Manas Bapela applies a mind for math to life in the new South AfricaIn the span of a day last December, Manas Bapela '93 spent seventeen hours in a plane and eight hours in an automobile as he traveled from his home in Pretoria, South Africa, to his home-away-from-home at Kenyon.
"When I arrived here, it felt like a dream to see all this again," he said in his quiet, plain-spoken way. "I didn't think it was possible to come back to the College. When I walk around here, I shed tears. Going through Kenyon made everything possible for me. It was the basis for what I am and what I am doing now."
Bapela was back in Ohio to present a paper during a professional conference at Kent State University. The conference drew leading mathematicians from around the world. Bapela's paper, "Every Banach algebra has the spectral radius property," explained the theoretical underpinnings of his work in solving an open mathematical question while completing a master's degree at the University of Pretoria. It represented the high point of the remarkable progress Bapela has made as a mathematician since enrolling at the College in 1989 and graduating four years later.
Today, he is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria, working to earn a doctorate in mathematics from that institution. His classes include members of a first generation of black students who are able to stay in their home country to receive a first-class education. Bapela, who grew up while South Africa's apartheid system was still in place, did not have that opportunity after graduating from a high school and a teachers college in the late 1980s. His chance for a better life was to come halfway around the world, to Kenyon.
Bapela was one of a small group of black South Africans who were brought to the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Institute of International Education (IIE). A bright student with a long-standing interest in mathematics, he was placed at Kenyon, which supplemented the IIE's scholarship support.
"He made the absolute best of what was offered at Kenyon," remembers Jane Wemhoener, who was the College's director of off-campus studies during Bapela's time at Kenyon. She and her husband, Charles Howe, were Bapela's host family, and they remain close friends with him.
"Manas made good friends here, knew the faculty well, kept up with his classes, and be-came one of the campus's most proficient people with computers even though he had never worked with them before," says Wemhoener, who now serves as director of international programs at Radford University. "In eleven years, I met some extraordinary people at Kenyon and some of the finest students. Manas certainly was one of the best. It was a privilege to know him and share some of his life."
Bapela sampled many aspects of campus life, cofounding the International Students' Association at Kenyon and getting involved in the Black Student Union, Gambier Folklore Society, and Mathematics Club. His academic accomplishments included being awarded a Summer Science Scholarship, winning induction into the scientific research society Sigma Xi, and earning the Daniel T. Finkbeiner II Memorial Scholar Award.
Associate Professor of Mathematics Carol S. Schumacher fondly remembers Bapela's choice of a senior exercise in math: proof of a fundamental theorem of algebra that states every polynomial has its root in a complex number. "Back in high school, Manas had asked his algebra teacher, 'How do you know this,' about the theorem," recalls Schumacher. "His teacher told him he would understand it as he progressed in school. At Kenyon, Manas said, 'Now, I really want to find out.' I was a mathematical question he had formulated at a young age, and it really was meaningful to him."
With encouragement from that high-school math teacher, Bapela began to see the beauty of mathematics. "I like the fact that I can work on problems being almost anywhere," he says. "I could be engaged in an interview and yet be thinking about some nice math problem. One doesn't need sophisticated equipment or to be at a particular place to do mathematics."
There was nothing sophisticated about the impoverished South African high school that hired Bapela after he graduated from Kenyon. He taught remedial math to twelfth graders. "You build up their attitude and make them finish their education," says Bapela. "Unfortunately, conditions were quite terrible there."
Some of those students learned their lessons well enough to gain entry to the University of Pretoria, and some have enrolled in a first-year calculus class led by their former teacher. Bapela notes that his acceptance by the university was aided by a serendipitous Kenyon connection. It seems that members of the math faculty at Pretoria were familiar with the scholarly work of a former Kenyon math professor, Otton Nikodym. "That gave me a start," says Bapela.
Wemhoener calls her friend a "symbol of change" in South Africa, a country whose dark history has been brightened by the democratic reforms of recent years. For Bapela and his countrymen, this is a time of great hope.
"For the first time, all South Africans have a constitution that we can be proud of," he says. "The young folks are really hopeful, and their hopes are not empty hopes. There is concrete evidence of dreams being realized."
Manas Bapela is living proof of that.
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