How I Went From a Failed Math Student to a Civil Engineer

Between where you are and where you want to be is nothing but work.

James Ssekamatte
Jan 27 · 11 min read
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Image for post
Me at a site in Vellore, India(2017)

The photo above was taken in my 3rd year as a civil engineering undergrad and 6 years after the day I had been expelled from the seminary for poor grades.

In 2011, I was in the seminary struggling with a choice on whether to become a priest or continue with my passion for physics, chemistry, and math and become an engineer, and the choice was made in November of 2011 which wasn’t easy at all but I am grateful that I did.

After leaving the seminary with my poor grades in math and against advice from my academic advisors who told me that my IQ was not good enough for STEM, I decided to keep going with what my being felt passionate about.

Almost a decade later, I am nowhere as a civil engineer but there are so many lessons that I have learned along the way and I hope that some of those that I share with you may truly benefit you in your own endeavors.

If you align your passion with your words and actions, you will never be disappointed.

I honestly have to start with passion because, in my experience, it has always served as my guiding light.

Most people look to external sources to tell them what they are good at or what they should do and they numb out their own internal guidance system.

This is what I did from 2007 to 2011 and it led me to the biggest disappointments to myself and those that cared about me.

Once I started listening to my internal guidance system, I started going places.

The school I was admitted to after leaving the seminary is one of the top 10 schools in the country and people thought that it was only a miracle that got me in. I went on to perform well there so much so that I was able to get admission to study engineering in one of the top 20 engineering colleges in India. — Vellore Institute of Technology.

As I am now in the process of applying for an MS. in structural engineering in the U.S, I am not here to tell you how great my life has been but only to make you aware of the internal guidance system that each of us has. — passion.

In many cases, if you are not faced with challenges, it is not easy to know what your passions are. Often during the hard times or during times that you need to make a decision, that is when you will feel the most input from your inner guidance.

This may be intuition, interest, logic, I just call everything passion.

What you care about most.

Following what you care about most is often feared by many people but it is the only guiding principle that you should rely on in making your life decisions.

Most people don’t and that is why there are so many people of various ages who keep asking themselves questions like, “What am I doing with my life”.

They become so desensitized to their own guidance system and only listen to those of others.

Remember, other people’s experiences are their own. It would serve you greatly to ask for guidance from another person who has achieved what your own guidance system is trying to get you to — if that makes sense.

The problem is that many people outsource the work of their own guidance to the guidance systems of other people. Terrible Idea.

If you decide to follow your own guidance, you will find people along the way in form of mentors, coaches, and critics that will help you navigate your own journey.

Their role is to help you overcome the challenges in your path and not to tell you which path to follow. There is a difference.

Some sacrifices you need to make will involve rising beyond what you love if it doesn’t serve you.

I know that most people have families and people who care about them and that is fine. Sometimes, however, you may need to separate your relationship from your work to move forward.

When I was in my lower secondary school, I had a belief in demons that were hindering my progress. This belief had been given to me by someone in my family who believed that spiritual forces were working against us all the time — forces that were sent to us by jealous relatives.

My dad always told me not to believe this nonsense but I couldn’t shake myself free from the belief because I constantly lived with this person and the effects of what they were telling me were messing me up in all areas of my life.

That is why I decided that if I was going to go anywhere in life, I had to leave the country and be far away from such beliefs so that I could form new and beneficial beliefs.

When it was time to apply for university in my country, I took the money that I was supposed to use for obtaining my application forms and I spent it all buying people snacks at the school canteen.

I also refused to get a national ID so that I made sure It was almost impossible for me to get into university in my home country.

I had decided that I was either going to get admitted to a university abroad or die trying. But going to university in my country was not and will never be an option because of that and some other personal reasons.

Luck was on my side and I got two admissions. One was Vellore Institute of Technology and the other was Warwick University and both were for civil engineering although the Warwick decision came months after I had started school in Vellore.

At times, we have beliefs that do not benefit us and they come from people we care about most so it makes it incredibly hard to let go of those beliefs.

Sacrifices are necessary if we are to move ahead and if you are serious about making your life better, you must find a way to let go of anything that weighs you down.

You cannot get rid of somethings like family if they are keeping you down and you probably shouldn’t but you can take a break from them that is long enough to help you form new beliefs. In my case, it was half a decade on a different continent.

One of my truths is this, if you have a desire that will make you and your loved ones happier or have a better life and you do not accomplish it for any reason, then you have not only failed yourself but failed them as well.

Even if it means leaving the country to give yourself a new mental program, as long as it will be beneficial to them, do it.

The money you have or don’t have should never be the foundation that determines your dreams.

Be realistic. B******T!!. First, get your priorities and ideals then figure out how to make them realities. You should practice making your dreams first and then finding a way to bring them into reality. That is being realistic in my world.

An architect will first spill his creative masterpiece and then hand it over to a structural engineer to figure out how to best bring the design to life with all the loads being distributed properly so that the structure doesn’t fail.

When I decided that I was going to go for studies abroad, I had no money of my own, my dad had already retired and he was making about $2000/year. Not per month. NO. Per 12 months and he was the only person making money in the family of 9 people.

Once I figured out what I wanted and he saw I was not going to stop looking for means to fund my education, he also got on board and we brainstormed together.

In the end, he not only got money to pay for me but my sister also got on board and he ended up supporting 2 children in a foreign country paying $8000 each per year.

