For MATC President’s Award Winner, Going Away Means Helping at Home

Associate of Science degree graduate plans to eventually return to his native Africa

Mark Feldmann,

May 15, 2024

Sou Sawadogo

When I go back home and tell my family about what I have done, I get to see my parents smile.

Soumaila Sawadogo Burkina Faso native and MATC President's Award Winner, Spring 2024

Soumaila Sawadogo grew up in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa on the doorstep of the scorching Sahara. 

For decades the nation has been plagued by both human-made and natural disasters including destitution, instability, corruption, droughts and famines. More than 40% of the population lives in poverty. Less than 5% of rural residents have access to electricity or water. In a 2023 United Nations report measuring life expectancy, education and income, the country ranked 184th out of 191 countries.

Sawadogo left in 2022 to earn a college education in the United States. He enrolled at Milwaukee Area Technical College and will receive an Associate of Science degree on May 19 during the college’s Spring 2024 Commencement. He will start classes at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in the fall and plans to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

But Sawadago has no plans to forsake his homeland. Instead, he intends to return there as fast as possible and help expand and extend the nation’s infrastructure systems.

“At MATC, I’m learning from the best,” he said. “I want to take all that knowledge, go back and bring it to the people who need it.”  

For his selfless commitment to his country, his academic achievement and his community involvement, Sawadogo received the President’s Award, a collegewide recognition given to one graduating student each semester.

“Soumaila embodies the qualities that the President’s Award seeks to recognize,” said Michael Berkley, coordinator of the college’s Men of Color Initiative, in which Sawadogo was very involved. “He represents the best of MATC.”

In Burkina Faso, Sawadogo always was one of the best. As a boy, he wanted to study abroad, either in England or the United States. “To do that, I had to be among the very top students in my class,” he said.

Starting in elementary school, he was one of the top three students in every grade. Mathematics, physics and chemistry came easy to him; in high school, he gathered other academically advanced students and tutored classmates.

The experience enhanced his own academic prowess, improved his leadership skills and deepened his empathy. “I wanted to help all students, not just the best students,” he said. “No matter how good we are, we can all improve.”

He extended the tutoring to community services and led classmates to  volunteer at food pantries and clean public roads and hospitals. “This taught me the importance of giving back to the community and being actively involved in making a positive impact,” he said. 

In 2020, Sawadogo received a scholarship from Wisconsin-based Leading Change Africa, a foundation dedicated to making secondary education accessible to young Africans. He spent a year honing his English and another year waiting for legal documents and visas to allow him to study in the United States. 

In April 2022, he arrived in Madison along with several other African students. He started classes at MATC in the fall of 2022.

He lived in an apartment with two roommates, also from Africa, navigated the city by bus, volunteered at the MATC Food Pantry and at Discovery World. In the spring of 2023, he joined MATC’s Men of Color Initiative and became a student ambassador for Student Life. 

“He has made a positive impact on the college and the community,” said MATC President Vicki J. Martin, Ph.D. “We are very excited to see what he can achieve next.”

Sawadogo also worked as a math tutor for two semesters, helped establish an MATC chapter of the International Society of Automation (ISA), and participated on the college’s robotics team, which finished third in a recent competition.

“Sou has a great personality that makes him easy to work with,” said MATC electronic technology instructor Tom Heraly, who helped Sawadogo establish the ISA student group. “He interfaces well with the other students and is able to bridge the gap where there may be communications issues due to language differences between students. He’s a great representative of the inclusivity of MATC.”

Sawadogo also credited physics instructor Yong Xue and mathematics instructor Thomas P. Geil for their patience, guidance and assistance.

“I received all the support I ever needed at MATC,” he said. “My English isn’t the best, but I visited the STEM Education Center and found the help I was looking for.”

He also found help relaxing at Fiserv Forum, adjacent to MATC’s Downtown Milwaukee Campus. “When I first came to Wisconsin, I was happy about going to Milwaukee because I am a big fan of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team,” he said. “When I get stressed out about classes, I go see the Bucks.”

He will get to see the Bucks for several more years as he works on his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at MSOE. Then, armed with his newfound knowledge, he’ll return to Burkina Faso and help the country where his father farms, his mother sells merchandise at a neighborhood market, and his many siblings either work or attend school.

“When I go back home and tell my family about what I have done, I get to see my parents smile,” Sawadogo said. “I always want to make them happy and proud. That has motivated me over here.”

Learn about MATC’s Associate of Science degree program

About MATC:
Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 30,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 180 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.