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ODU Grad Makes Most of 'Underdog' Role as First Female Engineer for Zambian Mining Company

She's a trailblazer in her home country, battling against stereotypes as the first female mining engineer anyone has ever met. But Mfikeyi Makayi has learned that through hard work and desire, the underdog can win. And she learned that lesson in the economic colossus of the United States.

Makayi came from Zambia to study engineering at Old Dominion University 10 years ago. After earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering, she moved back home, where since 2010 she has worked as a mining engineer with the Kansanshi Copper & Gold Mine in the town of Solwezi, in the northwestern region of Zambia.

Makayi is the first female engineer in the history of the giant Zambian mining company Kansanshi Mining PLC, and as such faces daily challenges due to her gender. Because she feels she's at a disadvantage as the only Zambian woman - for now - working at her level in the engineering mining division, Makayi said she has relied on lessons she learned in her seven years in Norfolk.

"I think generally it's the American way, where the underdogs keep fighting until they win," she said. "All you have to do is look at American movies that have underdog themes - 'Rocky,' 'Remember the Titans,' 'DodgeBall.'

"Such a way of thinking promotes one's self-belief against the odds."

Makayi has so far beaten those odds. The now-28-year-old was born in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, growing up with her parents and three brothers (her father died in 2009). She came to Old Dominion in 2002 after being awarded an International Student and Scholar Services scholarship out of high school.

"My time at ODU forced me to be truly independent, determined and a go-getter," she said. "I had great professors and met my best friends at ODU, so the environment I found and developed in around Norfolk prepared me adequately to deal with such a demanding job."

One of her academic mentors at the university was Saikou Diallo, then a doctoral student and now a research assistant professor at ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center.

Diallo, also from the African continent, was impressed with his young colleague.

"Mfikeyi is a very bright young lady whom I met during her undergraduate studies at ODU," he said. "She has a great personality to boot. We became fast friends and I always enjoyed her sense of humor and commitment to helping others. She is an asset to her family and community and has a great future in this world."

Makayi graduated in 2007 with a B.S in civil engineering. She then received permission from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to remain in the country and work for one year, and held down two different jobs in Virginia Beach. She said that year was pivotal. "I ventured into the geotechnical branch of civil engineering, and that is a very important branch in mining. I didn't know I'd end up in mining, but in retrospect, that one year was a backbone to my step into the mining field."

That step was delayed when the world economy sagged in 2008, prompting Makayi to return to ODU to pursue a master's in environmental engineering, which she received in December 2009.

Moving back to Zambia in 2010, Makayi plunged herself into work at the Kansanshi mine. Her duties over the course of two years with the company have included supervising construction projects and maintenance upgrades in the plant, operating production and support machinery in the mine's open pit, managing and coordinating mining operations, and mastering production drills and blasting techniques.

Makayi currently splits her time between Zambia and the United Kingdom, where her company is sponsoring her Master of Science in mining engineering from the University of Exeter in Cornwall, England. She is scheduled to complete that degree in June 2013.

With that certification, she will take an even larger role in mine planning, surveying and geology.

It's been a whirlwind decade for Makayi, who is hopeful of making her way further in the world.

In discussing her ambitions, she borrowed a quote from Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

"'The world's mine oyster.' Through my travels and living across various cultures I can't predict what the future will be like, but whatever fate I meet along the way, I'll maximize it as much as I can."