Faces of UMSI: Uche Eke
Olympic hopeful Uche Eke (MSI ’21) is a master of balance. The champion gymnast has been competing for the maize and blue since he first came to U-M as a freshman in 2016, when he joined the university’s computer science engineering program.
Five years later and he’s just graduated from UMSI with a 4.0 GPA in his UX design studies and earned a Margaret Mann Award recognizing exceptional academic ability and professional promise — all while training with Michigan Gymnastics to represent Nigeria in the 2020 Olympics. With his illustrious career as a student athlete now behind him, Uche has valuable insight to share with other Wolverines who aspire to build a multifaceted legacy.
“It’s tough. It’s a lot of sacrifices, and that’s why you just have to really want it,” Uche said. “It’s just how bad you want it, and the reason is just answering the question 'why.' If you can answer the question ‘why,’ don’t let anything stop you.”
For Uche, the answer to that question begins with a couch and a crash landing at the tender age of three.
After learning how to do a backflip on a friend’s trampoline as a toddler, Uche decided to take it to the next level by performing a flip from his family’s couch. After landing on his head, he said his mother put him in gymnastics to channel his innate athleticism into a safer environment.
At the same time, Uche said he was “falling in love with computing” in a very organic way, trying to learn how to hack and manipulate computer games with his older brother. Interests in computer science stuck with Uche as he grew up in Brookeville, Maryland, and his father encouraged him to pursue computer science engineering in high school.
While Uche said gymnastics was the main reason he came to U-M for his undergrad, he said his dad always told him to push for academics as well as athletics, and he soon came to understand that U-M really delivers the best of both of those worlds. So after learning how to balance competition with coursework while earning his BSE in computer science engineering, Uche decided to stick around and go for a master’s at Michigan after his senior year ended in 2019.
At first, Uche said he was only interested in applying to the master’s program in computer science engineering — until he started examining his goals and talking to professors in both the Master’s of Science in Engineering (MSE) and Master’s of Science in Information (MSI) programs.
“My end goal isn’t for me to be a hardcore programmer,” Uche said. “I love to talk to people, I love to express my feelings for programming and to break it down to people. I like to create that shared understanding, because I have high technical skills from computer engineering and then within the MSI degree I'll have the program management skills, the UX front-end skills and conversational skills.
“I also wanted something different,” he said. “I already have an engineering degree. I don't like sitting there learning the same thing over and over. I like being brought new knowledge, so MSI fit perfectly with me, and I really love the community here.”
Within the UMSI community, Uche also found the support he needed to maintain a rigorous training regimen with Michigan Gymnastics in aims of qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, postponed to July 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One thing that made it harder for me was that I had to go to Morocco for All-African Championships the first two weeks of school, so I missed the first two weeks of MSI,” Uche said. “I missed orientation and everything.”
He said he planned ahead for his absence by gathering all of his resources in advance and paying attention from day one to ensure he had no excuses. And his preparation and sacrifice were well worth it: While he was missing class for the All-African Games in 2019, Uche won Nigeria’s first gymnastics gold medal.
That’s hardly the only win Uche is aiming to earn for the country where his father was born and where he’s visited twice a year since the age of three.
“I’m striving to be Nigeria’s first Olympic gymnast,” Uche said in an interview with BBC News Africa. “When I won at All-African Games and got to hold up the green and white flag, that was my first time holding it up in first place, and everyone, like Nigeria, the whole crowd, was just chanting my name, it was an amazing feeling. It just made me feel even closer with Nigeria and just makes me want to do more.”
Uche will have that chance May 27, 2021, when he’ll be competing to qualify for the Olympics at the African Championships in Cairo, Egypt. The qualifying event, like the Olympics themselves, is a long time coming for Uche, having been postponed for over a year due to COVID-19.
“COVID hit me bad,” Uche said. “I was going through a lot of things when I found out the Olympics were canceled, and then I found out that I couldn’t compete again when I was going on my peak year and we were hosting NCAAs. But I got my head back wrapped around my goals and what I want in my future, and I just relied on self-motivation and the love from my friends and family around me, the support.”
Amazingly, Uche has also been able to offer support to fellow UMSI students as a graduate student instructor (GSI) while training and maintaining his perfect 4.0 GPA. After his experiences as a student athlete trying to keep up with coursework on the go, he’s been able to empathize with the struggles of remote learning while working with students during the pandemic. Leveraging technological tools like Zoom’s screen sharing functions has made it easier, he said.
And someday, after his gymnastics career is over, he hopes to utilize his MSI degree working on apps that center and benefit users as well.
“If everything goes as planned, then after qualifications I’ll come back to Michigan until July 23 and then go to the Olympics, and I’ll come back around my birthday, August 12,” Uche said. Then he said he’ll stay at home in Maryland and train for one more World Championships before “taking a break” — which, for Uche, means looking for a job and deciding how he wants to work with his MSI degree.
“Starting January 2022, I want to be working with my degree because I really do love programming and project management, so I want to use my skills as much as I can,” he said. “I want to do software engineering and mobile app development.”
Uche credits UMSI professor Mark Newman and the mastery course User-Centered Agile Development with bringing out his passion for mobile app development.
“That’s exactly what I want to do, this class is exactly my career path and this is what brought me into MSI,” he said. “That’s everything I dreamed of my work life being, where you can talk to the client as well as program and deliver something to the client using Agile methodology.”
Reflecting on his time at UMSI, Uche also recognized the support of standout UMSI lecturer Colleen van Lent, who helped him secure his GSI positions and always checked up on him, as well as UMSI lecturer and Executive Fellow Edward Happ, who patiently helped him hone his project management skills.
And as he approaches the biggest moment of his athletic career, Uche considers the legacy he’s built so far and what he wants afterward.
“I know that I’m ready to start life. I’m just saying ‘life’ because it’s a whole different lifestyle,” he said. “If I qualify and compete in the Olympics, I will most likely go to World Championships. But there needs to be a point where I know that I’m done, and I want to leave that legacy that if I can do it, everyone can.”