Money is a touchy subject and so many people have excuses that are valid for why they don’t follow their dreams.

One mental bypass I have for this is to believe that there is always a way.

I know that whatever desire I want, I can figure out a way or figure out how to make it work some way without compromising as long as the desire is strong enough.

My creative mind is the architect and within it, there is the logic that can construct a framework and firm foundation on which the master desire of my mind can rest.

The same goes for you.

There is always a way. You don’t have to always have it figured out. You only need to take your best course of action.

Intuitive ideas may not be present all the time but as long as you keep thinking about the desire, you will begin getting hunches on certain actions you should take.

It could be making a phone call to a long lost friend or anything. Do not ignore any hunch at this phase.

Quit thinking about how you will get it if you have not the slightest idea how. Trust that as long as you keep following your intuitive ideas, you will soon find a way in most cases a way that you may never have considered in a million years.

If you want, try it on something small for 180 days.

  1. Just set an intention of something you want to achieve but have no idea how.
  2. Then casually but meaningfully keep thinking to yourself that “There is a way.”
  3. Soon, you will start getting ideas in your head. Write them down if they are coming so quickly.
  4. Try out each idea and push it until you feel you cannot go further.
  5. Repeat steps 2–4 for 180 days and then observe how powerful your creative mind can be.

Not money, not anything external should dictate what achievements you can and cannot have. Only you decide.

Failure sucks. But it only marks the end of one phase and the beginning of something new.

Each of us on our way to achieving what we want is faced with countless “deaths” or what you may best well know as a failure before we get to where we want.

I can't tell you how bad it felt leaving school because I was considered a failure. The most painful part was that that I had been a part of the student prefect body.

Imagine what it would be like if a famous politician in your government was arrested and sent to jail. How embarrassing that would be to them. That was the same feeling I had. The whole school knew who I was, many people made fun of me saying that I took stuff that my brain couldn’t handle and it was not good.

Some people have had a life-threatening failure but one common theme in all my failed attempts however small has always been the knowledge that one phase is done.

If you were driving and hit a brick wall, that would mean that that road is done and wherever it is that you are going, that is not the road that will lead you there.

Failure is painful. It’s not like a wound you can slap a band-aid on and take a couple of pain killers and forget about it. Failure keeps lurking in all the turns of your mind.

But you should see it for what it is. The end of one road and the start of another. Sometimes it may require you to elevate your game to move forward. Other times, it may mean changing direction, and sometimes it may mean abandoning the ship.

Whatever circumstance comes your way, however, you should embrace it so that you can move on.

If you deny failure, it’s like thinking that the brick wall is not there. You miss the lesson that you would have learned or the necessary course of action you need to take.

Then you keep repeating the same mistake over and over again no matter what you do with your life.

Embracing failure however and knowing that when it comes, you are free to optimize your strategies and move forward as you best see fit will help you take the lessons you need and not repeat the same mistakes the next time you find yourself in similar situations.

If you don’t embrace the failure by learning from it, it imprisons you and keeps you dwelling on the past and thereby pulling experiences from the past and reliving them in your present.

Once you fail at something(especially the significant ones), take time to note down the reasons why you failed and what you could have done better to be successful.

Once you can find one or two important lessons, bless the experience and begin the process of healing and moving on.

Some failure is not easy to let go of so even though those steps may appear few, they may take longer and need several therapy sessions to figure out the lessons and begin a process of self-healing.

If it comes fast, then good for you but other than that, just keep in mind that the experience marked the end of something and do not keep relieving the “good times”.

Fear should serve as speed control on your journey to your goals and not a hindrance to overcome.

Show me someone who has overcome fear and I will show you a god. Before then, don’t waste your time trying to overcome fear because you will never do.

Imagine what insanity it would be if someone refused to drive on a road because it had a few speed humps and speed traps. This is what happens when people are scared about taking action to get them to their goals because of fear.

When we build structures, it is fear that the building would collapse that stops us from building so quickly and gives us time to make necessary calculations and systems that will keep the structure stable in all conditions.

The idea that people are fearless causes people to take the unnecessary risk that is not well managed causing catastrophes of all magnitude.

If you are going to do anything worthwhile, you better have fear or else you are just trying to settle for less than you can have.

But once the fear is there, you should then figure out how you can achieve what you want without making your fears come to reality.

Again in engineering, we would make sure that all the load distributions and safety factors are well calculated and accounted for before the structure is opened for use by the public.

In your case, it may mean having sufficient research, and once you are confident that you have minimized the risk as much as you can, then executing on your idea. At this stage, even if you fail, you will not fail as badly as you would have.

Overcoming fear should not be at the expense of all logical reasoning. It should be using logical reasoning to minimize that fear as much as you can. I have already given the methods for this in the section on money.

Push through fear only after you have done as much due diligence as you feel comfortable with.


There are countless lessons that I can mention here but these are the ones I find most important and they guide my decisions every day.

If you fall short in any of those areas, you can try out my suggestions for size and as much as they’ve served me well, I cannot guarantee that they will serve you too.

If they do, keep blessing the world with your awesomeness, and if they don't, and you still have questions, seek for answers in ways you best see fit because we all have our own individual experiences, and am sure that someday you’ll bless the world with your perspectives as well.

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

James Ssekamatte

Written by

Artist, Engineer and human on the journey of health wealth Love and happiness

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

James Ssekamatte

Written by

Artist, Engineer and human on the journey of health wealth Love and happiness

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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