Alumni Spotlight: From Africa to Yale

When Esther Soma was struggling with the essay portion of her Yale application, she knew where to turn for help. At the time, she was a student of the Academy. She sent her first draft to Chris Bradford (a member of Yale’s graduating class of 2000), our co-founder and chief executive officer. Bradford urged her to rewrite the essay. He discussed the next draft with her line-by-line over the phone only hours before the application deadline. In the end, Esther completed her essay and was accepted into the Yale College Class of 2016.

“He really came through,” she said. “I was moved by how much he was invested in helping me.”

esther soma

Bradford attended the graduation ceremony on May 23 when Esther, a citizen of South Sudan raised in Kenya, graduated from Yale alongside fellow ALA alumna Kenza Bouhaj, who is from Morocco.

“It’s really exciting for me to see people like Esther and Kenza come to Yale and have so much success,” he said. “It’s especially exciting for me as I’ve had a similar experience as a Yale graduate.”

African Leadership Academy seeks to identify the most promising young people on the continent, who are on a trajectory, and need little support and an opportunity to go on to have a real transformative impact.

Kenza, a double major in economics and mathematics and global affairs, said ALA provided her with the tools she needed to succeed at Yale.

“ALA prepared me academically, but more importantly, because it stresses leadership, self-reflection, and self-motivation, ALA allowed me to transition to Yale easily,” she said.  “We were encouraged to think about our personal growth and how to achieve our goals and how to seek out resources to help us do that.”

Esther, who majored in global affairs, said ALA provided a “wonderful bridge” between her high school in Kenya and Yale. “I loved ALA,” she said. “I feel I can go to any African country and have a friend there.”


Kenza and Esther took advantage of the unique opportunities that Yale provides undergraduates. Kenza, spent the summer following her sophomore year in Washington, D.C., working at Results for Development, a think tank devoted to reducing poverty and improving living standards in low- and middle-income nations. She also assisted Christopher Udry, the Henry Heinz II Professor of Economics at Yale, on his research to estimate the impact of crop insurance in Ghana.

Esther travelled to Nepal, Jordan, and Chile during the spring semester of her sophomore year to study human rights issues. Both Kenza and Esther were undergraduate liaisons to the Yale World Fellows Program.

Both said ALA contained a strong Yale element. The school’s faculty included several Yale graduates. Kenza, who grew up speaking French, required English lessons when she started at ALA. One of her English teachers was a recent Yale graduate. Eleven ALA graduates have gained admission to Yale over the past decade. Last year, ALA alum Arkanjelo Paul Lorem, a native of South Sudan, was a member of Yale’s 2015 graduating class.

“Yale graduates have been immensely supportive of our work as board members, as colleagues, and as funders,” Bradford said. “Members of the university, both faculty and students, have been great because we have been able to reach out to them for support and ideas.”

Bradford said his experience at Yale and Stanford University, where he earned an MBA and a master’s degree in education, convinced him of the critical role that educational institutions play in shaping societies.

ALA is built with the idea that the institution identifies young leaders, and more importantly, develops a network of leaders who would work together throughout their lives to create lasting peace and shared prosperity and allow the students to shape the continent in which they want to live and work. “I think of ALA as not only a two-year intellectual and leadership development experience but also as the hub for a lifetime of learning and connections.”

The experiences of Esther and Kenza at Yale reflect the Academy’s emphasis on building and maintaining connections. Kenza built close relationships with a couple of host families in the area that she met through ALA. “They’ve become my family,” she said.

While at ALA, Esther served as chairwoman of the student government. She and Bradford have stayed in touch throughout her four years at Yale. Both were freshman counselors at Jonathan Edwards College.

“It means the world to me,” she said of having her family attend commencement. “It is the fulfillment of a dream, and Yale has made it happen in a lot of ways.”

Esther won the Edgar Boell Prize, which is awarded annually to a senior in Jonathan Edwards College for contributions to the college’s community. She is yet to decide on her next step, but is searching for opportunities in the United States and South Sudan.

Kenza, graduated with distinction in both of her majors. She will return to her hometown, Fez, which is Morocco’s second-largest city, before moving to New York City to take a position with McKinsey & Company consulting firm. While she has not set any long-term plans, she said, she would like to return to Morocco and dreams of one day running a school or university in that region.

Bradford had this to say on the qualities that make Kenza and Esther strong leaders: “They both possess optimism,” he said. “They relentlessly believe that they can create a bright future regardless of what is in front of them.  Another quality is their willingness is to work hard. A third is an ability to connect with people from all different cultures. When you combine those with their natural intelligence, they’ve just been immensely successful.”

Source: Yale website, 

Related Articles

Alumni Return to Mentor and Inspire the Next Generation of African...

In ALA 2023, ALA's current strategic plan, we outlined that we hoped to 'alumnify the core,' bringing alumni back to ALA to work and...

Alumna Linda Dounia Rebeiz ’10 (Senegal) Earns Coveted Spot on TIME’s...

Linda Dounia Rebeiz ’10 (Senegal) is a passionate artist who is committed to championing diversity in the rapidly evolving field of AI. Linda’s work...

AL for Governance Launches Umholi we Africa Public Leadership Fellowship 

At ALA, we believe in the power of organized and purposeful communities to harness the power of connections to achieve greater impact in their work....

Empowering African Changemakers: ALA Showcases Sustainable Solutions at the Skoll World...

ALA's recent participation in the Skoll World Forum at the University of Oxford provided an invaluable platform to discuss the current challenges and the...