily chiffon and crepe. They’re flowy and fold easily.”

Sonia knew from a young age that she wanted to work in design. As a child, she cut up anything she could get her hands on—tablecloths, colorful Rwandan paper money—to make dresses for her Barbie dolls. During her year as a student at LFA, she took courses in drawing and photography and 3-D design, even enrolling in an architecture class in Chicago to learn more about that discipline. She ultimately earned her degree in visual communications and graphic design from Buena Vista University in Iowa in 2013.

Three years ago Sonia returned to her native Rwanda to make a name for herself as an entrepreneur. Despite worries from her pragmatic parents—both lawyers—who encouraged her to do fashion “on the side” while working a more stable job, Sonia followed her heart. These days she is a pioneer in the young, but burgeoning, fashion industry in Rwanda, a place where opportunity abounds for young entrepreneurs, especially females, like 26-year-old Sonia, who considers herself “privileged” to be among the vanguard during this exciting time in her country’s history.

She finds inspiration everywhere: through websites such as Refinery29 and Pinterest; magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; and designers she admires, especially Diane Von Furstenberg. Sonia’s designs, colors, and fits also reflect her surroundings. “It’s always spring in Rwanda,” she says. “So I like to create comfortable, loose clothes. Resort-wear.”

Sonia hopes to make her brand a global, household name and to be a role model for other Rwandan girls who dream about careers in the fashion industry. So far, she specializes in clothing for women and men, but hopes to branch out into accessories once she grows more comfortable with her business.

Being an entrepreneur and a fashion designer has had its challenges, Sonia admits. It’s hard to be a creative, while also running the business side of an enterprise. But, while learning to do things on her own, she has gained great knowledge and now understands how to manage her finances more effectively. “I feel like I’ve been to business school,” she says, laughing.

Sonia’s advice for aspiring designers is simple: Start small and have a vision.

“It’s easy to give up. But every day I [envision] where I want my brand reaching. This motivates me to keep going, to set goals for myself,” Sonia says.

And just how far does she see her brand reaching?

“I want to walk down Michigan Avenue or Fashion Avenue and see my store,” she says.

Sonia Mugabo ’08, owner of the Sonia Mugabo (SM) label, lives and works in Kigali, Rwanda. Her work has been covered in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and Forbes. Visit her website at: www.soniamugabo.com

Posted by Ms. Grace Kim in Fall 2016 on Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 01:18PM
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Paging Dr. Powell

By Ruth Keyso, Director of Alumni Relations & Giving

When Dr. Ernest Powell ’03 was 12 years old, a teacher assigned him and his classmates a special project: to paint portraits of their future selves.

Under Ernest’s masterpiece he wrote the words, “anesthesiologist.”

Fast-forward 19 years. He wasn’t too far off the mark.

In his fourth and final year of medical residency at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, Ernest is fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Working in the field of obstetrics and gynecology—the rotation he feared most during medical school—Ernest says he cannot imagine a more suitable or fitting profession. For someone who gets bored easily, the fast pace of his job and the constant rotation of new people and new medical challenges keep him on his toes. As for the long hours and the sometimes-frenetic nature of doctoring, Ernest says he doesn’t mind the grind.

“I’ve never minded hard work, staying up late, following up on things,” he says. “I enjoy when it’s hectic, chaotic.”

Ernest works most days from 6 a.m. til 6 p.m. and is on call every other weekend. While delivering babies and diagnosing illnesses, he is developing his bedside manner. Ernest says he strives to be direct yet empathetic with his female patients. He says it’s easy to “become cold” as a doctor when you see women not taking care of their health or doing things that adversely affect the health of their babies. But he is learning not to judge and to let go of biases when working with his patients, while at the same time making them feel at ease in his presence.

“It can be hard for [male gynecologists]; you can’t make it seem awkward,” he says. “I think my personality allows people to be comfortable with me.”

