Tasimba Jonga has a lot to celebrate as he completes his engineering degree at the University of Tennessee this year. The chemical engineering major graduates this spring as a 2022 Torchbearer, UT’s highest student honor, and moves forward into graduate studies in management science and engineering as a prestigious Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University.
UT students who embody the Volunteer spirit are named Torchbearers in recognition of their commitment to service, outstanding leadership, and academic achievement. In April, UT Chancellor Donde Plowman surprised Jonga with news of his selection in a gathering at the Zeanah Engineering Complex, and he received his Torchbearer medal during the May 3 Chancellor’s Honors Banquet, UT’s largest recognition event of the year.
Jonga is the first UT graduate to become a Knight-Hennessy Scholar since the program’s founding in 2016, and is among 70 students from 27 countries for the 2022 cohort. This highly competitive scholarship has an acceptance rate that typically falls between 1–2%. These scholars have demonstrated exceptional leadership in multiple disciplines, addressing complex challenges facing the world. They receive up to three years of graduate school tuition, a living stipend, and travel funding.
After immigrating to Brentwood, Tennessee, from southern Africa, Jonga chose to study chemical engineering and economics at UT based on the Volunteer community’s reputation for selflessness and giving. Here, he connected with numerous avenues to carry on that tradition, notably serving the Tickle College of Engineering community as an ambassador with the Office of Engineering Professional Practice while searching for internship and co-op opportunities.
“The Engineering Professional Practice Office provided me a platform to really serve the college of engineering and impact the students by setting them up professionally,” said Jonga. “The folks at the office, especially Suzanne Sawicki, really empowered me to be a leader and fully embody the Volunteer spirit.”
As an ambassador, Jonga helped ensure that fellow students, particularly minority and underrepresented students of color, are aware of job possibilities in the STEM field. He took on a similar leadership role for the Professional Sales Forum in the Haslam College of Business.
“The Sales Forum allowed me to serve students in the greater university by immersing me into the college of business to support the students there, career-wise,” said Jonga.
He also founded VFL Ventures during his time at UT. This student-led venture capital/accelerator invests in and supports UT entrepreneurs and educates students interested in private equity and venture capital.
“Working on VFL Ventures provided me a platform to really kickstart an entrepreneurial culture here at the university,” said Jonga. “At the forefront of the organization is empowering UT students to innovate and create their own start-ups.”
His other projects included co-developing a platform that serves minority-entrepreneurs, receiving first place in Microsoft’s internal venture competition—including an opportunity to chat with CEO Satya Nadella— and also delivering compliance automation across Microsoft’s $168 billion revenue operations.
He co-founded Rease, a platform for the college student-renter market, and has served as a volunteer for Youth Against AIDS and for the United Nations since he was 12. Jonga was personally inspired by the loss of family members to work for raising awareness of the ongoing AIDS crisis.
Moving forward, he plans to continue projects that empower under-resourced, high-impact entrepreneurs in emerging markets.
“I foresee my experience in the Knight-Hennessy community as a critical next step in effecting economic change of this scope and magnitude,” said Jonga. “Stanford and the Knight-Hennessy Scholar experience are the perfect incubation environments for learning how to do this.
His upcoming experience is an opportunity to meet and learn from a diverse global network, applying his passion for addressing economic equity, technology, and entrepreneurship.
“I grew up in Southern Africa during the post-colonial era,” he explained. “I got to experience the remnant effects of this tumultuous period. One of the bigger issues is the lack of economic growth, which trickles down into every aspect of life, from education to healthcare.”
He aims to apply his educational experience to empower these communities in need, helping create foundations that support high-impact entrepreneurs in emerging economies.
He also looks forward to the diverse offerings of northern California, from the cuisine to the weather, and maintaining pursuit of diverse hobbies like rugby, boxing, writing, poetry, art, and film making—and cheering on the Golden State Warriors.
“California also reminds me a lot of South Africa, the landscape and architecture,” said Jonga. “So, it will provide a sense of home as well. I believe this experience will be a pivotal chapter in my journey, where I will learn, develop, contribute, and realize how I can impact the world.”