[Alumni Edition] Jasmine Kwasa (’09) Reflects on Her Time at IMSA

Dr. Jasmine Kwasa (‘09) is no stranger to the IMSA (Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy) community. Entering as a Shmen (a sophomore who entered from the eighth grade), she had to quickly adapt to being away from friends and family at an ever younger age than most. Apart from pioneering one of the most important IMSA clubs, Peer Multicultural Educators (now known as Campus Council for Equity), she earned her bachelor’s from Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in biomedical engineering, and her Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. She researched auditory cognitive science and is currently working to expand access to quality epilepsy monitoring in Kenya as a Fullbright US Research Scholar.

Editor-in-Chief David Dickson (‘24) sat down with Dr. Kwasa over Zoom to better understand her IMSA experience and how it helped shape the person she is today. 


First, could you describe your clubs? What did your clubs do on campus? How did they get involved with students? What was a typical meeting like? 

J: Oh boy, that would require me to remember everything. I guess let’s start with Gospel Choir. Gospel choir had a lot of members, but it didn’t meet all the time and we had variable, like performances. I think we had a few standard songs and we just kind of did our thing. Gospel choir were mostly black and Hispanic students and a lot of us lived together in the same dorms. It didn’t matter if you were a singer. So it was just kind of like a group of friends coming together.


That’s awesome. It’s great how you just made music with friends.

You know, I was in the writing center too, I was doing all sorts of things. So when I could make it, I liked it and I enjoyed singing. By senior year there was no one stepping up to be the leader and I was like, “Well I have musical training so I guess I’ll try.” 


Where would you guys perform?

In downtown Aurora. I don’t remember anything because it was just like… so minimal. But the songs we sang, let’s see. Do you know the song “Marvelous”? 


Yeah, I think I’ve heard of it.

And we would sing along to tracks like someone would put their phone on. I remember this is in the ancient times. And then we would play a Kirk Franklin song and sing along to it. We had a piano player.


It sounds like a fun experience though, like for MOD21, we do commission songs for Valentines and it’s very impromptu, but it was a very fun experience. Were you apart of any other performing arts at IMSA?

I think The Madrigals perform? I think it was like once a year they would perform. This is so funny now I think about it. So in the old calf, oh my gosh, the words are coming back. And there was an actual like program and people would buy tickets and come to the Madrigals concert. So there was like. Maybe not quite turkey legs, but like a Renaissance-type meal, and then the choir would come out and sing and then.


We’ve talked a little bit about your involvement in Gospel Choir, but what about PME?

PME was a club that existed before my time. And it had died. So I guess It’s becoming clear to you that clubs die and they get reborn, and then die, and then get reborn. It all depends on the student’s interests. It depends on what’s going on at the school. And I think around the time when My peers and I were putting together PME. A bunch of people from the class of 08 and 09, which is my year in the year above me. Dr. Coleman was a main supporter of this, and I always feel so indebted to her because she knew the leaders of the African American Student Association, and Alma Latina. And so Adrienne noticed this and noticed how some of our organizations were not well respected among the cultural organizations even though we were doing good stuff. And they weren’t well attended — everyone would go to Diwali and Lunar New Year, but no one would attend our shows.


That is a little bit how it is now.

So originally it was supposed to be an educational environment where PME members do this kind of cross-cultural programming and just like bring different student groups and different. And then it grew and grew until it became a funding body for all of the cultural organizations. So you have Studio and you have PME and they have different sources of funds and they would a lot out to the student groups, cultural groups over here, and non-cultural groups over there. Which in retrospect was kind of weird, but kind of fun from our perspective because we could say, you know, this group is getting too much money. Let’s roll it back and maybe react towards something that is a good idea but has never gotten enough attention.


How did they get it to the point of making PME a funding body?

So there [were] three co-leads my senior year of PME. One from Alma Latina, one from Ashoka (currently known as the Indian Student Association), and one from the African American Student Association (currently known as the Black Student Union). Adrienne Coleman really helped us understand what groups like this on college campuses look like. So the first thing we did was in my junior year, we got funding to fly to Rutgers University in New Jersey and live in a college dorm and hang out with people doing similar things at Rutgers campus. We got to talk with a bunch of DEI professionals. By the time the seniors graduated my junior year. We were thinking, “Okay, how do we make a structure [that] has a little more reverence?” I think what we were looking for [was] respect in the community because PME in the past failed because it seemed like a lot of black and brown students. It must have been Dr. Coleman really working with us. I know Minerva was working with us.


What were some strategies you brought to IMSA?

Programming that showed the similarities between people between groups. And I honestly don’t know how successful we were because by the time you become a senior and start to apply to colleges and get into colleges, things fall off, a lot of different issues came up and thankfully I was really close with the stud co president we actually went to college together and I was in her wedding and everything. All the leaders on campus knew each other, which was really nice.


