Jan 23, 2019
Salama Lumbasio finds ways to succeed as her plans continue to change
There’s something deeply special about Tennessee Wesleyan University that nearly every student and graduate feels.
It struck Salama (Christine) Lumbasio the second she stepped onto campus a few weeks after leaving her home in the east African country of Kenya.
“You know when you go somewhere new and it just feels right?” the 2013 TWU alumna asked. “That was Wesleyan for me, and I knew I didn’t need to look anywhere else. I knew that this was the place that would help me get to where I need to go.”
But even as a focused freshman, Lumbasio never envisioned that within five years of graduating from Tennessee Wesleyan she’d return to Africa not as a full-time resident but as a visiting pediatric professional.
It took drive, determination and overcoming unforeseen disappointments for Lumbasio to become the International Programs Coordinator for Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative.
“Bad things will happen, and sometimes you can’t connect the dots when you’re going through it,” she said. “Things are finally falling into place, and I think I can finally start to connect the dots.”
Lumbasio came to the United States with the ultimate goal of attending medical school and earning her medical degree. She wanted nothing less than to return to Africa and serve as a doctor.
But, as Lumbasio soon learned, “God has different plans for me.”
She grew up in a Kenyan village where her father served as its chief. Fluent in seven different languages—Swahili, French, English and four tribal languages—Lumbasio was committed to caring for children and saw the need for more doctors to improve the health of her country.
Diseases like polio, measles and AIDS are prevalent throughout African countries. Children are among the hardest hit, she said.
“There are doctors from the U.S. and other countries who come in to volunteer and temporarily help, but I’ve never heard of a country that was built on handouts,” Lumbasio said. “We are smart people, we just don’t have the resources readily available. What Africans need are the tools to survive when the volunteers leave.”
Lumbasio set her sights on going to the U.S. and getting a medical degree. It had to start with an undergraduate degree, and she thought she had things in order when she received a scholarship to play basketball at a small college in the state of Tennessee.
The full-ride offer seemed a little odd to Lumbasio, considering she never had played the game and “… didn’t even know how to spell ‘basketball.’”
But she stands at 6’ 3” and by height alone could be a dominant force on the court. This aspiration shattered shortly after her 28-hour flight from Kenya to Tennessee. The coach who recruited her had just accepted a job at another university.
All part of God’s plan, she reminded herself.
Lumbasio quickly scheduled visits to other colleges in the region. Upon her trip to TWU, she stopped looking and canceled all other appointments.
Embracing life as a Bulldog
TWU was it. She settled into her new life as a Bulldog, pursuing a major in biology and a minor in chemistry and, yes, standing tall on the court as a member of the women’s basketball team.
It didn’t take long for Jeff Rice, TWU women’s basketball coach, to know he found a gem in Lumbasio. While he didn’t look for her to lead the team in scoring, rebounds or assists, he knew she had what it took to lead by example.
“After meeting her, I knew she was a very driven student who just needed someone to give her a chance,” Rice said. “She was a special kind of a student-athlete who wasn’t going to take anything for granted and knew this was her one shot. Basketball was her vehicle to get to where she needed to go.”
Her dedication and drive extended way beyond the court as she touched the lives of so many others in the TWU community. Whether it was spending extra time in the organic chemistry classroom and lab or the 20 hours each week she spent working in the dining commons, Lumbasio impacted everyone she met.
This included Grant Willhite, TWU’s vice president for academic affairs who previously was one of Lumbasio’s biology professors. He said he saw she was a focused student the moment she set foot on campus.
“She was perhaps the only student I ever taught who logged time spent on each class to make sure that she was giving each adequate time,” Willhite said. “Salama was not handed her education in her home country. This experience kindled a fire in her to achieve her dream.”
Enduring another change in plans
Everything was going Lumbasio’s way. She spoke at her TWU commencement, graduated with honors, and received a scholarship to pursue her master’s degree in tropical medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She earned her graduate degree at Tulane and then moved to New Mexico to start medical school.
Not so fast.
A glitch in the medical school’s international student application process prevented Lumbasio and students from outside the U.S. to enroll at that time. That’s right. God’s plan.
She instantly canvassed the city, stopping in countless medical and pediatric clinics looking for a job or professional experience. What she found was a pediatrician who was impressed by what Lumbasio had to offer and who had completed a residency at Baylor University Medical Center in Texas.
Conversations led to conference calls with medical center administrators to talk about the job to potentially work with the center’s international pediatric AIDS initiative.
“Within five minutes of the conversation, they asked me, ‘When can you start?’” Lumbasio said. “I had to take a leap of faith. I knew somehow God has a plan in all of this.”
New international opportunity, of sorts
In the middle of all this, she earned a second master’s degree at Mississippi College.
Lumbasio started her international role on June 1, 2018, based at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. The job will involve traveling overseas 75 percent of the time to help improve the lives of vulnerable mothers and children.
Her first stop? Malawi, a country in east Africa near her home in Kenya. In her assignment, Lumbasio will serve as a diplomat and help the people of the country connect with the hospital and receive the service and care they need.
Lumbasio’s success comes as no surprise to TWU staff members like Scott Mashburn, TWU vice president for student life, who saw the amount of work she put into everything she did.
“I am not shocked by her success at all. During her time at Tennessee Wesleyan, she set goals and worked hard to achieve them,” he said. “She never saw obstacles as a deterrent. They were only opportunities for growth and learning.”
And she still is growing and learning. After she is finished serving in this international role, Lumbasio is expecting to attend medical school at Baylor and become a doctor.
At least, that’s her plan right now.