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Discovering a Passion for Fixing Broken Systems

The eldest of three children born to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Zimbabwe, Bernice Meja lived in Durham until age six when her parents moved to Canada for new opportunities. She was a determined and involved student.

“I just love to learn. I was very much a nerd—the typical child of African parents who pushed education. They always told me the value of it and how it gives me access to anything I want. I always had that mindset of, if I try hard enough, I do all my studies, I can achieve anything,” said Bernice.

When it came time to choose a college, Bernice was drawn back to the place of her birth. She was interested in becoming a doctor and was thrilled to be accepted at Duke.

After her first semester, she realized her heart wasn’t in medicine. She chose to dual major in physics and philosophy.

“Duke was a humbling experience. The high school I attended didn’t have IB or AP classes. So, diving into physics and Duke math….and just navigating being a first-generation student –it was a whirlwind.”

She joined the Eno River Rugby Team and met a doctoral student who invited her to become a lab assistant. She sought mentors and asked people she met about their academic paths.

“That person really helped me grow in my confidence, inspired me to seek help, and believed in my skills as a scientist and a researcher. I started seeking mentorship. I really value talking to other people and hearing about their experiences and how they navigate academia.”

As her senior year approached, she began considering PhD programs. She loved the structure of work in the sciences but wasn’t sure what her path would be. She was starting to consider taking a gap year and returning to Canada when she noticed ads about becoming a college advisor for high school students. She applied for and was accepted to a program where she spent two years working in a rural North Carolina high school and helping students learn about and apply for college.

“It gave so much insight into social issues and systems that are in place that don’t work for people that are immigrants, that are underrepresented,” said Bernice.

The realization that information can be hard to find and navigate, and the impact that can have on people’s lives, sparked an interest in how information is presented. Bernice discovered a passion for fixing broken systems.

She started to look at data science programs, but then discovered information science and realized it was a better fit. After looking at schools in the U.S. and Canada, Bernice chose UNC. The M.S. in Information Science program is highly ranked and flexible, and she was interested in the specializations offered.

Bernice has continued her path of academic success at UNC. She is an American Library Association Spectrum Scholar. She is an Equity Fellow, mentoring first-generation freshmen students at UNC. She received the Julia Blixrud Scholarship from the Association of Research Libraries. She is also a graduate assistant in the Kenan Science Library Makerspace, where she has discovered the fun of tinkering and making.

Bernice has sought out Student Services Director Lori Haight for career advice and guidance. Haight encouraged her to talk to faculty with experience in human-computer interaction and user experience. Those faculty members encouraged her to attend the Triangle UXPA UX Y’all conference, which she describes as a transformational experience. She networked with professionals in a variety of roles and was inspired by a project designer from WillowTree. This summer, she’ll be an intern at that company.

That’s how things work, Bernice has discovered. When you ask for help or information, people respond.

“Network. Reach out to people. Just reach out. Never be afraid. Out of the 50+ people that I reached out to, there might have been one person who didn’t want to talk. Everyone has been so open and nice and kind and resourceful.”


Watch Bernice Share Her Story at the 2024 Dean’s Luncheon


Related Programs: Master of Science in Information Science (MSIS)