Chikoti Mibenge, MSII, left her native Zambia for the first time at age 19. She had lost both parents to AIDS—her father when she was 17, and her mother when she was 18. Desperate to escape the future her guardian aunt planned for her as a grocery store cashier, Mibenge applied to UWC Adriatic and received a full scholarship . Even though it meant repeating two years of high school, leaving behind her orphaned younger brother and sister, and starting a new life in a foreign land, Mibenge knew she had the chance of a lifetime.
“It was the beginning of a new life for me,” she says. “Everything was unfamiliar—the dining hall food, the excellent weather, beautiful dorms, the pretty, nice soap, and the water that was so clear and clean it felt slippery in my hands.”
After a rough start, Mibenge began to make friends with the teachers and students. She describes herself as an average student who always tried her best.
“Teachers loved me because I always did my best. Sometimes I surprised them and did extremely well, but there were some things I just wasn’t good at.”
At the end of her UWC experience she worried, because her only chance of going on to university was to get a full scholarship. She applied to four schools that her advisor - at UWC Adriatic - indicated would be most likely to help with scholarships. And then one weekend, she learned that the dean of Wellesley College would be conducting interviews on campus, in the library where Mibenge worked.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s my dream school.’ But I didn’t schedule an interview, because I would feel very broken-hearted if I didn’t get in,” she says.
Mibenge opened the library that morning, and on a whim decided to introduce herself to the visiting dean before the first scheduled interview.
“I poured out my whole story,” says Mibenge. “It took two interview slots; the other students had to wait. It was the first time in my life someone wanted to hear everything I had to say. And then she said to me, ‘I don’t think you should shut your own doors.’”
Mibenge applied to Wellesley and was accepted on a full scholarship.
“That started the second chapter of my life,” she says. She decided to pursue a PhD in immunology with an ultimate goal of finding an AIDS vaccine. She majored in biochemistry and minored in Italian. She did a summer internship working in a lab at Harvard and Partners Medical Center, investigating cytokine regulation with AIDS progression.
“I liked meeting the patients and working with them. My heart became set on medical school,” she says.
Mibenge was elected into Sigma Xi, which honors students who have exceptional science aptitude and productivity. She graduated at the top of her class and was pursued by the country’s most elite medical schools.
Wellesley awarded her the Sarah Perry Woods Fellowship, which covered her tuition and board for the first year of medical school. A combination of loans and scholarships will help with the rest. Mibenge sought out Duke because she had heard about the work of Barton F. Haynes, MD, HS’73-’75, and the Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology (CHAVI) based at Duke.
"After the death of my parents from HIV/AIDS and the diagnosis of my youngest sibling , I realized that third-world citizens had inadequate health care that ranged from having no access to clean water to lacking guaranteed access to medicine. As a biochemistry major, I have combined laboratory research and public health; my passion became genetics and HIV/AIDS immunology. At Partners AIDS Research Center in Boston, I evaluate the ability of T-cells to produce and to respond to cytokines IL-2, IL-7, and IL-15 during the course of HIV infection. I also work at the Children's Hospital Boston as transcontinental coordinator for a program that assists HIV-infected adolescents to be drug adherent. My essay, "The Charity of My Choice", has been chosen for publication in Authors for Tomorrow, one of only 150 selected from 5,000 student submissions.
Being chosen as one of the "Top 10" college women in America for Glamour Magazine opened many doors in my life. In the future, I hope to provide modern health care to third-world, rural communities as a doctor and international HIV specialist."
And now, 10 years after her father’s death, Mibenge can’t wait to get started on her third year research project next year, when she plans to work in Haynes’s lab. Her goal of finding an AIDS vaccine has taken on a new sense of urgency—her youngest brother, still in Zambia and now in his second year of college, was diagnosed with HIV in 2006.