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Inspired to Pay it Forward

ShaQ Rushanika

ShaQ Rushanika discovered his passion for human biology after spending much time in a Denver hospital as his father recovered from a near-fatal car accident. The doctors’ compassion moved him. Photo by Woody Myers

April 28, 2023

Recent graduate Shukuru Rushanika '22 overcame adversity, explored scientific research and was honored for his achievements as he developed a deep sense of appreciation for the support  and guidance he received during his undergraduate education at UNC. 

University of Northern Colorado December graduate Shukuru Rushanika is a young man on a mission. Affectionately known as ShaQ, the aspiring physician-researcher has dedicated his educational journey to the study of immunology, developing innovative research initiatives in his short time as an undergraduate student. As a UNC Courage to Excel Scholar, Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative recipient, Phelps CAP award winner and McNair Scholar, ShaQ recognizes his own promise as a powerful force within the scientific community. A determined ShaQ credits his educational success to “relentless perseverance.” Indeed, his story is one of overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a dream.  

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ShaQ experienced tumultuous times during his formative years. He left his birth home as a young child, relocating to a Tanzanian refugee camp alongside his mother and siblings. This difficult but necessary experience was “a first official step to a future,” says ShaQ. When his family eventually moved to Colorado, ShaQ studied a standard curriculum at local schools. During his freshman year at Greeley Central High School, however, a new adversity would enter his world and ultimately spark his interest in medicine. 

In a sudden bout of misfortune, ShaQ’s father was involved in a near fatal car crash. With their patriarch dormant in a coma, ShaQ and his family spent a great deal of time at Denver’s Swedish Medical Center anxiously awaiting his recovery. It was during this time, however, that ShaQ’s interest in becoming a physician began to blossom. “I was intrigued by the joy they had when serving others in need,” ShaQ says of Swedish Medical Center’s physicians.   

So, a young ShaQ decided to turn a harrowing experience into a “learning opportunity.” He asked hospital management if he could shadow a few physicians during their rounds. While ShaQ gained an informal education about the physician profession, Swedish Medical Center staff showed him so much compassion that he was inspired to pursue a career as a physician himself.    

“I carried this new outlook on education into my college experience,” ShaQ says of his enlightenment during a dark period in his life.    

ShaQ Rushanika   working on research focused on immunology

ShaQ stands in the same lab where he has logged many hours over the past four years working on research focused on immunology. Photo by Woody Myers

When it was time for college, ShaQ decided to enroll in University of Northern Colorado’s Biological Sciences program in the College of Natural and Health Scienes, where he centered his studies on biomedicine and pre-health. Just for good measure, he minored in chemistry. In time, ShaQ’s academic interests began to pay off.    

The UNC Courage to Excel Scholars program helped ShaQ “navigate through difficulties that arise in secondary education for underrepresented persons such as myself.” While the aspiring researcher admits that he has experienced his share of challenges during his studies to become a scientist, ShaQ has considered his unwavering enthusiasm for understanding human biology as a “support structure” of sorts. He acknowledges that his educational aspirations have provided him with an outlet during tough times and have served as an “intrinsic motivation when overcoming challenges.”

But ShaQ’s journey on the road to physician-researcher hasn’t been all speedbumps. As a freshman at UNC, the budding academic developed an independent project intended to serve as his senior-level honors thesis. For this project, ShaQ endeavored to discover how the CRISPR-Cas 9 protein might be used to eliminate MCF-7, a “gene myeloid stimulating factor,” in breast cancer cells.

With his interest in research, ShaQ was selected to join the prestigious McNair Scholars Program. With the purpose of preparing undergraduate students for graduate-level study through faculty mentorship and a series of research and scholarly activities, the McNair Scholars Program provided the perfect reflection of ShaQ’s academic potential as a traditionally underrepresented student in STEM. During this time, he also began working on a new research endeavor, investigating a potential relationship between physical exercise and the turmeric compound berberine. Theoretically, this research could aid in easing assessment of metabolic behavior during strenuous activity.

