A Dream Worth Persevering

Headshot Joel Baraka
Joel Baraka, UW–Madison Class of 2022, Co-founder & CEO of My Home Stars

Joel Baraka, Class of 2022, Recounts His First Year As A Badger

By Mia McCauley, Student Affairs 

At UW–Madison, our traditions run deep. One prime example is New Student Convocation, happening on September 5 at 1:30 p.m. in the Kohl Center. The annual event features performances by the UW Marching Band, an official welcome from University leaders, and a chance to grab a free copy of the 2023 Go Big Read.

Beyond these highlights, this year, new students will also have the opportunity to hear from an undoubtedly brilliant Badger alum, Joel Baraka

Baraka was born in the Republic of Congo and grew up in Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Uganda. As a young student, he was passionate about studying civil engineering and dreamed of becoming a construction project manager.

When it came to applying for college, Baraka had an extensive list of options, all with excellent engineering programs. However, once he discovered the Wisconsin Idea, UW–Madison soared to the top of his list. His zest for learning also motivated him to apply for the King Morgridge Scholarship.

Once he arrived, Joel experienced the huge adjustment to campus life that so many new students do. Between leaving his family, the freezing temperatures, and the advanced coursework, Joel had to focus on what made him come to Madison in the first place.

“As soon as I heard about UW, I stopped applying or even thinking about other universities. All I was thinking about was how to get into this school. I had to remind myself how hard I worked, and how much I wanted to be here when I was going through these difficult moments.” 

As a result of his perseverance, Baraka didn’t just survive – but thrived. Amidst his courses and campus involvement, Joel cofounded My Home Stars with fellow Badger alum Anson Liow. The non-profit improves refugee children’s access to education through games and has been recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, Bezos Scholars program, and Queen’s Young Leaders Award. Not to mention, Baraka’s TED Talk has earned over one-million views.

After graduating in 2022, Baraka continued his work with My Home Stars and began the career he once dreamed of: working as a project manager for CG Schmidt, a midwest-based construction company. His experience wouldn’t have been the same without his support system, who wanted to see him succeed as much as he wanted it for himself.

Baraka encourages new students to be open to meeting new friends, building community, exploring ways to learn and study, and, ultimately, not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. His final reminder: “Keep an open mind. Be ready to learn. And be comfortable needing to adjust.”

Hear more from Joel Baraka at New Student Convocation on September 5, 2023. Plus, discover a full day of Convocation events at go.wisc.edu/convocation.