Time flies for real!! Where did all the two and half years go? I remember moving to Boulder, CO from Chicago, IL where I had been working all summer of 2013 as an intern at Fermilab. When I moved here, I was excited to move to this beautiful place. In April 2013, I had come to Denver for a National Physics Conference. Since I had had a wonderful time in Denver, I assumed that Boulder was going to be absolutely amazing since it was only around 35-45 minutes away. Therefore, when I finally moved to Boulder in August 2013, I felt in love with the place so quickly. Having mountains around me made it feel at home because my home country, Rwanda, is a very mountainous country, known as, a country of thousand hills.

Thus far, I have been very lucky and fortunate at CU Boulder, and I really could not have chosen a better school. Like anybody else, deciding a graduate school to attend can be very challenging especially when you have a lot of choices, but I am very glad to have chosen to come to CU Boulder. Honestly, saying that I have been lucky, is a huge understatement! I am simply very grateful.

Repping at the Tour of Africa with ASA folks

Academics: Coursework and TA

Graduate school is very different undergraduate on so many levels: whether you look at the coursework, research, and the responsibility you have a graduate student. This is especially true when you rely on teaching (TA), and research (RA) assistantships to afford school fees and getting your living expenses.

My first year was the most challenging because as a new graduate student, you are trying to figure out how things work, and they make you work like crazy. You have loads of coursework, you are a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course, and you have to start learning about your research at the same time. For me, I thought it was going to be even challenging since I was switching from Physics (in Undergraduate) to Mechanical Engineering (in Graduate school). However, overall, it was a much smoother transition than I had anticipated.

Of course, I am not saying that it was easy, but engineering courses are actually a little easier than some of the Physics courses I took in college. As my undergraduate advisor would say it: If you can pass Quantum Mechanics and Electrodynamics, I do not think Heat Transfer or Thermodynamics would be much harder. Surprisingly, he was totally right! One of the things I like about having a physics degree is that everybody thinks you are smart and you can adapt to any coursework you take. To some extent, this is true. Whenever people think of me as smart, it boosts my confidence, and I feel like I can learn any tough subjects as long as I put my mind to it. I was a little surprised with how many former physics undergraduate majors we had in our graduate program in the department of mechanical engineering.

During my first year, I was on a TA, and my second year, I had both a TA and RA position. For the past 4-semesters, I got to TA a Dynamics course for 3-semesters, and 1-semester for Data Analysis. As a teaching assistant (TA), you hold weekly office hours to help students on their homework, you grade homework, tests, exams, and when the professor is out of town for a conference, they can ask you to sub-in for them. During your TAship, you get to interact with students. Overall, it was very fun, and rewarding, but it was also time-consuming, especially on top of your other responsibility of your own school work and research.

Professional Research Work

As a research assistant (RA), you choose an advisor, who usually has different projects, and you get assigned a specific task on the project. When you are on a RA, hopefully, your advisor has funding for that project so that he can pay you for your work. I am not sure how tuition works, but you don’t pay anything when you have a research assistantship. This is true both for American and international students. Instead, you also get monthly stipend, to cover your living expenses. It is not too much money, but it is enough to cover all you need for rent, and other expenses, but you really have to be on a tight student budget.

Doing some lab work at SchoolAmWorking2015

So far, I cannot really complain about anything. I have passed all the qualifying exams we had to take, both written and oral research exams. I have co-authored one published paper, and I am writing my first one as a primary author. And perhaps most importantly, I just got a masters in Mechanical Engineering with focus on Energy and Environment. This kind of big deal for me! This means that I have a Bachelors of Arts in Physics (with focus on Renewable Energy), and a Master’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering (with focus on Energy and Environment).

You know, I actually don’t care that much about degrees. I mean, I think I have more skills than what the labels my degrees claim to have. After all, there are many people with few or no degrees who have done tremendous work and have become very successful in their lives. I hope I get to make a positive impact on the society myself someday. As far as education goes, I tend to go my own route whenever it comes to learning. I do spend lots of time (perhaps more than I should) learning about subjects beyond what they teach in class. Although it can be very costly on your grades, I find it to be the best way to educate yourself. Whenever I come across a new technology or a subject I am interested in, I can spend weeks reading and learning about it and almost forgetting that there are some exams, and tests in my own classes. In all, I do not regret any of it, instead, I am actually proud of it, big time!

At CU-Boulder, I was really lucky to work on a project that allowed me to travel outside the United States for 3-4 times every year. I have a great advisor, I work with a great group of talented people, I really like what I do, and I go to school to one of the finest university in the World. My research work involves using low-cost air quality monitors to study environment problems in developing countries. For the past 2.5 years, I have been working on an NSF and EPA funded project looking at the impact of solid-fuel use for cooking and other combustion sources on health and environment in Northern-Ghana. Thus, my work consists of lots lab-work, collection of data in Ghana, and of course data analysis: I will let you know when my paper is out sometime in 2016.

Research is a big part of one’s work in graduate school, so it is very nice to be able to change the scenery from lab-work, field-work, and traveling abroad to conferences. It really does help you to balance your life and to not get bored of doing same stuff every day. I highly recommend this, if possible. Conferences are also a good way to network, get connected with researchers in your field of study. I have attended many of them such as GEIA, and Clean Cooking Forum, as well as many other seminars and talks.

Hanging out with some crocodiles in Northern Ghana: They are actually Friendly that you can pet them.

