How computer science became a slam dunk for UPEI international student

·4 min read
Essayas Kassa, a computer science student in his final year at the University of Prince Edward Island, says he struggled early on during his studies. His GPA is now above 4. (Thinh Nguyen/CBC - image credit)
Essayas Kassa, a computer science student in his final year at the University of Prince Edward Island, says he struggled early on during his studies. His GPA is now above 4. (Thinh Nguyen/CBC - image credit)

UPEI student Essayas Kassa can't forget the moment his dream of playing in the NBA shattered.

It was October 2017 and the then-17-year-old was in his second year playing for Ethiopia's national under-19 basketball team.

He was warming up for what was supposed to be just another game in his hometown of Addis Ababa. He was doing "suicide" running drills — sprinting repeatedly from one point to another, back and forth — as part of the warmup routine.

He was fast and practiced for hours after school. He hoped to go to the United States, play college basketball and be scouted for the NBA.

As he was sprinting, he glanced around. His friends from school, his teachers and his fans were in the bleachers, cheering for him.

Suddenly, his left leg didn't raise and he fell face first. He felt something snap in his thigh.

Submitted by Essayas Kassa
Submitted by Essayas Kassa

His teammates carried him out and off he went to the hospital. He said he didn't feel much pain, perhaps because of the adrenaline flowing through his body. Maybe it was just a cramp or some minor injury, he thought.

In the hospital room, the doctor came back with the result of his X-ray.

"I don't think there's a future for you in basketball," the doctor said.

Went into depression

Kassa tore his hamstring so severely that a full recovery wasn't possible.

"It was one of those points where I just felt blank," he said. "Like, I didn't have a purpose anymore."

He went into a depression. Basketball was his life.

One day he sat down with his parents, who advised him to look into other options because he was a high school senior and had to make a decision. He wasn't enthusiastic about computer science and wasn't even that good at math, but he couldn't imagine himself studying anything else, like business or economics.

He wanted to choose an affordable university to attend in North America. UPEI stood out.

Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC

Kassa arrived in P.E.I. in the fall of 2018. He struggled a lot during the first semester. There were concepts he didn't understand because, he admits, he hadn't paid much attention in high school.

He was disappointed when he checked his GPA at the end of the first semester: 3.2. It should've been better than that, he thought. Then his competitive instincts, honed from basketball, kicked in.

I took that motivation, that mentality I had in basketball, where you have to work hard to be able to shoot, to be able to make a layup, which is the same in programming. — Essayas Kassa

"I took that motivation, that mentality I had in basketball, where you have to work hard to be able to shoot, to be able to make a layup, which is the same in programming," he said.

"You have to be able to practise and code stuff to be able to understand how everything works."

Kassa started asking his professors for extra work. He spent more time in the library.

His GPA went up to 4.0 by the end of the second semester. Now, with a 4.2 GPA, he has been recruited to work on a number of tech-related projects.

One of those projects is the Smart Agriculture Application, which is in its prototype phase. The web-based platform provides live weather data from more than 60 weather stations across P.E.I. It can also help Island farmers calculate water requirements for wheat and potato crops.

Kassa was recruited by the head of the project, Aitazaz Farooque, an associate professor of UPEI's School of Climate Change and Adaptation. Kassa is the main software developer for the project.

He has also worked on a translation tool called NuChat, a new feature of Nu Wel Com, an app that provides information to help newcomers adjust to life on P.E.I.

Thinh Nguyen/CBC
Thinh Nguyen/CBC

NuChat facilitates communication between people who speak different languages. It works by typing a message in one language, such as English, which is instantly translated to the recipient's preferred language, like Arabic.

The tool is helping people interact and build a sense of community on P.E.I., Kassa said.

"I'm very happy because the work that I put in in that first year is paying off, so I'm able to impact lives," he said.

Making a difference

While his pro basketball dreams never came true, he still enjoys shooting hoops with friends recreationally, and supporting the UPEI teams.

And he's proud to be among many international students making a difference in the province.

"International students are bringing different perspectives and trying to better the P.E.I. economy, technologically, everything," he said.

"They are putting out their talents, they're putting out their time, their efforts to make P.E.I. a better place. And this is really amazing to see."

"If you came to me, like, 11 months ago and you told me that I'll be in this position, I would have never believed you," he said.For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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CBC
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