CNU Alumni Talk – Dr. Jonathan Backens

In February, the CNU Alumni Society hosted a presentation about what graduates have been up to since their school days. Electrical Engineering professor Dr. Jonathan Backens recently shared his experience in Africa and beyond.

Senior year of Dr. Jonathan Backens’s undergrad at CNU included an honors class called “Problems of the Modern World.” The class taught students how to apply their specific field to, you guessed it, problems in the modern world. As a computer science major, Dr. Backens wasn’t sure where to focus his research until he heard about the development challenges in Africa. He ended up writing his final paper on the creation of technology training schools in Sub-Saharan Africa. During the composition of the paper, Dr. Backens noticed that it pretty much wrote itself. He found himself wondering, “Is this something I could do?” Before he knew it, he was researching ways to get to Africa and enter into the field he’d written his paper about. A friend of a friend contacted him recommending an elementary school in Botswana that is always looking for temporary volunteers to teach English. After two emails back and forth, Dr. Backens registered for the program. He spent a year at the Tlokweng Dayspring School in Botswana teaching English to kids.

Soon afterward, he got in contact with a development group in Zambia called Macha Works, which connected rural hospitals with modern technologies such as Internet. Dr. Backens spent three and a half years in Zambia, working to create training schools for first generation computer users. Through the schools, more than one hundred native Zambians were able to gain the skills necessary to obtain better-paying jobs. Going from agricultural work, making only a few dollars a day, to working in hospitals and cities made a significant impact on the community.

Dr. Backens returned to the U.S. to go to graduate school. He reported feeling a better appreciation for education in America and the easy access we have as U.S. citizens.

Through his experiences, Dr. Backens said he learned about the impact of education, especially how it can open doors and lead to new experiences. His work in Africa was more or less brought about by a paper he had written during his undergrad.

I asked Dr. Backens about the challenges that face most undergrad students when thinking about their future career. He said that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you can accomplish real things. Undergrad classes are often focused on getting a good grade, and the students may not always take themselves seriously, which is a major obstacle to their view of what they can accomplish.

There’s a lot of pressure to go to college and get a job, Dr. Backens says, but not enough emphasis is put on making a meaningful impact on the world around you. What will make you most successful is having the courage to pursue that meaningful impact you can contribute.

Dr. Backens’s presentation received a lot of positive feedback who attended. Junior, Allison Kuntz said, “I went to the talk not expecting much.  I knew who Dr. Backens was but not anything about him.  By the time I left, I was in awe. The work he described and the path he used to get there was amazing. Simply headed to Africa on a dream with little plan is something I would be to afraid to do. I left with a new level of respect for this professor I had never met.”

“Dr. Backens’s talk was intensely inspiring, ” said Scott Bolar, Freshman. “His journey proved astounding at what can be accomplished with such little experience and in such a little amount of time. The anecdotes Dr. Backens told of the African bush were very interesting and even quite humorous at times. He emphasized the differences in culture and how we should seek to understand other cultures, embracing our differences, not rejecting them. The talk taught me a lot about how motivation and ambition can truly drive success, and with hard work is one of the few key paths to achievement.”

Finally, Brook Byrd, Sophomore, said, “Dr. Backens reminded me what it means to be a captain. He was the best speaker I have seen at CNU, and we didn’t even bring him in. He’s a professor here, I professor I have had. My mind was blown.”


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