For her first two years in high school, Middleton senior Epiphania Malaika Maka was “just extremely quiet and just solid in the classroom,” says Percy Brown, who was Dean of Students at the time. But then she went with the Black Student Union on a spring break trip to New York and Maka — whose first name means epiphany — had one of her own.
On the last night of the trip, Brown led the 45 students who attended a discussion on everything they learned during their week in the Big Apple, and Maka made an impression.
“She started speaking, and she started speaking forcefully about how this experience changed her life and change her perception about being black,” says Brown, who is now Director of Equity and Student Achievement for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. “She spoke forcefully. She was in tears.”
And after that, Brown says, Maka transformed into a student leader. She got more involved in BSU, started organizing study sessions, developed an action plan to address achievement gap and directed a video about microagressions.
That leadership, along with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and volunteer experience at Goodman Community Center and American Family Children’s Hospital, earned Maka a spot at 15 colleges and universities, including four in the Ivy League: Harvard, Cornell, Princeton and Brown — which has also already guaranteed her a spot in medical school though its eight-year program in liberal medical education.
Maka has also been accepted and offered scholarships at Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Emory, USC, Tufts, UNC-Chapel Hill, Macalester College, University of Miami, University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota, most in honors programs.
“I’m very excited,” Maka says. “I’m interested in being an OB-GYN and then global health and public health and working in international communities,” either in her mother’s native Tanzania, elsewhere in Africa or in Latin America.
“I’ve always had international aunts and uncles, family friends,” Maka says. “Having those perspectives in my life kind of made me want to work with underrepresented communities in a sense and other people who are of diverse communities. I started volunteering at Goodman Community Center and that’s when I realized how much I enjoy working with underrepresented communities, because at Goodman Community Center it’s socioeconomically disadvantaged, a diverse population. So, just being a voice for underrepresented communities is where that came from. And global health embodies everything.”
Maka says she’s known since the age of 12 that she wanted to be a doctor, but her mother, Anina Mbilinya, remembers it starting a bit earlier.
“She kind of told me when she was eight,” Mbilinya says. “I remember arguing with her. I always told her she was too young to make such decisions. I didn’t want her to have pressure.”
By the time she was 12, Mbilinya remembers, Maka had narrowed it down from doctor to surgeon — and added Ivy League aspirations.
“This is when she started to scare me,” Mbilinya says. “She said I’m going to be a surgeon and I’m going to go to Columbia University.” (Ultimately, Maka didn’t even apply to Columbia. “I talked her out of New York,” her mother laughs.)
Mbilinya, an architect at Flad and Associates in Madison, says she wanted to encourage her daughter without pressuring her.
“I just open the door,” she says. “I knew she had the drive to work hard. I knew a little about Ivy League. I kind of guided her to do stuff that would lead to that without her really knowing it. I wanted her to have a balanced life. I didn’t want her to be pressured.”
Even today, Mbilinya says she doesn’t want her daughter to feel her path is set in stone.
“I tell her after today, you can still change your mind,” Mbilinya says. “That’s what college is about. Explore. I still believe in that.”
Maka herself has similar advice for today’s 12-year-old aspiring physicians: “Definitely pursue your dream and I think starting early and not pushing yourself too hard where you burn out or you lose interest in what you’re doing. Just follow your passions and see where it takes you. And even if you change your mind, that’s fine, but as long as you’re sticking to what you love and what you’re enjoying, especially since some of the things do require a lot of work and you just love it you don’t even realize it, then definitely pursue that.”
Maka says the application process took many months, as she acted on advice she got at a tour of Stanford: “Everyone has the qualifications, but your essay is what makes you stand out,” she was told. “So I started my essays in August and did not finish until right before December. And so I want to thank the teachers who were with me along the way, especially when I was redoing my entire essay, especially my guidance counselor Ms. Marcella Smith. I think that with their help, especially my mom, too, guiding me since I was young to really establish that work ethic and help me go along the right path once I told her I am interested in attending Ivy League schools without me even knowing it as well. So just thanking everyone who’s been involved in making me be the student that I am today and the person that I am today.”
(Ironically, Stanford was the one school that put her on a waiting list. Seriously, what’s up, Stanford?)
Maka, who also played two years of varsity soccer for Middleton and club soccer for Wisconsin Rush, says she thinks she’s narrowed her choices down to Harvard; Duke, because it’s offering the best financial package; and Brown, because the eight-year medical program is “an undeniable advantage,” she says.
Soccer will stay at the intramural level in college, she says with a laugh.
Wherever she lands, she’ll be missed in Middleton.
“Words can’t describe the impact that she’s had on the high school,” says Brown. “All I can say is be on the lookout. You’ll see her name somewhere. She can play a role in changing the world. I’ve been in education for 13 years. I’ve worked with hundreds of black students. Probably thousands. I’ve come across some really amazing kids. She is definitely at the top of the list. I’m just glad I had the opportunity to connect and work with her before she graduated. Wherever she goes, I just hope that they have the space to allow her to develop that skill set. If there is that space, she’ll be an asset to that university.”