When asked about advice for aspiring doctors, Ernest says to make sure you’re choosing the profession for the right reasons.

“Don’t become a doctor for the money or because your family wants you to,” he says, noting that those things won’t get you through the long nights of studying, or help you recover after a hard day on the job. Become a doctor because you’re passionate about the profession and know that it’s how you want to spend your life, he advises.

So far, life as a doctor has been good for Ernest: the heady feeling of delivering a baby, the thrill of saving a life, the moment when a grateful patient sends a thank you card for a job well done. Ernest looks forward to completing his residency in less than one year and going into practice full time. In reflection, he’s proud to have stayed along the path he planned for himself as a young boy.

“I’ve always enjoyed learning,” he says. “Little did I know how much learning this would be.”

Ernest is a 2003 graduate of Lake Forest Academy and a 2007 graduate of the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and pre-med. He also holds a master’s degree in biotechnology from Roosevelt University and his MD from Case Western Reserve. He lives in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Posted by Ms. Grace Kim in Fall 2016 on Tuesday October 11, 2016 at 01:14PM
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Setting Her Sites

By Ruth Keyso, Director of Alumni Relations & Giving

If you find yourself in rural Hackberry, La., keep your eyes open for Meghan Pesch ’07. She’s the 27-year-old project engineer in a hard-hat, steel-toed boots, and fire-retardant clothing working on the construction site of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility.

Meghan has been with CB&I, an American engineering and construction behemoth, for five years. She started in a rotational training program, which exposed her to all sides of the business, from engineering and construction, to procurement and investor relations. She later took on a role as lead civil engineer at an ethylene facility in Houston before landing her current position as project engineer in Louisiana, helping to construct a facility to move natural gas through the Gulf of Mexico and the Panama Canal.

She describes her complex role simply: “I make sure that the project is moving forward and the engineering disciplines are aligned,” she explains.

A civil engineer by training, Meghan can pinpoint the moment in time when she chose this industry for her career. The year was 2003; the place was LFA.

“I had freshman physics with Mr. Dean. He was an aerospace engineer. The examples he gave in class, the things he did, had tangible application,” she explains. “This was my first introduction to engineering; he was the first engineer I’d ever run across.”

Inspired by the real-life application of the discipline, Meghan went on to earn her degree in civil engineering from Tufts University. When she graduated, she thought she’d work in design, perhaps constructing buildings or bridges. But the exposure she received at CB&I made her realize there’s a lot more to the industry than designing steel and concrete structures. There’s fieldwork that involves a multidisciplinary approach, something that appeals to her.

A typical day has Meghan up early and on site for a 6:30 a.m. safety meeting with engineers, construction management, and craft people—those who dig the dirt and pour the concrete—followed by hours of troubleshooting problems in the field. These might include misalignments between a pylon and a foundation; obstacles standing in the way of steel beams; or other issues that require conferencing with the home office in Baton Rouge. Solving problems keeps her occupied and intellectually challenged, she says.

“The problems are usually interdisciplinary; there might be 1,000 solutions, but what would be best from a scheduling, cost, and safety standpoint?” Meghan explains. “It’s not just a math problem anymore; you have to think strategically.”

Having a good attitude is also key to succeeding in her field, she says. Meghan has had to relocate as projects demand—West Virginia, England, Texas, Louisiana. While it can be challenging to adjust to a new locale, each place has prepped her with skills that will help in attaining her long-term goal of becoming a project manager.

Her advice for young people entering the workforce? Be open-minded.

“That’s something that LFA taught me,” she says. “Know that there will be steps [along the way] that are not exactly what you want to do. But it will help you in the long run. Keep things in perspective. Look at the big picture.”

Meghan Pesch graduated from LFA in 2007 and Tufts University in 2011 with a degree in civil engineering. She lives and works in Louisiana.

Posted by Ms. Grace Kim in Fall 2016 on Tuesday October 11, 2016
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