Power Kanga was an athlete. Raised by his uncle in Providence, after immigrating to the United States from Liberia with his sister at the age of 7, he played football, basketball, baseball and ran track. But it was football that he loved.
Sports brought him to Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick - sports and the opportunity it offered to help him further his education. His goal was to be challenged, both academically and athletically, to improve himself and to go to college. A high school football standout, Kanga attended camps at the University of Massachusetts, the University of Rhode Island, Boston College and Syracuse University, but when the offer came to attend URI on an athletic scholarship, he accepted on the spot. It would lead him to discover more about himself than just his athletic ability.
“I wanted to stick close to home and stay close to my sister. One of the last things my mom said to me before we left Liberia was ‘You’re the man of the family now, you need to protect your sister,’” said Kanga, who graduates in May with a degree in industrial and systems engineering. “I also saw it as an opportunity to get me closer to where I wanted to be – sports was one way to get there. But, I was really excited to be going to college.”
He lived on campus his first year as a Talent Development scholar, playing football and deciding which branch of engineering he would choose to major in, when a shoulder injury ended his football career. It was hard to take for the young man who had loved sports his entire life.
“I tried to transition to track, but it just wasn’t doable because of my injury,” Kanga said. “Getting out of the blocks was very painful and I wasn’t 100 percent. It wasn’t a matter of me just working harder – which really hurt my love of the sport.”
Absent a football career, he joined the National Guard his sophomore year to test himself. From there, URI’s Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was an easy jump.
“Although I see myself as a soldier, I look forward to challenging myself – to learning more, and to having more responsibility and accountability as an officer,” he said.
Without sports and now singularly focused on graduating, Kanga dove head-first into academics, taking more than the recommended course load. His grades suffered.
“My first terrible grade really hit me hard. I didn’t know how to take it,” he said. But talking with his Talent Development advisor, who encouraged him to stick with it, helped. He also began to understand that he didn’t need to go through it alone – that his professors were there to help.
“I never went to any of my professors to talk to them – even if I was struggling. I was ashamed to need help and I just thought in a college environment, there are so many students, that professors wouldn’t have the time,” said Kanga. “But after I got hurt, a number of them reached out to me to see how I was doing. That was kind of a turning point. I began to understand that’s not only what they are there for, they actually enjoy it and they appreciate you making the effort.”
He began commuting his junior year and switched his major from mechanical engineering to industrial and systems engineering, partially because it fit in with his commitment to the military and partially because of its versatility later on down the road. Professor Manbir Sodhi, among others in the department, made an impression on him. In particular, Sodhi, who had given Kanga one of his lowest grades early on, instilled the importance of understanding the material over letter grades.
“He taught me a lesson – if grades are your only motivation, you are not going to make it as an engineer,” said Kanga. “He is tough – but what he’s teaching you is not just a class, this is going to be your career, your life. You need to learn to think and solve problems.”
For Kanga, the professor that was the toughest, the one that had given him his worst grade, made the biggest impression. He even traveled to India to study global sustainability with Sodhi’s group over J-Term. “It was one of the greatest experiences,” he said. “Something I never thought I’d have the chance to do.”
Now, as a senior, everything is coming together. In addition to receiving his diploma, Kanga will be commissioned this month as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves and is awaiting his Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) date to attend officer training at Fort Lee.
Eventually, his goal is to settle back in the Ocean State and start his own business to help other Rhode Island athletes, to give them a leg up in terms of facilities and training and give them a reason to stay in state. “What I really want to do is give back,” he said.
Would he do anything differently if he had to do it all over again? “Other than making that play that got me hurt, I think I would be more open. If I had known how professors are there for you, it could have alleviated some of the bumps I experienced along the way. But I would definitely still choose URI. My experience here was amazing. I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Photos courtesy Power Kanga