This project presented ShaQ with the opportunity to participate in various academic conferences, including a “cherished” experience presenting amongst U.S. congressional members at the 2022 Posters on the Hill conference. Designed by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), the conference awards promising young researchers with the recognition and opportunity to share their findings with a larger audience. For ShaQ, who was one of just two Coloradans selected from thousands of applicants, this moment was one to celebrate. It was also an opportunity to advocate for fellow undergraduate and minority students in STEM.    

“I found the experience of interacting with my respective senators and representatives enthralling; it highlighted the importance of taking the initiative as a scientist to take part in the social and political policies surrounding STEM in our nation,” ShaQ reflects. 

Posters on the Hill represents just one of over a dozen conference presentations for the burgeoning researcher. ShaQ’s resume boasts participation in conferences across the country, including the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Students and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. He’s also provided posters for Princeton University’s Molecular Biology (MOL BIO) Scholars program as well as UNC’s own Undergraduate Research Symposium.    

Despite a series of personal challenges that could have derailed ShaQ’s academic interests, the graduating senior is keen to continue his studies in the STEM field. Though he has been busy applying to master’s programs, ShaQ has found another recent reason for celebration in his acceptance into Princeton University’s Prospective Ph.D. Scholars program. With a seemingly bright path ahead of him, UNC is proud  to welcome Shukuru Rushanika, future physician-researcher, into its illustrious and dynamic alumni community.  UNC

By Shaira Brereton 

ShaQ graduated from UNC in December 2022

ShaQ graduated from UNC in December, with strong support and encouragement from his parents.

In His Own Words: ShaQ Rushanika 

I want to share with you the different chances that have made my story. These chances came in different forms, but most vividly, they came in the form of American neighborly love through many different mentors, friends and family, including extended family.   

In order to first understand my story, we first must understand my parents’ story.   

My father as a boy in Rwanda, feared for his life and escaped the genocide to nearby Congo. In a parallel narrative, my mother was a young Congolese girl raising her seven siblings after her mother’s death. After several years of struggling to make ends meet and living with imminent threats to my father’s life, my parents decided to seek refuge in the Tanzanian camp of Nduta, where I was born.

To this day, I have not forgotten my attempts to dissipate my immense hunger by drinking water or trying to go to sleep. As a six-year-old, I would wake up early in the morning to help the family fetch water so that we could maintain water reserves in the house. Those were difficult times, and my memories of them are sometimes cloudy, but I do remember clearly how my family and I strived every day and kept hoping for an opportunity for a better life.

One of my family’s most cherished memories is when a UNICEF representative notified us that we had received a chance to begin a better life in the United States. Upon arrival in the U.S., the chances did not end. We were taken in by a local church that helped us acculturate to American society. They helped us access government social welfare programs while also helping my parents search for work. Within a short period of time, my parents found work and began contributing to the U.S., as many refugees and immigrant parents do when given the chance. 

When my parents began working, we were no longer dependent on government subsidies. My siblings and I still relied upon various scholarship and government aid programs to give us an equitable chance to pursue our education and overcome the burden/barriers that education places on low-income families. 

Other opportunities came in the form of free lunches and school supplies, after-school programs and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, as well as financial support for educators to equip them with tools to support students needing more attention. 

I could not tell this story without mentioning my older brother, who helped me set goals and excel beyond them, and my high school coach, who, through the beautiful game of basketball, taught me that my contribution to society as a Black man does not only have to be through sport but also through my intellect.   

In my senior year of high school, I decided to stay here in Greeley because home is where the heart is. I should mention that I grew up only a block from this campus, on 9th Avenue, and some of my fondest memories in Greeley were forged here. I still remember coming here for the parades as a kid and being forced by my dad to pose for photographs. After deciding UNC was going to be my home for my four undergraduate years, I decided to shadow at UNC’s Cancer Rehabilitation Center, where I was welcomed by the staff and was allowed access to patients. Those many different encounters inspired me to want to play a vital role in alleviating human suffering at the physician level.    

However, my love for academic research came from many faculty and administrators, including but not limited to the School of Biological Sciences. I hope you all will please reflect on all the chances you have received up to this point, as well as encourage you to take more chances and pay it forward by giving more chances.