Yeah, and the PME legacy has carried on. Currently they are known as CCE and they do a lot of great work. They are currently revamping the charting process a little bit as well. What was it like when you were in school? What did a typical class look like?

Yeah. Is it still 20 mods?


No, it’s 8 mods now. 

So people don’t understand what Mod21 is. IMSA had an identity like us versus the world. And so even though there are tensions between different clicks in different halls, it felt like on any given day, if you wanted to switch from the 05 slabs to the 02 slabs, you could. You know, cause the cool kids were at the 05 slabs and the nerds were at the 02 slabs but if you brought your like replica lightsaber over to the 05 slabs, the 05ivers would be like, “That’s weird, but we’re gonna let you do that.”


What was it like with social media becoming more accessible during that time?

You have to understand. Even though everyone had laptops, we still used desktops mostly. Like if you had an extra mod, you and your friends would just go there and use the photo booth. And Facebook was new and we were among the first people to ever. Does Facebook require .edu? So to enroll, we were, I think the only high school that had .edu, email addresses for students.


Is that why IMSA still uses Facebook?

Probably. Oh, and last thing about technology, we had this thing called, it’s kind of illegal, this thing called, Oh man, what is it? Shoot, I can’t remember the name, but if you’re familiar with Lime Wire, basically it’s like a a sharing platform that usually works within a company. So instead of going to Google Drive to upload things and have your friend download them, there’s a network-only version. So we made our version of it on campus that used the Internet system. That was really cool because everyone had all the movies and music and everything, we would just share it.


That’s so cool. Like instead of like outsourcing, they would just like. Code the project themselves, I think. You don’t see that as much.

Yeah. You know, in the Class of 07 and 08 we won the prom thing because someone made a bot that just kept voting for IMSA. The next year they made it so that to keep this nerd school because we got in the papers for it to keep this nerd school from winning. You now need to enroll with an email address in order to vote, but then someone built a bot that did that and then we won the second time.


How were the clubs that you were part of cultivate your skills for college and beyond?

Yeah, I think all of the leadership I did at IMSA [cultivated my skills, but especially PME. So lots of different leadership experiences, but certainly the PME one I think was the strongest. It taught me everything I still work and use today. So. I went to WASHU. I will say the scholarship that I got was a merit-based scholarship instead of a financial need one. And I think my work with PME, participating in conferences, having our own sessions at conferences to teach people how to cultivate, you know, like multiculturalism in the high school environment. That was really powerful for my resume in a way that was like coming into my scholarship. They wanted leaders, people who cared about Black struggle and diversity. 


What were some of the biggest differences between your time in college and your time at IMSA?

I think the biggest difference between IMSA and college is for some reason, you can pack so much into a single IMSA day. In the real world, you can’t do that. You have to commute to where you’re going. You have to study for longer. People say, “Oh, because you went to IMSA, college is easy.” You know different things than other people I would say. So what was I gonna say? Yeah, I think, you have less time to do the things you can go further in-depth in things in college.

And so now it’s interesting because I find myself gravitating towards research projects that have to do with the black experience or have to do with multiculturalism. So it actually directly relates to the PME experience, getting people in the medical professional space. You know, I, design neural technologies that are inclusive to people with course and curly hair, afro, dreadlocks, all of that. Because so many times black patients will go in to get their EEG done, a type of brain sensing, and the oils on their hair, the texture of their hair, all this doesn’t make sense to the medical professional and they’re like, “Well, I don’t know how to do this.”


Do you have any advice for current IMSA students?

Yeah. It’s what we were talking about before, how everyone’s trying to have the same resume and I remember there was a moment where, “Do you also have, National Honor Society?” I think the overachievers are doing too much of it. I think the under underachievers, they’re not really under achievers, but people who everyone stereotypes as underachieving. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Like. There were two or three people who did international studies after IMSA, who moved straight to Japan or straight to Ireland. It made sense because of the girl who moved to Japan said, “I do not care about it. All of this math and science stuff. I don’t care about any of this.” And she took all the Japanese classes, a Japanese Independent Study, a Japanese SIR, everything. And now she’s kicking butt in Japan, has Japanese like husband and everything.

So, do you. It’s gonna make you feel better. Some of us were like really intense about our music and art. I was doing the peer mentoring stuff. Our PME stuff. A lot of peer mentoring as well. Why would I do all of these things? Like everyone else wants to do when I have my own lane. That’s important. I think. Everyone doing the same summer activities. If you have to go home and babysit your siblings or you have to go home and work a normal job. Do it. You’re going to stand out on paper in a different way than all these other people by doing that and still taking advantage of all IMSA has to offer. So yeah. Just do your own thing.

About the Author

David Dickson
I am from a noble village in Illinois. You might not have heard of it, but it is called Chicago. I enjoy writing, listening to different types of music, computer games, and singing. Everywhere.

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