Chilungamo M’manga has always had an affinity for listening and giving advice to her peers. Little did she know that her passion for helping others would one day lead her to UCLA while making a lasting impact on her country and a generation of women.
The youngest of 11, M’manga grew up in a small village in the southeast African nation of Malawi. She and her family lived with no running water or electricity. Simply getting to school each day was a struggle. But while the obstacles were many, M’manga says her parents always knew the transformative power education could have on their children. At 9-years-old, she was sent to the city to live with her sister. By 12, she had entered boarding school – a move that would forever change the trajectory of her life.
While her new school provided access to far more resources and experiences, it fell short in giving students an outlet to express themselves and get help. School psychologists were, and are still, not common in Malawi, so, to fill the void, M’manga would act as a makeshift counselor, listening to her friends and providing advice when they were struggling.
She would eventually learn about the field of psychology and remain steadfast in her pursuit of a degree.
“I really just wanted to help people,” M’manga said. “I initially thought that perhaps I wanted to pursue a law degree or social work, but the more I learned about psychology, the more I fell in love with it.”
After high school, M’manga was accepted into a prestigious Malawi university. She graduated at the top of her class with a degree in psychology, she would end up returning to her university to teach and later pursued a graduate degree in China. It was during this time that she realized a tremendous need for mentorship opportunities for young women in Malawi. She started a campus organization that would end up expanding into a non-profit in high schools and universities across the country.
“I always saw myself in the girls I was working with. At different points in my life, I needed direction and guidance from someone, but I never had access, so I wanted to change this for future generations,” M’manga said. “We really started this as a way to inspire and encourage young girls. I never could have imagined how much it would grow and the doors it would open.”
Throughout the pandemic, Mentor-to-Mentor held regular virtual meetings, counseling, and information sessions. At its height, the organization had more than 1,000 girls participating throughout the country.
At the same time, M’manga became a fixture on Malawi television – using the platform to inform and educate an entire country about the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic was having on mental health. Eventually, she was approached by the country’s ministry of Health to assist in developing the National Mental Health Prevention Strategy, among other initiatives.
Each of these experiences would end up propelling M’manga to apply and be selected for a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. Hosted at the UCLA School of Nursing, under the mentorship of Professor and Associate Dean for Research Dr. Holli DeVon, a Fulbright Fellow alumna; M’manga’s Fulbright is designed to provide her training in the development of a psychology curriculum.
While she was initially unsure about being paired with a school of nursing, her concerns quickly vanished as she connected with faculty members and researchers in Nursing and across UCLA. She’s been able to attend webinars, build relationships, and learn from experts in various fields. M’manga says the entire School, from the Dean to all the faculty members, made her feel at home at UCLA.
“This has been a tremendous opportunity for me. So many world-class professors and researchers have reached out to me to offer their expertise,” she said. “UCLA has been a huge resource for me. From the nursing school to the psychology department, I’ve been able to learn so much about pedagogy and course delivery, as well as build strong relationships that I know will help me and my efforts for years to come.”
M'manga’s Fulbright program concludes at the end of April. She plans to return to Malawi and her faculty position while continuing to grow Mentor-to-Mentor’s reach in her country and, hopefully, across Africa – an effort that is making a difference in the lives of thousands of girls and young people.