Jean Tchinda was told that pursuing an electrical engineering degree was too difficult — especially for an immigrant whose first language is not English.
Growing up in Cameroon, his dream was to become a doctor. But his family couldn’t afford to send him to medical school. He ended up getting an online certificate in electromechanical engineering, which allowed him to find employment.
He couldn’t have anticipated that, decades later, he would go to college and become an engineer in the United States.
His journey here was not easy, he said.
The 48-year-old, his wife and five daughters moved to Dallas from his central African country five years ago.
When he arrived, he struggled to get a job without speaking English.
“I didn’t think it was possible for me to go back to school,” he said. But he decided to give it a try anyway.
He enrolled at Richland College and spent his first year focused on learning English. By his second year, he started pursuing science courses and eventually received an associate degree in electrical engineering.
He wasn’t done. He wanted to continue learning and get a bachelor’s degree, but some warned him that transferring would be challenging.
Tchinda didn’t let anything derail him. He applied to and got into University of Texas at Dallas, where he said he found supportive professors, classmates and staff. (UTD is a supporter of the Education Lab.)
“University in the USA is very difficult, but at UTD, everybody was there for me,” he said. “Whenever I said ‘Oh, I cannot do that.’ They said, ‘No, you cannot say that. You gotta do it. Try your best.’”
His days were long. Tchinda worked a night job as a maintenance technician at an aerospace company.
After about two hours of sleep, he’d then head to UTD for classes and homework. Later in the afternoon and into the evening, he would get a few more hours of sleep.
In between, he and his wife juggled transporting his daughters, ages 8 to 19, to school and extracurricular activities.
“I wanted to show them everything is possible,” he added. “You just need to work and be honest with everybody, and that’s all.”
Tchinda is a role model for his daughters, they said.
His oldest, Andrea, now is an undergraduate student at Harvard University studying computer science. Her younger sister, Emmanuelle, is also following a high-achieving academic path but wants to become a neurosurgeon.
“It’s been a long journey,” Emmanuelle said. “Five years seeing him staying up day and night working. He literally didn’t have time to do anything else.”
The 15-year-old said it was hard to see her father constantly working and studying.
“But now that he’s in his cap and gown, I’m super proud of him,” she said.
Just before graduation, he and classmates presented the capstone project they designed: a robot to move goods from curbsides to rooms and vice-versa. The product is specifically relevant for those who aren’t able to pick up deliveries from curbsides into their homes because of disability.
As he applies to engineering jobs, he said he hopes to motivate others to follow their dreams.
“Your age is not going to be a limitation for you,” Tchinda said.
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