Two sisters from the same African nation winning Rhodes scholarships — what are the odds? For the Mohamed family of Zimbabwe, the lightning of international recognition has struck twice in less than a decade. In 2004, Shazrene Mohamed, then a Harvard astrophysics student, won the prestigious honor. And on Tuesday, the Rhodes Fund, which administers the scholarships, announced that Shazrene’s sister, Naseemah, had won a 2013 Rhodes Scholarship — the only “sister act” in the 109-year history of what may be the most renowned international graduate scholarship program in the world.
Naseemah, who at 23 is eight years younger than Shazrene, said she felt “humbled and grateful” as a Rhodes recipient, and thankful to big sister (now an astrophysicist at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, South Africa), with whom competition was apparently never an issue in childhood. “We were never rivals growing up, since we went to different primary schools,” Naseemah told The Root on Friday via email from Zimbabwe. “However, before being sponsored to attend high school in the U.S., I attended my sister’s ex-high school, where she was deputy head girl and a straight A-plus student, before attending Harvard University.
“Growing up, my sister was actually my role model. She knew she wanted to be an astronaut at the age of 12, and I distinctly remember her teaching me about the solar system when I was about 5 or 6. Shaz never, ever told me that I was too young to understand anything. She always explained everything to me (that was when I was willing to listen!).”
Born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Naseemah left that country in 2004 to attend Portsmouth Abbey High School, in Portsmouth, R.I. “Before attending Portsmouth High School, I was above average, but I was not focused enough to be at the top of my class,” she said. On the strength of her skills at reading poetry, she was picked to enter a debate competition in Zimbabwe.
Read more: Michael E. Ross, The Root