Balancing graduate school and social life

Balancing grad school work and social life can be very tough, but it is extremely important. Honestly, I have to admit that this is one of the areas I usually do okay because I do procrastinate quite a bit. Probably I do it much more than I should but it is really nice. Life in grad school can be very busy and challenging, especially because there is always something to do and due every time. There are times I get very busy that I can spend a good week going from home, lab, offices, gym, back home at night, and wake up to the same routine every day for like 5-7 straight days in a row. Thus, it is very helpful to loosen up over the weekend and do something fun to relax. Being in Boulder and Colorado, you really have no excuse, you can do some hiking, climbing mountains, clubbing, skiing, camping, and all sorts of stuff.

Loosening it up water paddling , climbing Princeton Mt. and canopy walking in Rwanda

 In addition, I have been able to participate with other organizations on campus that I care about. For example, I have been working with Engineers without Borders, EWB-Rwanda, helping CU students design a clean water catchment system in Northern –Rwanda. I also do a lot of documents translation from English to Kinyarwanda, and overall helping them understand the Rwandan culture a little bit. I am also a member of the African Students Africa, ASA, where I helped organized big events such as Tour of Africa, where we show the true image of Africa and all the elements surrounding its rich culture through arts, fashion show, dance, and music. I have met many good people with these organizations and it has helped me to be a good productive member of the CU-community, beyond just being an academic student.

Rwanda Day in ATL 2014, REMA Meeting in Rwanda, summer 2015, and Accra-stove factory in November 2015.

At CU-Boulder, I have also been able to attend and meet other experts in other fields. This is probably one of the most thing I am so thankful at CU. One of my favorite thing I like to mention is meeting up with Nobel Laureates at school and being able to attend their talks. This is a very big deal for me, because when I was at a Science High School in Rwanda, I really wished/wanted to meet a Nobel Prize Physicist someday in my life. However, being in Rwanda at the time, I would never have thought that I would be able to see them passing by me and attend their talks in person. Thus far, I have met three of them. I have attended talks from David Gross, Leon Lederman, at Fermilab, and Eric Cornell at CU-Boulder. This has taught me to always DREAM BIG, and to never underestimate myself. If you are going to dream, you might as well dream BIG.  

Plans Forward

I cannot wait to see what I will do with all the skills and knowledge I have been accumulating for the past 6-7 years.  I finally feel like I know what I want to do with my life (at least I know the direction). I honestly feel like I am very equipped to go out there and make a positive impact to the society and add some value to the marketplace. Although I don’t have any debts in financial terms, I owe so much to the people who have invested in me for so many years, directly or indirectly:

  • My professors, to have taught, and transferred their knowledge to me with diligence and selflessness,
  • My family, to have believed and supported me through it all,
  • The Rwandan and American taxpayers, and the whole society at large, to have contributed financially towards my education, directly and indirectly.
  • I owe them, big time! And I hope that I will gradually pay them off by making a positive contribution to the whole community, wherever I will be working.

Over the next few months, I am going to take some time-off for myself to grow professionally, and to digest all the skills and knowledge I have acquired for the past 15-20 years of education. I am going to come up with plans of what exactly I want to do, set specific goals of what I want to achieve, and how I want to get there. Most importantly, I will take some time for relaxation as well. It will be a much needed fun and enjoyable break-time: I will keep writing a blog to document my experiences and I hope you will enjoy it as much as I will be.

***Writing is going to be tough when I am hanging out at the resort beach at some nice island in Indian Ocean though, so just be patient, hahah!

Until then,

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year of 2016

Didier Champion



[1] My Fermilab Webpage, http://sist.fnal.gov/index.php

[2] Rwanda Topographic landscape, http://www.rwandatourism.com/

[3] REACCTING Project, http://www.reaccting.com/

[4] Engineers without Borders, EWB-Rwanda, http://www.colorado.edu/engineering/ewb/rwanda

[5] African Student Association, http://www.colorado.edu/StudentGroups/ASA/

[6] Impact of Fuel use on health and climate, http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/research_areas/cca/index.html

[7] Leon Lederman, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/nobel-laureate-god-particle-physicist-leon-lederman-to-sell-off-nobel-prize-gold-medal-10277414.html and http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1988/lederman-facts.html

[8] Eric Cornell, http://www.colorado.edu/news/series/cu-boulder-nobel-laureates

[9] David Gross, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2004/gross-facts.html

[10] Fermilab, http://www.fnal.gov/

[11] CU-Boulder, http://www.me.colorado.edu/, and ranking in the world, http://www.colorado.edu/admissions/graduate/about/rankings/list

[12] Steve Jobs, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/steve-jobs-told-students-stay-hungry-stay-foolish/2011/10/05/gIQA1qVjOL_blog.html

[13] GEIA, 2014: http://www.geiacenter.org/event/2014-geia-conference

[14] Clean Cooking Forum, 2015: https://www.cleancooking2015.org/



Published by Didier Champion

Didier Champion is a Rwandan blogger. I love telling stories and writing about Rwanda. I was born and raised in Rwanda. I speak 3 languages. Kinyarwanda, English, and French. From Rwanda (my home country), to the United States (my adoptive country), and Europe, where I am currently working, I take the Rwandan and African pride with me. I am a Rwandan Pan-Africanist who love sharing African stories. Although I am a trained Energy Engineer, my passion is in business and entrepreneurship. My topics about Africa focuses on an aid-free Africa relying on trade, tourism, innovation, and technology. I dream about a self-reliant Africa whose financial freedom is unshakeable. An Africa that consumes what It produces & produces what it consumes. I love traveling across Africa, exploring the beauty of our continent and learning about how to make it in Africa. I am always encouraged by the African Youth with same dreams and aspirations. For more, follow me on twitter and follow this blog to stay in touch. Thank you Didier

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