Cátia Dombaxe – Class of 2016

June 11, 2024

Please introduce yourself and tell us what you have been up to since graduating from UWC Maastricht in 2016.

My name is Cátia Dombaxe. I am Angolan and I lived most of my pre-UWC life in Angola. I used to attend a catholic school and that’s how I got recruited for UWC because that’s how the selections used to be done back then. In 2014, I received a scholarship and moved to the Netherlands to attend UWC. I was very happy that I got sent to the UWC college in the Netherlands because a good friend of mine, Nelma, was at UWC Maastricht too. I was grateful to be with somebody that I knew because my English was very limited. I think that all I could say before arriving at Maastricht was “Hi, I am Cátia”.

Now when I talk about my two years in Maastricht, I tell people that those were the best two years of my life because I made many amazing friends and because really, it changed my life. It helped me to move away from a country that does not value education, especially the education of women, since in Angola women are still meant for mostly just bearing children, and opened so many other doors for me.

You grew up in Sambizanga Luanda, Angola, and then in 2014 arrived in Maastricht to receive a UWC education. How was that transition?

It was not easy. It was hard, super hard at the beginning. I am not going to lie about it. At first, I didn’t want to be at UWCM because of the language barrier. At first, I didn’t make friends, I was scared of making mistakes in English and that was stopping me from learning. I remember that we had a week or so before classes started and then I relied on Google to translate classes into Portuguese so I could understand what was being taught. That transition was hard and I ended up isolating myself a little bit at the start and I mostly surrounded myself with Portuguese speakers. However, it was thanks to the pressure of having to go to classes combined with the very supportive system that I learned the language in three months. I was thankful that Nelma, my second year, was there because she introduced me to her friends and helped me to get to know more people. Looking back, regardless of the initial hardship, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to live in a different country and learn a new language.

When I think of teachers, I was especially inspired by my Chemistry teacher Mrs Newman, she was tough but now as I get older I understand her more and I appreciate all that she has taught me and all the after-class time she spent with me explaining everything again and again to make sure I understood. And of course, I must mention Tian who was my residence mentor. She is the kindest and the most understanding and supportive person. She has such a sweet soul, she has a calming presence and her voice is angelic. Her presence was instrumental in letting me and empowering me to grow into a strong woman and a good person.

Where did life take you after graduating from UWCM?

I did my best in class but I was always more interested in the social entrepreneurship programme, the global citizenship activities, the volunteering and service and really the fun stuff – that was the core of my UWC experience. My IB scores were not the highest, nevertheless, I got a scholarship to Methodist University and got a degree in Chemistry. Then I worked for a pharmaceutical company and eventually started my PhD in biomedical engineering.

I want to mention that without UWC I would have never been able to go to study in the US. Thanks to UWC I was able to receive the Davis scholarship and dive into studying chemistry. My time at university was like an extension of UWC because there were so many other UWC alumni from various colleges which made the transition to the individualistic culture of America a little easier. The UWC community was crucial for me, it saved my life, I would not have been able to make it without the UWC support.

How has your time at UWCM impacted the steps you took after graduation?

It impacted everything. It opened all the doors. Getting the scholarship, and going to the US but the biggest thing that I got from UWC is the “ubuntu” philosophy and spirit, meaning that we are all in this together and can’t do it without each other. UWC really instilled this in me because I lived that precise philosophy there. I carried that with me and continued supporting others also at university where I did a lot of formal as well as informal mentoring. Finally, the Ubuntu philosophy, my UWC experience and the fantastic outreach programmes I got to see at Cornell drove me to start my own NGO that aims to give people access to education. Education was instrumental in changing my life and I want to pass this on and give back to my community.

Can you tell us more about Comunidade Ubunye (Community United)? What is it? Do you see any connection to the UWC values and mission?

As I said the thought of Comunidade Ubunye, Ubunye is a Zulu variation of Ubuntu, started already at UWC. To give you a bit of context, back home, in Angola, there weren’t any possibilities to do experiments during science classes, so science was always very boring and I didn’t like it. Once at UWC I actually got to do science and see it all happening in front of me rather than just memorising formulas, I knew I wanted to bring that kind of science classes to my people too.

Here at Cornell, they have a great lending library of experiment kits, so high school teachers who want to demonstrate a particular reaction can borrow the kit and teach it to their students in this way more interactive way. I borrowed this idea for my NGO, Comunidade Ubunye, the kits are donated to the community and training is provided to teachers, so the educators know how to best use the kits and can do experiential science classes with multiple classes over many years. I wanted the kits to also be relevant for practical use, so we connected them to agriculture which is the main economic driver in Angola and most students return to their parents’ farm once they finish school. I am grateful that, to my huge surprise, I received the National Geographic grant which allows me to reach 600 students and train 50 teachers as a part of the pilot study. I am super excited about it!

Are there any other ways that you continue to live the UWC mission in your private, academic and professional life?

To be honest, I don’t exactly remember the UWC values and mission. Because to me everything I do is UWC! 🙂 I still feel that for me the mission is giving access to education to people and by doing so changing their lives, for me that’s my UWC mission. This is something that was instilled in me when I was in UWC and that’s what I have been doing ever since. A big dream of mine is to especially give education to women, the ultimate goal of my NGO is to create an exchange programme for educators between Angola and the US and create a greater sense of community. Honestly, thinking about it, all has always led back to UWC for me. I wouldn’t be the woman I am if it wasn’t for UWC.

Before we end this interview, let’s get nostalgic. What comes to your mind when you think about UWC and UWC Maastricht in particular? What are some of your most fond memories?

[Cátia is laughing] I have so many memories. I feel that deep down I wish I was still there because the time at UWCM was really magical. I often think about my close friends Fiona, Valeria and Tamar and remember my roommates in my second year, they were my family and my heart. They kept me safe and confident. The second year was super hard academically but having the feeling of belonging and connecting with my roommates helped me to overcome hard times and make some of the best memories from my time at UWCM. I cannot pick one favourite memory, all of them were so special, the good and the bad ones too, and all together they made up my UWC journey.